Mexican President-Elect López Obrador and the Drug Cartels—Peace in 2019?


The purpose of this article to postulate if Mexican President Elect Andrés López Obrador’s policy of amnesty to the drug cartels will likely to result a decrease in cartel power and an increase in stability for Mexico. Until 2006, Mexican presidents had a hands-off approach to drug cartels. In 2006, the policy changed due a number of factors discussed below. López Obrador would like to go back to a modified pre-2006 approach to dealing with the cartels. However, López Obrador’s “Back to the Future” policy vis a vis the cartels will likely falter given the increased power of the cartels and the example of failed amnesty policies of its Central American neighbor--El Salvador.

Historical Overview

Drug trafficking has been prevalent in Mexico since the turn of the 20 th century but did not escalate until the 1990s with the successful interdiction by the U.S. military and law enforcement of routes used by Colombian cartels through the Caribbean into Florida and other locations on the Eastern Seaboard. The Colombians were forced to find other routes to market cocaine and other drugs and the logical route was through Central America to Mexico and then to the United States. During the 1990s and into the 2000s, Mexican transnational criminal organizations began to dominate the lucrative drug so by the mid-2000s were able to dictate the terms of the trade to their Colombia suppliers.

Before 2006, for the most part Mexican authorities turned a blind eye to the drug trafficking. An informal agreement between the transnational criminal organizations and the government meant that the traffickers could operate with little government interference. In most cases there were massive bribes by the transnational criminal organizations at the Mexican national, state, and local level to ensure safe passage. However, as the drug trade became increasing lucrative, there was an escalation in violence between rival Mexican transnational criminal organizations that began to have a great effect on the local populace.

In 2006, with the ascension of Felipe Calderón into office, the new President made it clear he would enforce Mexican drug laws. He could not rely on local police to enforce the law because of corruption and the fact that the transnational criminal organizations were better armed than the police. As a result, he deployed the military to the various areas of Mexico where drug trafficking and violence were the worst. He demolished the corrupt Agencia Federal de Investigacion, or Federal Agency of Investigation, and began the Policia Federal with newer, younger recruits set to fight corruption. The transnational criminal organizations responded to these attacks as a “call to arms” and a breaking of historical informal arrangements and responded with increasing attacks on police, military and government officials at all levels. Local civilians were caught up in this violence that resulted in unprecedented murder rates.

In 2012, the Mexican populace elected Enrique Peña Nieto of the traditional Institutional Revolutionary Party (known as the PRI). There was some thought that he would back away from his predecessor’s policies against the transnational criminal organizations. However, he kept the military in place and stayed the course set by Felipe Calderón. The Mexican legal system to deal with drug cartels remains largely inefficient with only 25 percent of the crimes effectively investigated and only two percent resulting in conviction. The ineptitude of the system results from lack of funding and training, low morale and corruption and intimidation of judges and prosecutors by the transnational criminal organizations.

López Obrador’s proposed policies and lessons from El Salvador

“Peace and reconciliation to our country” are two general goals López Obrador and his new head of public security, Alfonso Durazo. They believe that cartels can be diminished by granting amnesty to those not involved in human rights abuses such as kidnapping, torture and murder. In effect, lower level cartel members would be pried away from their bosses. In addition, the new administration plans to move to a strong counter-money laundering and corruption emphasis and increasing the salaries and training of local police. The hope here is that with the amnesty in particular, cartels can be brought under control [1].

One might draw comparisons between López Obrador’s approach and the amnesty program put in place by El Salvador’s President, Mauricio Funes, in 2012. By the end of 2011, Funes concluded that heavy-handed nature of dealing with the gangs such as MS-13 and M18 needed to be changed. In March 2012, he brokered a truce between the gangs and the government and granted wide ranging concessions which included withdrawing of police and army troops from gang controlled areas.

In evaluating the effectiveness of the truce, analysts noted that the gangs became stronger given the decreased pressure from the government. One of the major shifts was that the gangs became aware of the potential to exercise real political influence based on territorial control, armed power, and access to increasing resources. In addition, the gangs, given the reprieve, consolidated their ties with Mexican drug cartels from a position of increasing strength [2].

Mauricio Funes’ successor, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, realized that the truce was not working and declared war on the gangs again in 2016. This has resulted in open warfare and El Salvador once again became one of the most violent country outside of a recognized war zone though, the monthly average of some 440 homicides not far below the monthly average of 521 victims during the country’s civil war [3].


Clearly, López Obrador cannot go back to the “blind-eye” pre-2006 approach. When the Colombians were forced to find other routes to market cocaine in the 2000s the Mexican transnational criminal organizations began to dominate the lucrative drug trade and grew in power. A 2019 amnesty or a truce will likely make the cartels stronger by giving them breathing space to regroup and consolidate their power much in the same way M18 and MS-13 did in El Salvador. The Mexican cartels have been curiously silent in reacting to López Obrador’s proposals. It is likely that they see the amnesty offer as advantageous—giving them reprieve from the continual pressure on their operations from the Mexican government over the last 12 years. Any such move in their mind is good policy.


[1] Plevin, Rebecca. “Incoming López Obrador Administration Promises to End Mexican Cartel Violence with Peace Tour.” Desert Sun, Palm Springs Desert Sun, 24 Sept. 2018,

[2] Voice of America, “Gang Warfare Pushes Death Rate to Record,” January 25, 2016. Available on line

[3] See for example: “Rise of the Salvatrucha: World’s most feared and vicious gang is expanding with ambitions to commit the most murders” January 7, 2017. Accessed at:.

About The Author

Robert Kirkland, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and operational Latin American Foreign Area Officer. He has a B.S. from the United States Military Academy, West Point and Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Pittsburgh. He also has a graduate certificate in Latin American Studies from the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He has provided expert testimony on drug cartel and gang violence in Mexico and Central America since his retirement from the Army in 2014. He can be reached at

Duncan Breda, B.S. , has a degree in criminology from Saint Edwards University in Austin, Texas.