Two months into his term, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared an end to his country's "war on drugs," announcing that the army would no longer prioritize capturing cartel bosses. The new populist president made his declaration Jan. 30, at the end of his second month in office. He told gathered reporters at a press conference that the "guerra contra el narcotráfico," launched in 2006 by then-president Felipe Calderón, has come to and end. "Officially now, there is no war; we are going to prusue peace," he said.
"This is what matters to me, to lower the number of homicides, the number of robberies, that there are no more kidnappings, this is what's fundamental," he continued, contrasting this to the "spectacular" kingpin busts hyped by his predecessors.
"The strategy is no longer operations to detain capos," he said, but to "daily bring down the number of homicides… The principal function of government is to guarantee security."
2018 was deadliest year yet
While statistics are not yet in to determine if homicides are down since López Obrador took office Dec. 1, killings have only soared since the troops were first sent in against the narco gangs. Nearly 34,000 people were murdered in Mexico last year, according to new government statistics—making 2018 the deadliest year since record-keeping began, as Mexico News Daily notes.
The data was released last month by the Executive Secretary of the National Public Security System, or SESNSP. Alarmingly, SESNSP reports that among the murders last year were 834 cases of "femicide"—targeted attacks on women. Some 100 of these were under the age of 18.
That makes last year's body count higher than that of 2017, when some 23,100 homicides were registered. An estimated 200,000 have been killed in Mexico since Calderón mobilized the army to fight the cartels 13 years ago.
So-called narco-fosas or "narco-graves" where victims' bodies have been dumped over the past years continue to be unearthed. The most recent was found Feb. 6 by Colima state police. Nineteen bodies were discovered in 11 hidden graves in the high-crime municipality of Tecomán.
Amid all this, the world is awaiting on a verdict in the trial in a Brooklyn US federal courthouse of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, accused kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel. Among the revelations to emerge from the trial is witness testimony that Mexico's last president, Enrique Peña Nieto, accepted a $100 million bribe from Chapo—seeming to vindicate the widespread conspiracy theory in Mexico that the government was in league with the Sinaloa Cartel, with enforcement efforts largely aimed at its rival narco-machines.
Is all of this really changing under López Obrador?
Eradication ops continue
Troops may no longer be sent to hunt down capos like Chapo, but this is clear: they are still being sent to eradicate cannabis crops, bringing federal forces with a long legacy of human rights abuses into impoverished campesino communities growing the only crop that can sustain them.
On Feb. 4 in Sonora state, federal police destroyed 195,000 plants, burning a yield estimated at 78 tons in the fields at the community of Augua Caliente, Álamos municipality.
Two days later, federal police "decommissioned" more than 129 kilograms of compressed cannabis found stashed along the banks of the Río Grande near the border post of La Playita, in the violence-torn northern state of Tamaulipas.
In early January, army troops were actually dispatched to the southern state of Chiapas to join with federal police in a cannabis eradication campaign. A plot of 40,000 plants was reported destroyed at the village of Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan in the state's Maya Highlands.
Over the course of January, army troops reported burning 3,600 square meters of cannabis in plots across the sate of Zacatecas.
Narco-violence and militarization continue
And even as López Obrador made his "war is over" announcement, he ordered 10,200 troops—a mixed force of army soldiers and federal police—to designated high-violence areas of the country. Named were the border towns of Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, as well as areas of Guerrero, Veracruz, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Colima and Sinaloa states. Army troops have also been mobilized to secure the country's oil pipelines, as sale of pirated oil has emerged as an important sideline for the drug cartels.
On Jan. 17, Mexican Navy troops intercepted a large quantity of pirated petroleum along with a ton of marijuana at the Baja California port of Ensenada.
And back in November, on the countdown to López Obrador's inauguration, Mexico's Supreme Court struck down a controversial Internal Security Law that established a legal framework for employing the national army and navy in place of civilian police forces in order to combat crime. In response to the ruling, López Obrador vowed to seek constitutional changes allowing use of the military in domestic policing.
With police forces long co-opted by the narco gangs, rampant vigilantism has emerged in Mexico over the years of drug war militarization. But, all too predictably, some anti-narco vigilante groups have also come to be co-opted by the cartels—and to fight against each other. Last month, 10 people were killed and two more wounded in a clash between two apparent groups of "community police" in the southern state of Guerrero. The shootings took place Jan. 27 on a highway through the village of Paraiso de Tepila, in Chilapa municipality. State police responded with military back-up and found two trucks riddled with bullets and 10 bodies. Rifles and shotguns were recovered from the scene.
It is far from certain, however, that the military is untainted by narco-corruption.
Signs of progress
Amid the signs of continued dystopia, there is also unprecedented potential for real progress. Many are coming to see providing a legal and regulated market for cannabis as a means of undercutting the cartels. And there is concrete movement in that direction.
Mexico has had a limited (CBD-only) medical marijuana program since 2017, following the landmark legal case of child epilepsy sufferer Graciela Elizalde. Last year, the country's first "medical marijuana clinic," Sativa Care, opened in Mexico City—although it doesn't actually sell herbaceous cannabis (just CBD products).
And following a Supreme Court ruling last October recognizing a right to consume cannabis on individual liberties grounds, Mexico's congress is obliged to pass some kind of general legalization measure. Even before that, candidate López Obrador had broached the idea of legal cannabis as a way out of the narco crisis. Upon the high court decision, then-president-elect López Obrador sent members of his transition team to Canada to study how cannabis legalization is unfolding there. One member of the delegation was Olga Sánchez Cordero, a respected jurist and longtime legalization advocate who is now López Obrador's interior secretary.
A National Cannabis Industry Association (ANICANN) has been formed to push for a more expansive legalization. Its founder Guillermo Nieto told daily La Jornada after the Supreme Court ruling that he anticipated Mexico becoming a world leader in legal cannabis exports.
Former Mexican president Vicente Fox, who now sits on the board of Toronto-based cannabis cultivator Khiron Life Sciences (and has emerged as something of a YouTube star with his excoriating lampoons of Donald Trump), is today perhaps the foremost advocate of legal cannabis as an opportunity for a positive transformation of his country.