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The Radical Amnesty Plan of Mexico’s Next President

Andrés Manuel López Obrador won in a landslide on Sunday. At the heart of his platform: forgiveness for drug offenses and a national reconciliation effort. Can it work?

Pedro Mera/Getty Images

On Sunday, an unconventional candidate prevailed in Mexico’s presidential election, preaching forgiveness, instead of punishment, for Mexico’s drug war criminals.

In debates and campaign ads, left-populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s opponents attacked his security proposals, including his call to offer amnesty for certain drug war crimes. While many details of the president-elect’s proposals have not been defined, what’s clear is that López Obrador, who won in a landslide, is poised to make a drastic departure from 12 years of heavy-handed policies against the drug trade.

“Amnesty turned into a symbol [during the campaign] around which diverse political figures positioned themselves,” says Froylan Enciso, a researcher and professor in the Drug Policy department of the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. “Those who believe we need to continue with the current security strategy, and those who want to change it.”

In a country devastated by over a decade of relentless violence, that change is a long time coming. The question now is whether López Obrador’s plan for reconciliation and amnesty can work.

Mexico’s strategy to stop narco-trafficking has stagnated. Since president Felipe Calderon began the war on drug-trafficking in 2006, rates of murder, kidnapping, and forced disappearance have increased around the country. Today, Mexico is one of the most violent countries in the world outside of active war zones. 2017 was the deadliest year since the start of the Drug War, with more than 29,000 murders.

Calderon deployed the army to patrol the streets, and since then the military has been involved in an ever-growing litany of human rights violations: extrajudicial killings, torture, rape. Last December, the Internal Security Law granted the military the right to carry out civil policing duties indefinitely.

“We have an unconventional armed conflict in Mexico,” said Enciso. “The war on drugs isn’t really a war against drugs, it’s a war against people, and communities.”

That’s an increasingly widespread sentiment in a country where an astonishing 95 percent of murders go unsolved, even as the number of Mexicans detained for federal drug charges has risen. López Obrador’s proposals address an uncomfortable reality: the masterminds of the violence between competing cartels often go unpunished, while prosecution often targets the most vulnerable.

One study from the Mexican Senate, using data from 2012, found that eight in ten federal prisoners for drug crimes had not completed high school. Mexican NGO Equis reports that from 2015 to 2017, the number of women being prosecuted for drug-trafficking crimes doubled, most for minor offenses.

Christian de Vos, an advocacy officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative who researches Mexico, says that during outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, instead of re-evaluating the strategy, “The strange phenomenon is that the Mexican government doubled down on these policies.”

López Obrador, by contrast, says that the root cause of Mexico’s violence is the lack of educational and work opportunities for young people. He has proposed scholarships for young people to learn a trade or go to university, and thereby rob organized crime of its labor pool.

Amnesty, which may seem radical, is a proposal to match the extremity of the situation. “Mexico is not in a normal situation,”says Loretta Ortíz Ahlf, a human rights lawyer and member of López Obrador’s security advisory council, pointing to rampant torture and forced disappearances. “We have to create the framework for a transition to peace.”

The key, López-Obrador’s team believes, will be to pair amnesty with an intensified quest to solve some of the most disturbing unsolved cases of violence and human rights violations, holding the more powerful players responsible instead of the vulnerable pawns. Ortíz Ahlf says the plan is for the transition team to hold consultations around the country to develop a security proposal by the time they enter office in December. In his victory speech Sunday night, López Obrador referred to it as a “Peace and Reconciliation Plan for Mexico.” And they will propose a new office: the Sub-Secretary of Transitional Justice, Human Rights and Attention to Victims. One of the division’s first tasks will be to create Truth Commissions to investigate emblematic cases like the disappearance of 43 students at the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in 2014, as well as extrajudicial killings in places like Tlatlaya.

Information from these commissions will be passed on to the state and federal prosecutors’ offices for thorough, independent investigation.  The Federal Attorney General (PGR for its Spanish initials) is closely linked to the executive branch, and investigations into human rights abuses like Ayotzinapa are often stymied for lack of political will. López Obrador has called for an independent federal prosecutor, who would not be beholden to political interests.

While those investigations go forward, Ortíz Ahlf says amnesty will be considered for vulnerable social groups, who were “co-opted” by organized crime. These social groups include young people, subsistence farmers, and indigenous people: rural farmers, for example, who decided to grow marijuana when other crops failed, or teenage boys paid to be look-outs for organized crime in poor neighborhoods.

The amnesty would exclude violent criminals such as murderers and torturers. Ortíz Ahlf says that only those committing to rehabilitation and to actively participating in the reconciliation process—for example attending mediation sessions with victims—would be able to enter the amnesty program.

While these plans may seem idealistic, they’re based on the principles of transitional justice, a set of legal mechanisms for countries where violence and human rights violations go beyond the legal system’s capacity to resolve them.

Transitional justice has been used in countries like Colombia or Guatemala while emerging from prolonged political conflicts. In Colombia, de-mobilized FARC members have access to re-integration programs, much like the educational and work opportunities for young Mexicans López Obrador proposed. Colombia’s Peace Accords took years to negotiate and had to be amended after voters opposed to the deal won with a narrow margin in an October 2016 plebiscite. Nonetheless, the historic process has allowed FARC militants to re-enter civilian life; the guerrilla organization, too, has transitioned into a political party.

While a right-wing politician, Iván Duque, won Colombia’s recent presidential election, the fact that a former leftist militant with the M-19 guerrilla organization, Gustavo Petro, came in second running with the Progressive Movement party shows that voters are willing to support former insurgents who integrate into electoral politics.

Fernando Travesí, Executive Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), says that many of the same principles can be applied in countries like Mexico, where irregular conflict surpasses the state’s capacity to prosecute crimes within its existing framework: the key is to make it a participative process that involves all sectors of society. “Dialog allows for people to express themselves and participate, so that later they have a feeling of ownership over the outcome,” he says.

While there is a basis in international law for amnesty, Travesí warns it must be legislated very carefully within the legal code of each country and painstakingly paired with programs to prevent recidivism. Mexico’s case is not the same as Colombia’s or other Latin American countries’, and Travesí emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all model for reconciliation.

Enciso, too, emphasizes the importance of embedding amnesty in a broader policy plan: “This needs to be paired with development programs, and opportunities for people who were caught up in illegal activities.”

And the thorough prosecution of those giving orders in the Drug War is a part of that. “In Mexico there is a need for accountability, and a need for reconciliation,” says de Vos. “Any discussion of amnesty must also be linked to seeking the truth.” He references the model of South Africa, where amnesty for apartheid-era violations was offered to some perpetrators who agreed to give full confessions. 

The specter of U.S.–Mexico relations hangs over López Obrador’s election. His security platform is just one of many policy shifts that could disrupt Mexico’s relation with the U.S., which has poured funding into anti-drug trafficking initiatives in Mexico. The Merida Initiative, which aims to combat drug trafficking, reform the justice system, and bolster border security, receives around $100 million a year from the U.S. Congress.

De Vos says that while López Obrador’s proposals are a departure from the norm, they could work toward common goals for the region: Improving rule of law could diminish the kind of violence that drives people to migrate north. If Mexico becomes more stable and secure, people “might not be looking [or seeking] to leave” and to enter the United States, he says.

There’s always a possibility, of course, that Mexico’s amnesty policy won’t play well with U.S. politicians. But as with Canada and France, whose leaders have recently suggested U.S. leadership is too volatile to depend on, Mexico may not try to game out a possible U.S. response. “Ultimately, Trump doesn’t particularly care what is happening in Mexico,” says Enciso. “He will continue to be the politician he’s proven himself to be.”

While some media accounts liken López Obrador to Trump due to his populist rhetoric, Mexico’s president-elect is his opposite when it comes to security policy. Going against the grain in the region, López Obrador will seek to counter violence with mediation and reconciliation, instead of militarization and securitization. López Obrador’s resounding victory on Sunday showed that voters were ready for a change, and security policy is no exception. The results will be felt far beyond Mexico’s borders.