Over the past 12 years, Mexico has suffered a tragedy of historic proportions. The government’s all-out war against the drug cartels and the viciousness with which those cartels have fought each other for control of the country’s multibillion dollar drug trade has turned parts of Mexico into both a battlefield and a graveyard. Just in 2017, there were about 31,000 homicides in Mexico, the highest on record. If trends persist, this year will be even bloodier. Overall, 32,000 people have been reported missing and more than 234,000 confirmed killed in the country since the drug war began in 2006. Basic freedoms have been endangered as well, including that of the press: Criminals have killed dozens of journalists in the past few years, their cases unresolved, languishing in Mexico’s sclerotic justice system. It’s a painful picture, and it’s hardly surprising that many feel new thinking is needed. But President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s controversial proposal to shift course by offering amnesty to minor drug offenders, while innovative, doesn’t seem to be the best way forward.
Two successive presidential administrations before López Obrador have tried but failed to contain the cartels. After coming to power in 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón began confronting organized crime in his home state of Michoacán, on Mexico’s western coast, where the cartels had supplanted the government, collecting taxes, offering “protection,” and taking over other services. The confrontation eventually expanded, mostly to northern Mexico and the country’s Pacific coast. Calderón’s strategy was simple: capture or kill as many drug lords as possible and criminal structures would either crumble entirely or, once pulverized, become less of a threat. He succeeded in the former but failed in the latter: Many of the country’s most famous drug dealers were either caught or taken out in dramatic gunfights, but violence did not abate.
Enrique Peña Nieto, who became president in 2012, has fared worse. Even though he initially promised a “paradigm shift,” he dutifully followed his predecessor’s blueprint. Peña Nieto did manage to strike at the very top of a few of the country’s main drug cartels, even capturing legendary drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. But even that victory proved bittersweet, and not only because El Chapo escaped before being recaptured and sent to the U.S. for trial. New criminal organizations, more sophisticated and vicious than previous ones, have sprouted across the country. The homicide rate has also increased. When his term ends in December, more people will have been killed during Peña Nieto’s presidency than Calderón’s.
Public frustration with Mexico’s unrelenting violence—along with deep-seated anger with the country’s chronic corruption problem—played a crucial role in the recent election of López Obrador, who ran as a left-wing opponent of the political establishment. On security matters, Mexico’s president-elect, who will be inaugurated on Dec. 1, ran on a controversial proposal to grant amnesty for certain, nonviolent drug crimes in an attempt to put Mexico on the path toward transitional justice, a system often used to help countries emerge from interior conflict and widespread human rights violations. On the surface, the idea makes sense: Mexican jails are filled with young people imprisoned for minor drug offenses. Many others have been recruited by the cartels under duress. Mexican farmers harvest illicit crops as the only way to escape abject poverty.
Still, the next president’s plan has met resistance. The first problem has to do with the concept of transitional justice itself. Critics, like Alejandro Hope, Mexico’s foremost security expert, point to the fact that Mexico’s struggle has little to do with, say, the long struggle between the government and FARC guerillas and Colombia, where transitional justice is currently being applied. “Transitional justice” in Colombia, Hope recently wrote, “has been limited to certain crimes, committed by specific offenders in a well-defined period of time [and has been directed to] groups that had some sort of political objective, even if they later veered toward overt criminality.” The Colombian process, he adds, began once a certain “stability” has already been achieved. Hope adds that “none of this is true” in Mexico, where violence is not only still raging but reaching new, terrifying heights, and where cartels have no other objective but financial gain through ruthless means and surely do not harbor any overt political ambition. Finally, Hope raises a series of crucial questions: What incentives can the next Mexican administration offer the cartels, these hyperviolent, ascendant organizations, whose sole purpose is control of an expanding and lucrative business, to convince them to come to the table? And whom exactly can the government sit across from, when there might be at least 20 major criminal organizations in the country? The country’s next president doesn’t seem to have clear answers.
Another one of López Obrador’s troubles is the evident unwillingness of many victims’ families to transition toward amnesty or forgiveness without first seeking, well, justice. In the past few weeks (even though he’s still more than three months away from power) López Obrador has hastily organized a series of highly publicized meetings with victims’ families, alongside local officials and members of his own team. The president-elect himself opened the discussion in the first gathering, held in Ciudad Juárez, which has experienced some of the country’s most heinous violence. In his remarks, López Obrador called those present to consider clemency. “We won’t forgive nor forget! There can’t be forgiveness without justice!” someone in the audience interjected. Others echoed the concern. “Most people rejected amnesty, or at least what they understood by it,” writes journalist Marcela Turati, who was present in Juárez.
This yearning for justice before any other attempt at resolution is even suggested seems warranted in a country like Mexico, where impunity is the norm. The figures are astounding: Victims report only 5 out of every 100 crimes committed in Mexico, and only 12 percent of those reach sentencing. This is why the road ahead for López Obrador most likely lies not in promoting a rushed blanket amnesty but rather in the difficult and less politically rewarding task of strengthening the country’s flawed judicial system while tackling the social realities of Mexico’s long war, fought by the state against a vast network of ruthless criminals.
Mexico’s future president is right in seeking national reconciliation. But the country’s wounds can’t be healed by a quasi-religious call for appeasement. It must begin with the most indispensable of humanity’s moral tools: the dispensation of justice.