‘Abrazos no Balazos’—Evaluating AMLO’s Security Initiatives

December 1 marked the one-year anniversary of the beginning of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s tenure as president of Mexico. AMLO, as he is known, won the presidency in a landslide victory in July 2018 as the left-wing, nationalist answer to the political establishment’s inability to stem the country’s rampant security crisis. Exhausted by over a decade of violence and instability due to the government’s failed war on organized crime, Mexicans hoped that AMLO could finally reduce violence and increase security.
AMLO’s predecessors Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) and Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) took what are now considered failed approaches to combating organized crime in Mexico. Calderón implemented a kingpin strategy, which focused on taking out the most high-profile members of the cartels. This strategy backfired and only stoked violence in the country; instead of breaking down the cartels, they began to splinter, provoking violent internal power struggles. Peña Nieto continued the kingpin strategy but focused less on dismantling the cartels and more on reducing violence. However, homicides only increased during his tenure. Since Calderón declared the start of the Drug War in 2006, the number of large cartels increased from six in 2006 to nine in 2019 in addition to 24 medium-sized cartels and over 200 smaller organizations. AMLO has continually criticized his predecessors and the valid problems of their militarization of drug policy, including their refusal to yield on the kingpin strategy. However, to date, he has yet to offer a viable alternative to tackle the security problems he inherited.
During his campaign, AMLO coined the phrase “abrazos no balazos” (hugs not bullets) to describe his approach toward improving security in Mexico. Despite the catchy phrase, AMLO, during his campaign, failed to outline the policies he would enact to address the ongoing violence. One month before he took office, AMLO released his National Peace and Security Plan 2018-2024, which outlined his strategy for enhancing security. In it, he laid out several initiatives, including poverty-alleviation programs to provide alternatives to organized crime, the possible legalization of marijuana, and changes in sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking.
The policy that received the most attention, however, was the plan to create a National Guard that would pull soldiers and officers from the Navy, Army, and Federal Police and create a new security force to tackle organized crime in key areas across the country. As understood from the plan, the National Guard would be a short-term solution to the security crisis while the other longer-term solutions gained traction. Mexican human rights advocates expressed concerns about another military-oriented solution to combating security threats given the long history of human rights abuses at the hands of the military. AMLO agreed to allow civilian oversight of the National Guard five years after the plan’s implementation. Soon after the National Guard was officially established in June 2019, AMLO deployed most of its new forces to the southern border with Guatemala as part of an agreement between AMLO and President Trump to stop the flow of Central American migrants to the United States.
As originally announced, the National Peace and Security Plan combined hard and soft power solutions. Aside from the National Guard, the plan also outlined measures for the regulation of narcotics, the reallocation of funding from anti-drug trafficking efforts to detox and rehabilitation initiatives, and the promotion of both disarmament and the reintegration of criminals into society. While the plan was the most developed piece of security policy that the AMLO team had released, it provided little if any indication on how the administration would implement those policies. Nevertheless, AMLO has demonstrated that he is more willing than his predecessors to tackle Mexico’s security issues in a holistic way. He understands that ongoing issues of inequity, corruption, and bad public policies play a major role in creating conditions of insecurity in Mexico.
Nonetheless, the security situation in Mexico has continued to deteriorate over the past year. The first six months of 2019 were the most violent in Mexico’s recent history, with 17,608 people killed between January and June. The second half of 2019 has made headlines due to a series of high-profile incidents. The news coming out of Mexico in October and November read like that of a country in the throes of a civil war. In a single week in October, suspected cartel gunmen shot and killed 13 police officers in Michoacán, and 15 people were shot dead in a confrontation between members of the security forces and organized crime in Guerrero. On November 5, cartel members gunned down nine members of the LeBarón family, including six children, in Sonora. AMLO connected the recent events to the chronic violence he inherited from past administrations and refused to concede his own administration’s shortcomings.
The October 17 capture and subsequent release of one of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s sons, Ovidio Guzmán López, in Culiacán, the capital of the state of Sinaloa, exemplifies the challenges in AMLO’s security policy. Almost immediately after detaining the younger Guzmán, one of the heirs apparent of the Sinaloa Cartel, approximately 375 sicarios (cartel hitmen) in 78 vehicles descended on the city to fight for his release. Soon after, the government released him to avoid further bloodshed. Even while AMLO defended the cartel leader’s release because “you can’t put out a fire with fire,” it was obvious to the citizens of Culiacán, as well as the rest of Mexico, who was in control of security. When considered alongside the earlier acts of violence, it becomes clear that the government’s strategy of attempting to negotiate with organized crime is failing. The failure in Culiacán sent a loud message to other organized criminal networks, including the increasingly powerful and very violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel, that if they show up to a fight with enough firepower, they will win. It also explains the recent spike in the formation of so-called auto-defensas, local self-defense militia groups stepping in for absent law enforcement in places such as Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Michoacán, and Guerrero.   
During his first year in office, AMLO’s principle explanation of the country’s rampant violence has been to blame the ineffective policies of previous administrations. This is not an effective way to approach the problem nor is it a persuasive defense of his government’s own actions that have had little, if any, result to date. The escalation of violence, in tandem with high levels of corruption and impunity, require the president to develop more concrete solutions than an amorphous negotiation and a call on organized crime to lay down their weapons.
Despite the disturbing events of the past few months, AMLO’s approval ratings are still robust. However, if AMLO wants to ensure any measure of success for his administration over the next five years, he should implement tangible reforms focused in three major areas:


Mexico’s judicial branch has long been plagued by impunity, corruption, and mismanagement even before the start of the Drug War. To appreciate the scale of these problems, we need only know that conviction rates for crimes stand at about 2-3 percent, which is shockingly low and demonstrates the degree to which this key institution has been undermined. Over the past 12 years, the government arrested 233 high level members of organized crime, yet only 13 were ever sentenced to prison. Some of Mexico’s judicial troubles may be attributable to endemic corruption, reflected most recently in the resignation of former attorney general and National Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza because of corruption allegations. Other problems are due to outdated and burdensome procedures that are not conducive to cooperation among branches of law enforcement that depend on speedier requirements to address on-the-ground needs of criminal investigations. Even more discouraging is the fact that the Mexican Senate is poised to decriminalize marijuana as an attempt to address the escalating violence. While it is true that the rates of drug consumption in Mexico are increasing, they are still low especially compared to the United States, which is overwhelmingly responsible for the demand of narcotics coming from Mexico. Such decriminalization will perhaps lessen the burden on an already-stretched judicial system, but it will not lessen the country’s security crisis. So far, AMLO has placed a great deal of emphasis on decriminalizing marijuana to help an overburdened judiciary, but it is unclear if this reform will have any impact on the level of violence in Mexico. Nevertheless, strengthening the judiciary should be undertaken with a multipronged effort that includes greater resources, training, and staffing of its institutions to ensure it can adequately meet the needs of law enforcement while addressing longstanding problems of corruption and impunity.


The scale of the crisis AMLO inherited suggested his security cabinet would place key importance on effectively coordinating intelligence gathering to allow law enforcement to act more effectively on real-time information. This coordination has yet to happen and is a clear deficit in his overall security strategy. In October, AMLO’s cabinet released, ostensibly by accident, the name of the leader of the military’s Grupo de Análisis de Información del Narcotráfico, placing the individual and his family at risk. This leak demonstrates a lack of coordination in the intelligence community that AMLO should address. The role of such coordination would fall on the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI), the successor to the Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (CISEN). The CNI emerged in 2013 to revamp and modernize intelligence services. However, the CNI, like CISEN in its last 10 years of existence, has yet to establish itself as the authority on such matters. Both bodies have been criticized for not following through on the promises to provide accurate, up-to-date, and actionable information on organized crime. They lacked the necessary technology and funding to train agents to fulfill their mission. Moreover, their mandates tended to be overshadowed by other security initiatives, including the creation of the Gendarmerie under Peña Nieto and now the National Guard under AMLO.
Whether it be under the mandate of an emboldened CNI or another coordinating body, intelligence gathering and its use should be more dedicated and holistic than it was under CISEN. Expanded financial intelligence units, for example, should work alongside security-related units to ensure a fuller picture of how organized crime groups mobilize across territory and industries. Rather than sidelining intelligence gathering, AMLO should place a premium on such practices to support the work of the National Guard. Such a comprehensive and coordinated approach further recognizes that organized crime has diversified its activities beyond drug trafficking to include a range of illicit and semi-illicit activities, such as human trafficking and the resale of hydrocarbons.  

Security Strategy

While AMLO’s security cabinet develops a comprehensive security plan, his government would be well-advised to focus on more specific crimes that are affecting a vast number of Mexicans. Extortion, for example, is wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of small- and medium-business owners in a range of locales, such as Celaya and Tijuana, that have recently witnessed escalating levels of violence. Confronting extortion as a discrete problem distinct from wholesale organized crime or drug trafficking would focus the efforts of law enforcement on more specific and ostensibly more manageable targets. Although extortion fits into the broader web of organized crime, such a targeted approach would net high visibility among the society and would make use of a scaled allocation of available resources.    
It is true that AMLO inherited a crisis born out of years of mismanagement and poor decisionmaking. Mexico also lacks many of the tools necessary to tackle the security crisis, such as strong judicial institutions to ensure the rule of law. Though laudable, many of AMLO’s proposals, including narcotic decriminalization and a greater focus on poverty initiatives, are not enough to address the magnitude of the crisis. These should be part of a coordinated, multiprong approach that includes a strategic focus on improving the government’s intelligence capabilities, the use of the National Guard to target organized crime, deeper judicial reforms, and a focus on extortion-reducing initiatives. In addition, AMLO should reach out in a more concrete manner to the international community, including generating a more committed focus from Washington, Ottawa, and beyond. AMLO might consider establishing an international commission against corruption like the recently defunct, UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which set the benchmark for what such an international commission could do. Having international actors on the ground would help AMLO allay ongoing distrust of law enforcement, deep-seated impunity, and corruption. 
Despite his failures to register real improvements on the security front, AMLO’s approval ratings have remained high, hovering around 60 percent over the past year. Many Mexicans have strong faith that AMLO can deliver on his promises in the next five years. However, his approval ratings dropped to below 60 percent for the first time during his tenure after the LeBarón family murders and are now at 58 percent. This drop signals that AMLO’s support may not be as enduring as he thought and could move him to adjust his security strategy and to define and implement concrete proposals to effectively address Mexico’s high levels of violence. Ultimately, with five years left in office, AMLO has time to undertake serious new policy initiatives and changes. He can turn Mexico away from the violence its citizens have endured for over a decade. But this will require a deliberate, sustained, and much more serious effort than he has put forward in his first year.
Linnea Sandin is associate director and associate fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Gladys McCormick is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Americas Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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Linnea Sandin