Although few in the United States may be aware of it, 2017 was Mexico’s most violent year in at least two decades, with 23,101 murders recorded by the end of November. Researchers estimate that at least a quarter, and possibly closer to half, of the killings are related to organized crime, and few murders are solved. Furthermore, with the majority of Mexico’s major drug cartels dismantled and the country’s criminal landscape increasingly fragmented, the kind of cohesive narrative that appeals to the international media has faded.
The Mexican government’s response has been equally alarming. Hours before a controversial new Internal Security Law was approved by the Mexican senate December 15, human rights activists and civil society groups marched through downtown Mexico City in protest, claiming that the bill, which seeks to formalize the role of the country’s armed forces in civilian law enforcement, will only increase the risk of human rights abuses by the military. The participation of the army and navy in policing Mexico’s so-called drug war has long been a divisive subject, having notably failed to stem the gang-related violence the country has suffered since the mid-2000s.
The newly approved Internal Security Law will remove constitutional obstacles to the deployment of Mexico’s military in a law-enforcement capacity, a step that advocates insist is necessary to enable the army and navy to fill the void left by corrupt, inefficient local police forces. Yet opponents, including international human rights organizations, argue that the legislation could become a pretext for torture, surveillance of citizens, and the repression of social movements.
Meanwhile, although journalists still largely refer to Mexico’s security crisis as a “drug war,” five years of governance under Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have shown that the violence has many faces, from disturbing examples of political repression to the brutal slaying of journalists. The only common theme has been impunity: according to one study, amid languishing criminal justice reforms and widespread corruption, less than 5 percent of reported crimes in Mexico result in convictions—while the vast majority of crimes are never even reported in the first place.
Since it left behind one-party rule in 2000, Mexico has gained twin reputations as both a burgeoning G20 economy, bolstered by major foreign investment, and a battleground between security forces and heavily armed criminal organizations, the majority of the latter immersed in the multi-billion-dollar drug trade. While it is true that the violence has affected relatively few areas of the country, leaving most of Mexico safe to both live and travel in, several high-profile atrocities, such as the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero State in 2014—the notorious Ayotzinapa case—and the 2010 and 2011 San Fernando massacres have made headlines around the world.
Upon taking office in 2006, former president Felipe Calderón of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) made combating organized crime a key priority of his administration and increased the role of the military and federal police in municipal and state-level law enforcement. While the move was controversial, many forget that Calderón’s basic diagnosis was correct: poorly trained, underpaid, and often highly corrupt local police were incapable of protecting citizens from the violence waged by the drug cartels. Nevertheless, the participation of the military was intended to be a temporary measure while local authorities built their institutional capacity and purged their ranks of corruption. Instead, the number of reported human rights violations by the military soared.
On the surface, Calderón’s strategy was successful. The major drug cartels were mostly destroyed, their leaders—such as the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—captured or killed. In 2009, Mexico decriminalized possession of drugs for personal use. Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico pushed on with a landmark criminal justice reform and introduced the National Program for the Social Prevention of Crime and Violence, a federal initiative designed to reach young people in deprived communities with specifically targeted social programs.
Yet U.S. demand for narcotics, notably the ongoing heroin epidemic, continues to fuel violence south of the border while the remnants of the former trafficking empires have simply dispersed into something akin to Colombia’s “criminal bands,” or BACRIM—namely, gangs that are too small and fluid to be easily identified and are dedicated to a range of activities including kidnapping and human smuggling. Furthermore, the crucial justice and law-enforcement reforms that Mexico so desperately needed ten years ago have been only partially implemented, owing to a lack of resources and political drift.
The breaking of the PRI’s monopoly on power in 2000 has left Mexico alternating between center-left and -right governments that have aimed for political and fiscal stability, but have notably failed to strengthen the rule of law, meaning that the country’s law-enforcement agencies and courts remain underfunded, poorly administered, and often deeply politicized. Meanwhile, the market reforms that Mexico has introduced since the 1980s have thus far failed to provide the necessary growth the country needs to integrate millions of young people into the formal economy, instead deepening the division between Mexico’s relatively prosperous, industrialized north, and its impoverished, mostly rural south. During the twentieth century, like many Latin American countries, Mexico depended on oil revenues to fund its development, leaving it vulnerable to slumps in prices and productivity. While the situation has improved somewhat in recent years owing to minor fiscal reform, non-commodity tax revenues remain unsustainably low, at just 17 percent of GDP—the lowest rate in the OECD.
The case of Guerrero, Mexico’s third-poorest state, a largely rural, mountainous region on the central Pacific coast that has become the center of the country’s heroin industry, is a case in point. Because formal, well-paid jobs are scarce in the region, 80 percent of the population toil in the informal, or underground, economy, or leave for the United States. In rural areas of Guerrero, farmers grow opium poppies openly under the protection of corrupt mayors and heavily armed gunmen. Urban barrios are rife with violent street gangs that control distribution. The combination of poverty and impunity has made the state Mexico’s most violent for the last five years.
The first of two key challenges for Mexico in the coming years is how to capitalize on an overwhelmingly young workforce—nearly half of the population is under the age of 25—to spur job opportunity and broad-based economic growth. Currently, an estimated 22 percent of Mexicans between the ages of 15 and 29 neither work nor study, leaving large segments of youth at risk of joining the country’s gangs. Mexico’s public education system, which recently underwent a major reform—the results of which remain to be seen—was long the most dysfunctional in the OECD, hamstrung by both underfunding and corruption.
The second challenge is the rule of law, which has been the other dominant theme of the current administration. A major anti-corruption reform pushed by President Peña Nieto in 2013 has been undermined by endless congressional wrangles. Both a newly approved National Anticorruption System and Mexico’s electoral crimes investigation unit currently lack chief prosecutors amid disputes over their level of autonomy, while a major reform of the attorney general’s office that would ostensibly free it from political interference currently hangs in the balance.
In the case of law enforcement, for example, authorities are sometimes well intentioned and simply lack funding, resources, or expertise; in others, by the admission of the federal government itself, they are guilty of protecting organized crime groups. In 2015, Mexico’s attorney general estimated that at least thirteen municipal authorities in Guerrero were effectively controlled by organized crime. As one of the country’s leading security analysts, Alejandro Hope, described in a recent op-ed on the country’s failed attempt at police reform, the fallback option of a military presence to carry out policing duties effectively reduces the already weak will of mayors and governors to embrace institutional change.
Mexico heads to a presidential election in July 2018 in which crime and corruption are likely to be the key themes of debate. Two of the three leading candidates, José Antonio Meade of the incumbent center-left PRI and Ricardo Anaya of the opposition Citizens Front alliance, would likely represent continuity with Mexico’s market-oriented policies of the past three decades; the third, veteran leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), favors referenda on Mexico’s neoliberal reforms and an injection of public spending, yet is notably vague on how he would fund such projects. He does not, for example, favor raising taxes—a political impossibility in a country where 60 percent of the labor force works informally and many citizens view public spending as wasteful.
Effectively, Mexico faces a catch-22 dilemma where the only way it is likely to grow its economy and reduce corruption is by spending more on developing institutions; yet inequality and the abuse of power are precisely the barriers to building a modern, social-democratic state. Notably, none of the candidates for 2018 has come out clearly against the Internal Security Law, which in many ways papers over the cracks of Mexico’s wider problems—problems that would, needless to say, be impossible to resolve in a single six-year term.
If there is a light in the darkness, it is that Mexican civil society has grown increasingly independent and dynamic in recent years. For decades, Mexico’s one-party state either coopted or repressed attempts at grassroots organizing. The country’s young democracy, however flawed, has permitted an increasingly diverse range of voices to be heard. Much of the pressure for the nascent national anti-corruption system—which is now written into law and must be respected by the forthcoming administration—came from below as a group of lawyers and academics designed and fought for a piece of legislation known as the #Ley3de3 (the Three-out-of-Three Law), by which elected representatives would have to declare their assets, tax payments, and any potential conflict of interest. Lawmakers have thus far stalled the consolidation of the system, yet for many the fact that the #Ley3de3 made it to the senate was a landmark victory for civil society.
Meanwhile, NGOs such as a Causa en Común (Common Cause) and Mexicanos Primero (Mexicans First) have placed close scrutiny on criminal justice and public education reforms, increasing pressure on the country’s politicians to respond to citizen complaints. In November, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that the government must act on a promise to regulate the use of public money to subsidize private media outlets, which has long been viewed as a form of censorship and was recently the subject of a major story in the New York Times. Again, civil society organizations, notably Article 19 and Fundar, played a decisive role in exerting pressure.
As a crucial presidential election nears, much of the media focus will naturally be on political rhetoric and personalities. Yet regardless of the result of the vote, any true change in Mexico in the coming years is likely to be propelled from below as citizens increasingly find their voices and hold their government to account. The process will surely be gradual and painful, yet it also represents the greatest hope for a country still struggling to fulfill its massive potential.
Paul Imison is a British freelance journalist based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter @paulimison.