Mexico’s challenges since transitioning from the hegemonic rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) 19 years ago have remained numerous and elusive: rampant corruption; constant violation of human rights; spiralling violence; impunity; ineffective rule of law and the inability of the state to protect basic rights of its citizens. Drug violence, in particular, has undergone a rapid and intense process of diversification and popularisation while the ability of the state to deter anti-systemic forces has remained critically low. Over the last decade, the criminal field has become increasingly complex, fractured and multi-polar making it almost impossible for the authorities to respond effectively.
On the 17th of October 2019 after a shambolic operation that led to the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, son of drug Lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, El Chapo, criminal organisations loyal to the Cartel of Sinaloa effectively sieged the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa overpowering the capacity of the army and rendering the current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) security policy obsolete, just 9 months into his presidential term. The government was left with no choice but to release the prisoner in an attempt to stop the violence that had terrorised Culiacán for 6 hours.
The Cartel of Sinaloa´s victory in subduing the government is a remarkable humiliation for the current administration and exposed the utter lack of capacity of the state to quell violence across the country. It could also set a dangerous precedent: the state as captive of anti-systemic forces. This is the second even of such nature during AMLO’s presidency, just last month after protests of striking teachers spread all over the country, the president blindly agreed to all the demands of the teachers’ union. Both of these events send the dangerous message to criminal organisations and anti-state forces that the only thing needed is to commit wholesale violence in any given city and the government will agree to meet their demands.
AMLO instead of pursuing a full-on military strategy like his predecessors to try to limit the growth and scope of violence, has decided to follow a pacification security strategy that focuses on trying to resolve the social roots of insecurity. He has placed poverty as the main reason why Mexican youngsters are joining criminal organisations. He is basing his strategy on a serious misconception: Poverty causes violence. Violence is a symptom of poverty not the cause. It is easy to blur the correlation between the two, and much easier to sustain the myth that continues to plague the poor to justify a simplistic approach to violence: If people are violent, it’s usually because they are poor, because when you are poor, your opportunities to escape poverty are exceptionally limited so you need to resort to violence; therefore people who have money, will not be violent: The massive corruption that undermines political institutions in Mexico is not committed by the poor. Drug Lords are not poor either.
It is true that Mexico’s crisis manifests itself in violence, however its real roots are the widespread corruption, the weakness of the state and its institutions, and the lack of vision of incumbent administrations to place the interest of the country ahead of their own particular electoral interests. This makes any attempt to solve the endemic problems of Mexico subject to the whims of those in power. Culiacán only showed that the government can be easily outgunned, outsmarted and outmanned; it also inflicted a major blow to AMLO’s pacification strategy he defends.
Reality is that the Mexican state is failing in at least 6 of its basic functions: It is unable to guarantee internal security; it has been unable to protect the rights of its citizens; it has been ineffective in ensuring the respect of the rule of law and the administration of justice; it has failed in the promotion of the policies aimed at the betterment of the welfare of its population; it has not maintained a stable economy that would translate into improved living standards for its citizens; and the state has failed to act as the exclusive holder of the monopoly of force.
There are only 2 ways in which the current spiral of violence in Mexico can stop: Go back to the narcopeace that the country enjoyed during much of the rule of the PRI hegemonic party. This will happen when one or two criminal organisations become powerful enough to establish enough deterrence to monopolise the drug market and are able to prevent its further fragmentation. The second option is if the state somehow is able to systematically build up enough deterrence capacity to align anti-systemic forces with the government. This is however hampered by the prevalence of weak institutions and a lack of commitment to a deep state reform. This would also require more than a pseudo-leftist leader waving the flag of modernisation and change, but whose policies are dangerously steeped in a strong nationalist rhetoric that echoes the hegemonic PRI party of the 1970s.
Therefore, the most likely outcome is that AMLO, like its predecessors, will most likely disappoint. Current enthusiasm for the current administration has led to the denial of the new president’s very obvious shortcomings. Mexico has prioritised cheerleading of a messiah candidate over the slow but vital work of institution-building and state reform that is the only answer to decades of disappointment.