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How Do Mexico’s Presidential Candidates Plan to Tackle Organized Crime?

How Do Mexico’s Presidential Candidates Plan to Tackle Organized Crime?

How Do Mexico’s Presidential Candidates Plan to Tackle Organized Crime?

Mexico’s presidential candidates are proposing mostly ambiguous security measures that fail to address the complexity of organized crime in the country.

On June 2, Mexicans will elect a new president from a trio of candidates: Claudia Sheinbaum, representing a coalition led by ruling party Morena; Xóchitl Gálvez, leading the Force and Heart for Mexico coaltion (Fuerza y Corazón por México), comprising the three main opposition parties; and Jorge Álvarez Máynez of center-left party, Citizen Movement (Movimiento Ciudadano).

SEE ALSO: Mexico’s 2024 Election Could Spark Violent Criminal Realignments

Below, InSight Crime analyzes the candidates’ stances on security, based on their manifestos, public statements, and appearance in the last of three presidential debates, held on May 19. We also contacted their campaign teams in search of more detail on their proposals, but none had responded at the time of publication.

Combating Criminal Groups

The elections come at a critical time for Mexico. The country remains immersed in a wave of violence – caused largely by organized crime – that successive administrations have failed to stop. Just in the run-up to elections, violence has claimed the lives of dozens of aspiring candidates.

Criminal groups continue to exercise widespread territorial and social control, withstanding government pressure. Some groups have increased the sophistication of their drug trafficking and money laundering operations, while others have developed more predatory practices, such as forced disappearances and extortion.

The candidates’ approaches to public security and the fight against organized crime differ considerably. 

Sheinbaum, who is currently leading in the polls, has pledged to address the root causes of organized crime via social programs developed during the administration of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). The programs seek to provide young people with economic opportunities to prevent recruitment from criminal groups.

“We are going to rescue young people from the clutches of criminal gangs, and we’re going to give them support,” Sheinbaum said during the May 19 debate.

The programs sound promising, but it is unclear whether they have been effective. Although the government claims to have increased employment opportunities, hundreds of thousands of youths remain at risk of being recruited by criminal groups, according to estimates by the Network for Children’s Rights in Mexico (Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en México – Redim) and the National Citizen Observatory (Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano – ONC).

Center-left candidate Álvarez Máynez plans to create a human-rights focused national system for social reinsertion, which would include providing assistance to young people trying to exit criminal groups. Álvarez Máynez has not, however, offered further details on how he plans to implement the policy .

Sheinbaum has also pledged to bolster the National Guard by assigning it more officers and making them first responders, while also improving its surveillance capabilities on highways and strengthening collaboration with prosecutors at federal and regional level. She argues that the military should command the National Guard.  

It is a controversial proposal, as the National Guard operates under the umbrella of Mexico’s Secretary of Public Security and Citizen Protection. It should thus act as a police agency, despite most members of the National Guard being military officers. In addition, Mexico’s Supreme Court recently shot down the government’s efforts to transfer the institution to military control.

The National Guard’s military contingent has sparked criticism and concerns among experts and human rights defenders. The National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos – CNDH), for example, has published more than 85 complaints against the National Guard for alleged abuse of power, or even torture. 

In addition, the National Guard does not perform functions required of a police force, such as investigation and crime prevention, according to security analyst Lilian Chapa.

“Whoever wins, the National Guard urgently needs to be better trained in public security,” Chapa told InSight Crime.

By contrast, Álvarez Maynez plans to limit National Guard and military operations to regions with the highest rates of violence, while strengthening state and municipal police forces. He also proposes the creation of an investigative police force.

“[We need] a strategy that allows us to form a competent police force through civilian channels,” Álvarez Maynez said during the debate.

Gálvez, meanwhile, advocates for a civilian command of the National Guard, though she also plans to double its ranks. She has floated the idea of creating a new national security system with greater coordination between different government entities and civil society. Despite this, Gálvez supports the continued use of the armed forces to fight criminal groups. 

“[The armed forces] will defend Mexico from the main threat to our sovereignty: the territorial control of organized crime,” Gálvez said in early March during a speech in Zacatecas state.

Gálvez’s policies on organized crime tend to be more aggressive than the other candidates. For example, she plans to locate individuals driving violence and imprison them within the first two years of government. She also wants to build a new maximum security prison for “the worst criminals.”

Confronting criminal groups head-on and arresting their leaders has proved a hit-and-miss strategy for reducing violence rates. If the government lacks a plan for recuperating power vacuums left behind by criminal groups, it opens the door to lawlessness, human rights violations, and the splintering of larger criminal organizations.

“The use of the armed forces is necessary in certain territories where criminal groups have comparable weapons. But the approach needs to be paired with capable police forces and, above all, efficient criminal prosecution,” Chapa told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: The Next Generation of Criminal Groups Driving Violence in Mexico

When it comes to the diversification of criminal groups’ activities, Sheinbaum has proposed strengthening interagency collaboration to combat the finances of criminal groups. Previous administrations have struggled with this, and Sheinbaum has not elaborated on her plans.

Both Sheinbaum and Gálvez have also announced plans to deal with extortion. Sheinbaum suggests categorizing extortion as a serious crime under Mexican law, while Gálvez has proposed designating extortion gangs as prime government targets.

Security analyst Samantha Pérez Dávila believes these proposals fail to encompass the complexity of criminal groups and how deeply they have penetrated various markets.

“The candidates aren’t talking about all the sectors [legal and illegal] in which criminal groups are involved. For example, [criminal groups have infiltrated] the provision of services, which should be provided by the state,” she told InSight Crime.

The candidates have also failed to present concrete proposals aimed at mitigating collusion between criminal groups and the state. 

Claudia Sheinbaum Xóchitl Gálvez Jorge Álvarez Maynez
Categorize extortion as a serious crime. Make tackling extortion gangs a priority.  Strengthen and train police forces.
Use social programs to prevent youth recruitment. Incarcerate key criminals linked to violence in the first two years of government; build a maximum security prison. Create an investigative police.
Strengthen inter-agency coordination to target the finances of criminal groups. Establish a new national security system and strengthen police forces. Create a national system for social reintegration.
Expand the capabilities of the National Guard and move towards a military command. Keep the National Guard under civilian command and double its membership. Combat the territorial control of criminal groups using the armed forces. Restrict the military and the National Guard’s operations 
to territories with the highest rates of violence.

Forced Disappearances

Central to the election agenda is the issue of forced disappearances. Disappearances are intimately linked to criminal groups – in addition to some state officials – and have been used tactically to secure control of illicit economies and territories, or to terrorize local populations.

During the last three administrations, groups searching for missing people have denounced the state’s indifference to the issue. Some have even faced intimidation and threats.

Sheinbaum has offered no innovative proposals for dealing with forced disappearances, instead merely mentioning that her government will continue with the current search protocols. These have had limited results, as the search for missing people is routinely led by family members and civil-society organizations.

Álvarez Máynez and Gálvez offer some alternatives. The former proposes granting autonomy to the state-run commissions tasked with locating and assisting victims of forced disappearances. These commissions currently depend on Mexico’s interior ministry and can thus be influenced by the executive branch. In addition, Álvarez Máynez has floated the idea of creating a database for missing people, updated with real-time information.

For this to work, it would be necessary to strengthen collaboration between the proposed commissions and local prosecutors’ offices. Search groups have complained that local offices are overwhelmed and are slow to transmit information to the relevant authorities.

SEE ALSO: Mothers Searching for Loved Ones in Mexico Abandoned by Authorities

Gálvez, meanwhile, has pledged to prioritize the fight against forced disappearances. Her policies include the establishment of a permanent council that will purportedly listen to the concerns of civil-society organizations and hold regular meetings with relatives of disappeared people.

Gálvez’s proposed policies also include the creation of a national fund dedicated to the victims of organized crime, financed by resources seized from criminal networks. The main beneficiaries would be the children of missing or murdered people.

The proposal, though innovative, may be too ambitious. Election candidates in Mexico often use campaign pledges on forced disappearances to score political points but rarely keep their promises over time.

The government also has limited ability to seize assets from criminal groups, according to recent research by InSight Crime. Gálvez’s policy would therefore require additional measures to strengthen relevant institutions.

Claudia Sheinbaum Xóchitl Gálvez Jorge Álvarez Maynez
Continue current search protocols. Hold regular meetings with family members and set up a permanent ‘listening council’ for civil-society organizations. Grant autonomy to state-run commissions tasked with locating and assisting victims of forced disappearances.
Implement a search system with data from state prosecutors’ offices. Create a national fund to assist victims of organized crime, financed by resources seized from criminal groups. Generate a database of victims and missing people with real-time information.

Drug Policy

One of the biggest security challenges facing the next government is the expansion in the production, trafficking, and consumption of methamphetamine and fentanyl.

When it comes to drugs, all three candidates appear to be focused on reducing demand for illicit narcotics. Both Sheinbaum and Gálvez plan to strengthen and expand addiction prevention programs, with Sheinbaum placing particular emphasis on synthetic drugs. 

But both candidates have failed to explain how they will do this and what specific changes they plan to implement in current treatment systems. Civil-society organizations, for example, have flagged an insufficient number of licensed clinics and a lack of personnel trained in addiction prevention. These groups also point to the prevalence of a government narrative that stigmatizes drug users.

“We need a shift in vision toward harm reduction. A narrative focused on achieving zero substance use is neither sustainable nor realistic,” Pérez Dávila told InSight Crime.

Álvarez Máynez is the only candidate to propose moving from a prohibitionist model to one that regulates drug use. This would include legalizing drug consumption, while decriminalizing possession and taxing the commercialization of these substances. 

“The war on drugs was a mistake,” Alvarez Máynez said during the final presidential debate.

The candidate’s proposal, though innovative, is mainly based on evidence from the marijuana market. It does not specify whether these reforms would apply to other substances, such as synthetic drugs. 

“The proposal lacks a comprehensive understanding of drug markets and the candidate needs to clarify what steps are needed,” Pérez Dávila said.

SEE ALSO: The End of (Illegal) Marijuana: Impacts on Mexico’s Criminal Dynamics

Meanwhile, Gálvez’s manifesto includes some proposals aimed at reducing drug supply. She has proposed the creation of a North American customs agency focused on preventing the illegal importation of precursor chemicals, among other goals.

Such an agency could help mitigate suspicious imports of chemicals, but its scope could be limited if it is not accompanied by improved collaboration with the private sector, as drug producers are increasingly using less-regulated substances widely used in the legal economy.

Sheinbaum has so far overlooked the expansion of synthetic drug production in Mexico, but she has pledged to maintain an illicit crop substitution program implemented during AMLO’s administration. The program has had some local benefits, but nationwide results have been mixed. The government is yet to publish an evaluation of the program’s results.

Claudia Sheinbaum Xóchitl Gálvez Jorge Álvarez Maynez
Implement programs to prevent drug addiction, particularly for synthetic drugs. Implement addiction prevention programs. Move to a model of drug regulation and commercial taxation.
Maintain the government’s current illicit crop substitution program. Create the North American customs agency to prevent the importation of precursor chemicals. Legalize drug consumption and decriminalize possession.

International Collaboration

None of the candidates have put forward detailed plans for improving international cooperation on security and the fight against transnational crime.

This is a thorny issue. Mexico’s relationship with the United States has been particularly strained during AMLO’s administration because of disagreements on which country holds responsibility for the fentanyl and gun violence crises. AMLO has also limited the presence of foreign agents in the country, drawing criticism from the US government.

Sheinbaum says she will promote binational working groups with the United States to boost cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking, arms trafficking, money laundering, human trafficking, and other transnational crimes. But she is yet to clarify plans to strengthen ties with other countries relevant to transnational drug flows. That includes China, India, in addition to Central American, South American, and European countries.

Gálvez’s security policies appear to seek a more equitable relationship between Mexico and the United States. Her proposal to create a North American customs agency envisions the participation of agents from both countries and holds a broader goal of curbing arms trafficking from the United States to Mexico, in addition to stopping precursor chemicals.

In addition, Gálvez plans to reach agreements with neighboring countries and international organizations to promote collaboration in intelligence sharing, police training, and criminal investigations.

By contrast, foreign policy proposals on security are conspicuously absent from Álvarez Máynez’s manifesto. His only proposal is to pursue existing lawsuits – initiated by the ministry of foreign affairs – against arms manufacturers in the United States accused of involvement in illicit trafficking.

According to Pérez Dávila, the candidates’ policy proposals are ambiguous – especially when it comes to their implementation – and fail to take advantage of opportunities for international collaboration against organized crime.

“One area of opportunity could be collaboration with financial intelligence agencies from other countries, to understand the ways in which criminal groups finance themselves,” she said.

Claudia Sheinbaum Xóchitl Gálvez Jorge Álvarez Maynez
Create binational working groups with the United States to prevent and combat organized crime networks. Create a North American customs agency to curb the illegal importation of weapons from the United States and prevent the entry of precursor chemicals. Continue legal proceedings against gun manufacturers in the United States.
Maintain security dialogues with the United States and Canada. Promote security agreements with neighboring countries and international organizations for intelligence purposes, police training, criminal investigations. Seek a more horizontal relationship with the United States in security matters.

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