Could an Amnesty in Mexico Reduce Violence?

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An improvised response from Mexico’s leading presidential candidate has renewed a complex debate about the need for effective strategies to reduce violence generated by drug trafficking and organized crime.

Presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that he has not ruled out the possibility of granting amnesty to the leaders of Mexico’s powerful drug cartels if that were necessary to achieve peace in the country, Animal Político reported December 3.

The apparently informal statement was in response to questions from journalists.

“We are going to consider it. I am analyzing it. What I can tell you is that there will not be any issue left unattended, if it is to guarantee peace and tranquility,” López Obrador replied.

López Obrador’s statement comes as 2017 is shaping up to be the deadliest year in Mexico’s modern history. The more than 2,300 homicides committed in October of this year made it the most violent month of the last 20 years. Moreover, this year is also expected to end with a record number of kidnappings. The number of kidnappings recorded during the tenure of current Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto have already exceeded the number recorded during the six-year term of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón.

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However, López Obrador’s proposal denotes a certain ignorance regarding criminal dynamics in Mexico. Large criminal organizations like the Knights Templar, Sinaloa Cartel, Zetas and the Familia Michoacana have fragmented after the death or arrest of their leaders. This prevents the possibility of negotiating with a single and clear figure. Moreover, any negotiations must also be seen as similar to those playing out in Colombia’s post-conflict peace process between the government and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).

Mexican cartels could potentially respond like some factions of Colombia’s armed groups, which have shown independence, a resistance to abandon their lucrative criminal activities and a willingness to continue using violence to maintain territorial control and protect their criminal enterprises. This all is taking place around the historic peace agreement signed by the Colombian government and FARC leaders in November 2016.

While some experts haven’t ruled out the possibility of an amnesty agreement, there is a general consensus that it should be rejected. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that Mexican drug cartel leaders want to leave the game in exchange for a pardon from authorities.

“It’s not clear what giving amnesty means,” Jorge Chabat, a professor of international studies at the Centre for Research and Economic Development (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas – CIDE), told InSight Crime. “There are many related crimes when talking about amnesty for drug traffickers. If you are thinking about amnesty for those who have killed and attacked people, that is something else. But if you are thinking about amnesty for people who have only trafficked drugs and haven’t participated in other crimes, that could be more viable.”

According to Chabat, it is difficult for society to accept an amnesty proposal for people who have been involved in hundreds of murders, adding that “suggesting amnesty for any crime creates difficulties with the victims.”

He also warned: “It is naive to think that drug trafficking leaders can be reincorporated [that quickly],” Chabat told InSight Crime.

On the other hand, the amnesty proposal comes just as Mexico’s lower house of congress and senate approved the Internal Security Law, which promises to give the armed forces a legal framework for its role in citizen security. This has increased the fear born out of the so-called war on drugs that Calderón declared against the country’s criminal groups in 2006. For this reason, the legislative project has been strongly questioned and rejected by civil society organizations and the United Nations.

The risk of this new law exacerbating the conflict is another concern that makes some researchers look positively at the possibility of amnesty, or at least the beginning of a debate for achieving peace.

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Tania Ramírez, a law professor and expert in drug policy and transitional justice, thinks it’s relevant to bring scenarios to the table that aim to end Mexico’s conflict.

“Although there is no war in Mexico, the number of those detained and murdered is quite high,” Ramírez told InSight Crime. “We are in a crisis of violence. This is important in the context of the security law being discussed, where the military is deployed on the street to carry out security tasks.”

“The reaction to the proposal to offer amnesty to the leaders of criminal groups surprises me because it is a term that is widely used in post-conflict situations. Transitional justice is possible in these cases. What I do believe is that crimes involving serious violations of human rights, crimes against humanity or genocide are not subject to amnesty in any way,” Ramírez added.

But the problem is much more complex. In March of 2017, InSight Crime reported on the increase in homicides in several of the 50 municipalities considered to be Mexico’s most violent as being related to organized crime. In addition, there is a clear relationship between the crackdown on organized crime groups and the increase in violence. Many of these groups have atomized and the resulting organizations that have emerged are now dedicated to kidnapping and extortion, and are responsible for many homicides.

“Most of the violence that is happening is between the criminal groups and should be treated from the perspective of public safety, with new plans and strategies,” Jaime López Aranda, a security analyst, told InSight Crime. “Any other proposal is poetry. [In Mexico] most of the people were direct or indirect victims of criminal organizations dedicated to criminal economic activities, which continue to prey on their communities.”

The cases of killings and displacements show how the cartels continue to be the primary generators of this violence. For López Aranda, it is reasonable to want to change the scope of public security in Mexico.

However, he warned that we must be “very careful when talking about peace and transitional justice.”

“One can think of the transitional when confrontations are at the political level, and the opposing forces have a political legitimacy. If one says that what is happening in Mexico is a war, then one is misunderstanding the criminal dynamics of the country and the violent confrontations,” he said.

The modification of drug trafficking regulations in Mexico, the reduction of sentences for criminals based on the crime committed and reparations for victims are other variables that also complicate this debate. There is more doubt than certainty about whether amnesty for cartel leaders would be the right way to reduce the violence generated by organized crime.

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