MEXICO CITY – Mexico comes from its deadliest year in recent history. Record levels of opioids and cocaine are confiscated en route to the United States. Mexico's army is patrolling cities across much of the country, with its navy busting doors in raids on drug cartel bosses.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the front runner-up to Sunday's presidential election, announces a gentler approach
" Abrazos, no balazos " – or "hugs, not shots" – was a campaign slogan.
The left-wing politician has pledged to alleviate poverty in order to solve the crisis of violence while maintaining a partnership with the United States. "You can not fight fire with fire," repeated López Obrador.
The next president's approach is likely to have far-reaching consequences on both sides of the border. It could affect how much heroin and other opiates circulate in American cities, how many Mexicans invade the United States while fleeing from violence, how much illicit drugs are flooding Mexican society and corrupting police and politicians.
In Mexico, with nearly 30,000 murders last year, violence has the highest statistics available in two decades. Traditional drug cartels are shattered into increasingly violent rival factions that, in addition to selling drugs, blackmail, kidnap, steal gas, and rob trains. During the election campaign, which included races for governors, congressmen and local lawmakers, around 1
"Uncertainty is the biggest problem in the country," said Marcos Fastlicht, a prominent businessman and one of six security consultants in López Obrador's team.
However, López Obrador's vague proposals have confused security experts on whether he represents a fundamental departure from the way former Mexican presidents have dealt with drugs and violence and whether he could weaken the security partnership with the United States. In the last two Mexican authorities, US authorities such as the drug agency and the FBI have worked particularly closely with their Mexican counterparts to hunt down drug dealers, provide intelligence and equipment, and gather on missions.
López Obrador is a longtime left-wing politician who has steadily moved into the center in recent years. Before the last elections in 2012, he called for the blocking of US intelligence in Mexico. However, in this campaign he called for a robust relationship with trade and security in the United States.
"I believe there will be continuity in security cooperation with the US government," said Jorge Chabat, a security expert and professor at the University of Guadalajara. "I have no doubt that he will reconsider the security cooperation, but I do not think there will be any real change."
Others say that profound changes are possible.
"The bottom line is that he is not going to fight the drug war as he has been fighting in recent decades," said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego, a security expert in Mexico. "This may be a big change."
López Obrador and his team of security advisors have pointed to extreme poverty as the ultimate source of Mexico's insecurity, saying that they will offer jobs and scholarships to recruit vulnerable Mexican youth away from cartels. The candidate also published the idea of an amnesty for those involved in the drug industry – a plan that sparked instant controversy, followed by assurances from his aides that he would limit himself to farmers who grow drug crops.
López Obrador has also opened the door to the legalization of drugs – so far Mexico has decriminalized the personal possession of small amounts of marijuana – and does not seem to be interested in preventing confrontation with the cartels. He called for the military to be turned off police work against drug gangs.
López Obrador, however, is not in a hurry to withdraw the military from the cities; according to one of his security advisors, his goal is to do so over three years. And he has proposed a new 300,000-man National Guard consisting of military and police, which will perform essentially the same work, but the campaign hopes with better coordination between security agencies.
In an election campaign in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa. Lopez Obrador said, "We will not just use force," New York magazine said , "We will analyze everything and explore all possibilities that bring us peace, I do not exclude anything, not even the legalization – nothing."
The opponents of López Obrador have picked up on his amnesty idea to paint him so eagerly, that he can release free criminals. "They want to forgive the Unforgivable," said Jose Antonio Meade, the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, during a debate on security issues.
López Obrador first raised the idea of an amnesty in December in the western state of Guerrero. Mexico's heroin-producing heartland.
After a turmoil, López Obrador and his advisers insisted that he should not release any violent criminals, but rather prevent the persecution of poor farmers who grow marijuana and opium poppy.
"Kidnapper? No," said Olga Sanchez Cordero, a former judge of the Supreme Court, who was selected to head the powerful Interior Ministry if López Obrador is elected, over possible amnesty receivers. "People who work in rural areas are criminals because they work in the illegal drug trade but have not committed crimes such as murder or abduction."
Security experts say many details still need to be clarified and regulated by law. Some see the idea as a continuation of a far-reaching judicial reform that has been implemented in Mexico over the past decade, trying to decriminalize minor drug offenses and solve more cases through mediation and restitution.
Others see little in an amnesty One way to reduce violence.
"It's a matter of justice, not a matter of security," said Francisco Rivas, director of the National Citizen Observatory, a security officer. "If a person has been forced into crime, we need to reopen those cases. [But] What we can not say is that the resumption of these cases or the amnesty of criminals will reduce violence."
López Obrador has proposed some changes who have echoes of other governments. His National Guard plan is similar to President Enrique Peña Nieto's program to create a new gendarmerie that has been widely criticized as being ineffective and unable to settle on a mission.
"I'm not overwhelmed," Eric Olson, an expert on Mexico and security at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said of Lopez Obrador's security plans. "It's quite the norm for what other politicians have said."
López Obrador's security advisors insist they want to maintain good cooperation with US security agencies, including the DEA. The DEA and other authorities often provide the information that leads to the arrest of high-ranking drug traffickers. Analysts say trimming Mexico would do more harm than the United States, and Mexico wants help with issues like ending the arms flow to Mexico.
"We will ask for US cooperation" Arms trading, said Alfonso Durazo, one of López Obrador's security advisers – a regular refrain from Mexican politicians.
The security relationship goes both ways: US authorities are helping their Mexican counterparts with narcotics, while Mexican authorities are helping the US government detain US Central American migrants. If relations between the López Obrador government and the Trump administration were strained, Mexico's cooperation could ease.
"López Obrador could easily order the security forces not to send immigrants from Central America and Mexico," said Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations. "And if they do that, the 2000 mile limit will be a leaky sieve."
President Trump has routinely criticized Mexico for drugs, crime and migration. López Obrador, a more militant personality than Peña Nieto, may have less patience with the US leader.
"If Trump feels vulnerable or he has to beat Mexico, then the conflict is almost inevitable," Shirk said. "That could be very, very bad in the next few years."
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.