On his third attempt, Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the elections and became president of Mexico for the 2018-2024 term. He owes his victory, in large part, to the decline and loss of credibility of the traditional parties (PRI and PAN), which proved incapable of efficiently addressing two of the problems that most concern citizens: insecurity and corruption. López Obrador’s victory is largely due to his promise to address these two issues, but mainly to the fact that he promised to do so by putting ‘the poor first’. This was a successful formula that explains why the president has remained popular despite the lack of results.
Although during his campaign he recognized that the country is facing a serious security crisis and announced that he would send the military back to their barracks, upon taking power he made a radical turnaround, not only allowing the military to continue carrying out security tasks that the Constitution does not authorize them to do, but granting them additional faculties in different fields, making them an indisputable power actor. Likewise, he created a National Guard, initially civilian in nature, but which, in reality, has been under military control, discipline and command, a situation that a recently approved law authorizes until 2028.
Without a change in the Constitution, the government opted to issue a Presidential Decree in 2020 that empowers the Armed Forces to carry out detentions and execute arrest warrants, as well as to secure property, safeguard and process crime scenes and carry out public security tasks in general, all without external controls, accountability or the armed forces being subject to the control of the civilian authorities.
It is a matter of concern not only that the Presidential Decree granted these faculties to the military, but also, and especially, that this policy, initiated by former president Felipe Calderón in 2007, is far from having achieved results in terms of containing the spread of criminality and violence.
If we look at some of the results achieved after 15 years of maintaining and even increasing the power of the armed forces, we will find that when former president Calderón assumed the presidency, there were less than a dozen criminal armed groups capable of challenging government forces; today, there are over 400 organized crime groups with different capacities, some of which practically control certain parts of the territory.
As to violence, it is enough to note that between 2007 and 2022, the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants jumped from 8 to 29, a 360% increase that has meant the loss of 400,000 human lives. Approximately half of these deaths are attributed to clashes between the authorities and criminal groups or among the latter. On average, every day 90 people die in a violent manner, 11 of whom are women and 3 are minors. Additionally, there are more than 105,000 missing persons and over one million people have been displaced by violence.
For their part, between 2019 and 2020 alone, public human rights bodies reported a total of 14,760 arbitrary arrests, 11,070 cases of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and 5,426 cases of torture committed by security forces.
Although the data are overwhelming and show no change in the patterns observed for the last 15 years, President López Obrador has repeatedly said that his security policy is different from that of the two previous governments.
He considers the main difference to be that his security policy is based upon his social policy, which consists of granting different types of scholarships and monetary support to youth and other vulnerable groups, with the aim of preventing them from joining the ranks of criminal groups: ‘becarios, no sicarios’ (‘scholarship holders, not contract killers’), the president has said.
Another aspect that, according to the president, differentiates his security policy from others is that he, as head of the armed forces, has instructed them to respect human rights and not to initiate armed confrontations. This means trusting that the mere presence of the Armed Forces deployed across the territory will dissuade criminal groups, although there is no evidence of this. The last element the president mentions to defend his security policy is that he meets daily at 6 a.m. with the Secretaries of National Defense and the Navy to review the most relevant security events of the previous day.
The three points outlined in the previous paragraph cannot be considered a ‘security strategy’. This has been pointed out by several social actors, who have requested a change in security policies in light of the disastrous results achieved so far. In spite of this, the president continues to believe that his so-called ‘strategy’ is appropriate and the only one he is willing to implement.
Elena Azaola is an anthropologist and psychoanalyst, researcher at CIESAS.