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In 2018, a left-wing government led by the assertive, often divisive President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) arrived to power, inflaming partisan debates in Mexico. Yet due to some striking continuities in AMLO’s approach to the country’s ongoing war on drugs, this alternation of power has not changed the more fundamental divide in the country—between underlying authoritarian enclaves in the security and judicial sectors and citizens and victims of political and criminal violence struggling to achieve rights, peace, and justice. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic has brought still more suffering to an already battered citizenry, but it has not changed basic political dynamics. The key to addressing the essential divide will be broadening and intensifying the difficult quest for a democratic rule of law and a peaceful society.

AMLO’s Arrival to Power

In 2018, Mexico elected a leftist president for the first time since the country transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy in 2000. In the three previous conservative administrations, the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and the center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had joined forces to pursue an agenda of market-oriented reforms and launched a major war on drugs against the country’s main cartels. In response, Mexican voters elected a presidential candidate who promised to reverse neoliberal reforms, end the war, and build a democratic rule of law through major security-sector and judicial reforms that previous administrations had failed to enact. AMLO, a three-time presidential candidate, was elected president with 53 percent of the vote, and his coalition led by the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (MORENA, or National Regeneration Movement) won a legislative majority.

Once in power, AMLO rapidly developed a personalistic and highly centralized presidency and defined his administration as a transformational movement—by AMLO’s count, the fourth of Mexico’s great transformations since the 1810 Independence Movement. Despite having a parliamentary majority, AMLO’s leadership style heavily relies on popular engagement and mobilization. He speaks directly to the people in his lengthy daily press conferences and uses referenda to confirm public support for his most emblematic policies. Further, AMLO dislikes institutional checks and balances. He has engaged in court packing, appointed loyalists in the newly independent Public Prosecutor’s Office and in the National Human Rights Commission, routinely attacks the national election management body, and undermines the credibility of civil society organizations and the press. From the pulpit of his daily conference, AMLO defines friend and foe, good and evil, classified by whether they are loyal to his movement.

Guillermo Trejo
Guillermo Trejo is an associate professor of political science and the director of the Violence and Transitional Justice Lab at the University of Notre Dame.

AMLO’s opponents and critics accuse him of polarizing Mexico and introducing illiberal political habits and measures as part of a strategy of division and demonization of his rivals. Yet the concern that Mexico is sliding back from liberal to illiberal democracy is misleading. In fact, Mexico’s political transition never gave rise to a liberal democracy.

Continuities Prevail

When the country transitioned from one-party rule to multiparty democracy in 2000, PAN and PRI elites opposed a transitional justice process that would have investigated the country’s long history of state repression. They also failed to reform key authoritarian enclaves, including the armed forces, the police, and the judicial system. While citizens gained the right to select their leaders through free and fair elections, most other civil and human rights were limited or routinely trampled upon. And when PAN or PRI governments engaged in the twelve-year-long war on drugs, their reliance on repressive and corrupt security and judicial sectors resulted in the adoption of militarized iron-fist policies that triggered multiple criminal wars and caused unprecedented levels of violence and gross human rights violations.

Despite AMLO’s claim to be leading a transformational movement, his government has been marked by continuities. His refusal to adopt a transitional justice process and to reform the armed forces, the police, and the judiciary are reminiscent of every administration since 2000. His leadership style has added a new layer of anti-democratic politics to the illiberal democracy he inherited and is unwilling to reform. Instead, AMLO has developed a historic strategic alliance with the armed forces, delegated national and public security to the military, and kept de facto control over the national public prosecutor, whose office has guaranteed impunity for the president’s allies and punished his detractors since the authoritarian era.

In short, the fundamental division facing Mexico’s democracy is not between AMLO and his party on the one side and the parties of the center right and the right on the other—as noisy and fractious as that division is. It is something much more insidious and dangerous: the reluctance of the ruling elite as a larger class, regardless of its particular party attachments, to transform the authoritarian enclaves in the security and judicial sectors, which are central to producing large-scale criminal violence and gross human rights violations in the drug wars. It is a division between the state’s political establishment and an emerging movement of victims of forced disappearance, feminist and Indigenous movements, pro–human rights and anti-corruption NGOs, academics, and international NGOs.

To understand the rise of Mexico’s illiberal democracy and the ruling elite’s reluctance to democratize the security and judicial sectors and to change tack in the war on drugs, it is necessary first to explore why the PRI and the PAN established a limited democracy and went to war in the first place.

The Neoliberal Origins of Mexico’s Illiberal Democracy

For three decades (1988–2018), Mexico was ruled by a center-right conservative coalition of the PRI and the PAN. This coalition defined the economic agenda, the pace and nature of democratization, and the main cleavages of Mexico’s ideological debate. A staunch commitment to market-oriented neoliberal reforms was the glue binding this alliance, a commitment that brought Mexico macroeconomic stability across two major waves of privatization (in the 1990s and 2010s) and the conclusion of two free trade agreements with the United States and Canada (in 1994 and 2018). Anyone who opposed or even slightly criticized Mexico’s economic reform was demonized in the public arena as a populist. In this neoliberal era, economic growth and poverty alleviation were meager while socioeconomic and regional inequalities deepened.

Democratization during the PRI-PAN era was only a secondary priority and was dependent on the progress of market reforms. The PAN made major concessions to the PRI to slow down the pace of the transition to democracy in exchange for the privatization of key sectors the PAN had long favored. The impetus for creating an independent election management body did not come from PAN pressure but from the uprising of Indigenous Mayan peoples in Chiapas in 1994. And when PAN candidate Vicente Fox unseated the PRI for the first time in seven decades in 2000, he gave up on a transitional justice program and left the armed forces, police, and judiciary untouched to retain the PRI’s support for his economic agenda.

The PRI-PAN duopoly led Mexico into a major war on drugs. The deployment of the armed forces to the country’s most conflict-ridden regions between 2006 and 2018 triggered multiple state-cartel and intercartel wars. And the use of the kingpin strategy, by which Mexican security forces arrested or killed the cartel’s leaders, led to a dramatic fragmentation of the cartels from five to over 200 organized criminal groups (OCGs), who expanded their activities into extortion, kidnapping for ransom, human smuggling, and the illegal exploitation of oil, mining, and forests. Over 150,000 people were murdered in these conflicts and more than 60,000 went missing. In these criminal wars, cartels use selective violence against mayors and party candidates, journalists, Catholic priests, human rights defenders, and small business owners to gain control over populations, municipal governments, local economies, and subnational territories, where they develop subnational criminal governance regimes. They have become de facto local rulers, subverting local democracy, in at least 10 percent of Mexico’s municipalities, home to one-third of the population.

The PRI-PAN coalition entered into a major political crisis in 2014. A year earlier, a parliamentary majority led by the two parties approved a series of second-generation market-oriented reforms. But the electorate was divided on the reforms, particularly on the privatization of the energy sector. The country became polarized along the neoliberal and anti-neoliberal divide. But in the fall of 2014, three major events turned the country against the PRI-PAN elite and the recently elected PRI candidate, then president Enrique Peña Nieto: first, the extrajudicial execution of fifteen alleged criminals and civilians by the military in the township of Tlatlaya; second, the forced disappearance of forty-three students from the rural teachers’ college of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero; and finally, a major corruption scandal that involved the president’s wife. People began taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to demand an end to state impunity.

A Shift to the Left Amid War

A three-time presidential candidate dubbed by his political rivals the Mexican Hugo Chávez, AMLO seized the anti-neoliberal and anti-impunity moment to position himself in the 2018 presidential race. Although the PRI and the PAN candidates adopted anti-corruption rhetoric, their messages rang hollow. AMLO’s two-decade-long defense of honesty, pro-poor policies, and fierce opposition to both the war on drugs and the country’s militarization made him the leading contender. He promised to reverse the 2013 neoliberal reforms, end the war on drugs, bring the military back to the barracks, and engage in a transitional justice process.

But once in power, AMLO adopted dramatically different policies than those he had promised. The most drastic shift was his decision to turn the armed forces into the central political actor of his transformational project. During the transition period, after a closed-door meeting with General Salvador Cienfuegos, then secretary of defense, AMLO began a process of militarization by surprise. Cienfuegos may have threatened a military backlash if AMLO pursued a transitional justice process and brought members of the armed forces to justice for prior atrocities. Or AMLO may have seen the writing on the wall and decided to keep the military on his side, but with a different faction than the one led by Cienfuegos.

AMLO has dramatically expanded the role of the armed forces in public life. He used MORENA’s legislative majority to pass a law that replaced the federal police with a new National Guard under military control and made up of active members of the military. The armed forces now control public and national security and all ports and border crossings. They are also in charge of AMLO’s emblematic infrastructure projects, a new airport in the outskirts of Mexico City and a high-speed train in the Yucatán Peninsula. Military expenditure is rising and the Mexican armed forces continue to have one of the lowest levels of transparency, accountability, and civilian oversight in the region.

Although the president rhetorically declared the end of the war on drugs, the armed forces and the National Guard continue to use the kingpin strategy, which entails selectively arresting or killing cartel or OCG bosses. State-cartel and intercartel wars remain pervasive. During AMLO’s first year, Mexico experienced 23,964 murders associated with these conflicts, according to Lantia Intelligence—a number nearly identical to the last year of the PRI administration. At the current rates, by 2024 Mexico under AMLO would have accumulated over 143,000 battle deaths—that is, more than 90 percent of all battle deaths during the two previous administrations.

The mass violence associated with Mexico’s ongoing criminal wars and the selective violence against journalists, mayors, party candidates, human rights defenders, and local business owners reveal that violent competition for a wide range of illicit markets continues unabated and that cartels continue to transform local political orders across the country. AMLO’s assumption that bringing all security forces under military tutelage would end corruption and collusion has proved illusory. In Mexico’s drug wars, the armed forces have adopted iron-fist policies based on anti-insurgency practices that stimulate violence and result in gross human rights violations. Further, important sectors of the military protect the cartels or have defected to become their private militias.

While the coronavirus pandemic has hit Mexico hard, infecting as many as 1,400,000 Mexicans and killing up to 120,000 by the end of 2020, it has not altered the basic dynamics of AMLO’s rule. Despite the government’s dismal response to the pandemic—neglecting the gravity of the problem, concealing information, failing to promote and comply with basic health protocols, and failing to adopt an economic stimulus to support stay at home measures—AMLO has not faced much political damage beyond even greater dislike than before from Mexicans already opposed to him.

A Truth and Justice Strategy for Peacebuilding and Democratization

Over the past decade, an emerging coalition of families of victims of forced disappearance, feminist and Indigenous movements, pro–human rights and anti-corruption NGOs, academics, and international NGOs have been working on the building blocks of a transitional justice process in Mexico. These groups have identified five priorities for transitional justice: first, new laws and institutions to search for missing persons; second, truth-seeking processes; third, judicial prosecution of perpetrators of atrocities; fourth, reparations for victims of political and criminal violence; and fifth, institutional reforms to prevent future atrocities.

Due to the massive volume of violations, and because impunity rates for any crime are above 90 percent, Mexican anti-impunity forces are increasingly demanding the adoption of extraordinary mechanisms of justice. And because a significant number of military and police officers, public prosecutors, and judges collude with drug cartels and OCGs, anti-impunity activists are demanding international assistance, particularly from the United Nations, following the example of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. Mexican civil society organizations are demanding international cooperation to allow a radically different approach to the war on drugs, geared at dismantling state-cartel criminal networks through scientific investigation and effective prosecution rather than through militarized interventions and war.

As international experience shows, mechanisms of extraordinary justice can not only safeguard victims’ rights but also stimulate the democratization of authoritarian enclaves in the security and judicial sectors. Since 2014, civil society has launched a struggle to develop a democratic rule of law and transform Mexico’s thin democracy into a system in which citizens’ rights are expanded from the electoral arena to other spheres of economic, political, and social life. Led by victims of state and criminal atrocities, this is a moral struggle for democratic transformation and peacebuilding from below that transcends political parties and challenges Mexico’s illiberal ruling elites.

Guillermo Trejo is an associate professor of political science and the director of the Violence and Transitional Justice Lab at the University of Notre Dame. He is coauthor of Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico (Cambridge University Press, 2020).