Is amnesty the answer for Mexico’s bloody drug war? Man tipped to be next president has a radical solution

If victorious, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador faces a tougher security situation than did current President Enrique Pena Nieto. The election campaign has been the bloodiest in recent history and murders are at record highs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2018, 3:51pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2018, 9:43pm

The man expected to be Mexico’s next president is considering a radical new approach in the country’s long-running war on the drug trade: amnesty.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has a wide lead ahead of Sunday’s presidential election, has said that if he wins he may push for a law allowing some non-violent criminals to walk free.

“I will not rule out any option” to achieve peace, he said at a recent debate.

Forgiveness for even low-level workers in the country’s multibillion-dollar drug industry would mark a dramatic shift from the militaristic approach that Mexico has long employed in its attempt to curb trafficking.

With US encouragement, Mexico has gone to war against the cartels, imprisoning drug users and drug runners, incinerating opium and marijuana fields, and sending thousands of armed soldiers into the streets.

Lopez Obrador, a left-leaning former mayor of Mexico City, is not telling Mexicans anything most don’t already believe when he says that strategy has been a failure.

The drug trade has grown – cultivation of poppies is up and Mexico has started manufacturing fentanyl and other synthetic drugs – and violence has exploded. More than 250,000 people have been killed and more than 30,000 have gone missing since former president Felipe Calderon sent troops into the streets 12 years ago in an effort to neutralise drug cartels whose power was beginning to rival that of the state.

Last year, Mexico recorded more homicides than at any point in its modern history, and it is on track to break that record this year.

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Police and the military have been accused of grave human rights violations and of colluding with cartels.

Lopez Obrador has not proposed sending all troops back to their barracks. But at a recent campaign event in Chihuahua, a northern border state that has seen some of the worst violence, he advocated a more holistic approach to confronting drug trafficking, saying that Calderon had “converted the country into a cemetery”.

“You can’t put out fire with fire,” he said.

“We don’t want militarisation. We don’t want war.”

Lopez Obrador has said he would use economic development, job creation and educational opportunities to address the causes of crime, giving federal scholarships to students and creating employment programmes to keep vulnerable young people off the streets.

He has offered fewer details on the amnesty proposal, which he first mentioned in an offhand manner in December at an event in Guerrero state, one of the country’s top opium-producing regions.

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Olga Sanchez Cordero, a retired Supreme Court judge who was expected to be named interior secretary if Lopez Obrador wins, recently told Reforma newspaper that the amnesty would be a “pacification strategy” that would shield some low-level criminals who grow, use and transport narcotics. The effort, she said, would help reintegrate into society some of the estimated 600,000 Mexicans employed by drug cartels.

She said Lopez Obrador was also weighing decriminalising drug consumption and launching a truth-and-reconciliation process.

That undertaking, famously carried out in post-apartheid South Africa, involves the creation of a commission tasked with exposing past wrongdoing by a government or others.

The idea of an amnesty has divided voters, with a poll this year showing that more than 7 in 10 Mexicans rejected it.

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Jose Antonio Meade, the presidential candidate from the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, told Lopez Obrador at a recent debate: “You want to forgive the unforgivable.”

Opponents also include the leaders of Mexico’s armed forces, with Naval Secretary Vidal Soberon warning late last year that it would make “the state complicit in crime.”

Sceptics question whether amnesty would lead to even greater impunity in Mexico, where government statistics show only about 7 per cent of all crimes are properly investigated and about 2 per cent result in convictions.

“I don’t know how you would apply it,” said Juan Manuel Andazola, the editor of El Diario, one of Chihuahua’s daily newspapers.

“Who are you going to give amnesty to if you’re not even arresting people?”

The United States, which works closely with Mexican law enforcement in its fight against drug cartels, was weary of a softening of Mexico’s security policies.

Of particular concern is the impact of possible drug legalisation, according to a State Department official.

The next president will also inherit a simmering dispute with US counterpart Donald Trump over migration and trade, with talks to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) unresolved, pressuring Mexico’s peso currency.

Trump has threatened to pitch North America into a costly trade war over Nafta, and his insistence that Mexico pay for his planned border wall has deeply angered many Mexicans.

Lopez Obrador has trodden carefully and wants to broker a deal with Trump under which Mexico would work to rein in illegal immigration in return for economic support.

Additional reporting by Reuters