Four Takeaways From Mexico’s Presidential Debate

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Mexico’s voters eager for practical solutions to tackle the country’s record-high homicide rate and its increasingly complex criminal dynamics were left waiting in vain as presidential candidates taking part in the first of three debates ahead of the July elections failed to signal any hopes for change.

Here are four takeaways on security and the fight against organized crime.

The Current Strategy Isn’t Working

Although homicides decreased after President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2012, 2017 was the most violent year in Mexico’s recent history. Violence has spread to new parts of the country, and ironically the capture and deaths of high-level drug traffickers has caused criminal organizations to fragment, generating more rivalries, conflicts and violence.

With so many problems, the candidates could pick and choose what to highlight. Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional – MORENA) party — a perennial contender for president widely known by his initials “AMLO” — emphasized the estimated 220,000 homicides and 33,000 missing people that have arisen since December 2006. José Antonio Meade, the candidate from the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI), added that impunity reigns.

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“The strategy isn’t working – we have to change it,” said Ricardo Anaya of the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional – PAN) during the debate.

The PAN candidate might have a hard time convincing voters he could do any better. Felipe Calderón of the PAN launched the bulwark of the current strategy when he took the presidency in December 2006. Not surprisingly, the only candidate not to criticize the government crackdown was independent candidate Margarita Zavala, Calderón’s wife.

No New Ideas

The opening question of the debate was how each candidate planned to bring down insecurity, but there were very few new ideas of any substance.

AMLO talked of the importance of bringing down poverty but in what has been a constant criticism, he failed to elaborate on the issue, or the controversial suggestion he made earlier this year to offer an amnesty to members of Mexico’s drug cartels. He was attacked by all the other candidates for such a proposition, and he failed to offer more details other than: “Amnesty doesn’t mean impunity.”

For their part, the other candidates didn’t do much better, offering vague proposals and meatless platitudes that included cleaning up and expanding the police and bringing down impunity. Meade talked about creating a new investigation agency, and Zavala proposed strengthening Mexico’s moral values.

Independent candidate Jaime Rodríguez, currently governor of the northern border state of Nuevo León and broadly known as “el Bronco,” raised the need to “change the security system,” and promised to consult experts for new ideas and bring in new technologies to fight crime should he become president.

The most concrete proposal came from Anaya, who emphasized the importance of “dismantling, not beheading” Mexico’s criminal cartels and gangs. He pointed to Italy as an example of how entire networks, rather than just their leaders, have been brought down by successful criminal investigations and intelligence.

His comments could be interpreted as a dig at the emphasis the last two administrations placed on netting cartel leaders, the most prominent of which is Joaquín Guzmán Loera alias “El Chapo,” who was recaptured by the current PRI administration after escaping a high-security Mexican prison for the second time in 2015. He is currently awaiting trial in the United States.

But Anaya failed to elaborate on how Mexico could advance from what is known as the kingpin strategy to bring down entire networks rather than just their leaders.

For his part, El Bronco had an idea: He promised to cut off the hands of corrupt politicians on the take and criminals, a suggestion that left one of the debate moderators open-mouthed in amazement.

Everyone but AMLO Is Against Amnesty

Each of the candidates took the opportunity during the debate to attack AMLO, who is currently the frontrunner in the polls to win July’s presidential vote. In terms of his security propositions, all made clear that they would be against offering any kind of amnesty to members of organized crime groups. “To suggest pardoning criminals is a crazy idea that will only generate more violence,” said Anaya.

AMLO, whose critics say he is naive, shot back at his political counterparts (and their financial overlords) calling criminal leaders “breast-feeding babies” compared to Mexico’s own political parties and institutions.

Importance of an Independent Attorney General

In what is a common (maybe even comical) refrain every election cycle, all of the candidates spoke of the importance of appointing an autonomous attorney general who would tackle corruption within all of the country’s political parties and institutions.

Amazingly, Mexico has been without a top prosecutor for six months. Raúl Cervantes Andrade stepped down in October 2017 after less than a year in the job as attorney general, and has yet to be replaced.

A perceived failure to properly investigate corruption scandals surrounding the presidential couple, as well as major failures around the official investigation into gross human rights violations related to organized crime and institutional corruption, have plagued Peña Nieto’s presidency.

In all, Mexicans watching and waiting for solutions to the country’s security crisis during the presidential debate must have been disappointed. With the possible exception of AMLO and El Bronco, all of the other candidates promised more of the same.

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