On October 17, Mexican security forces captured Ovidio Guzmán, the son of the notorious drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in the northwestern city of Culiacán. Three hours later, after a firefight with hundreds of members of the Sinaloa cartel that El Chapo formerly led, they released the younger Guzmán. It was a stunning capitulation on the part of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has pursued a policy of “hugs not bullets” in dealing with the country’s violent cartels.
Experts blamed poor planning for the botched capture. According to the Washington Post, Mexican security officials failed to obtain a warrant for Guzmán’s arrest prior to the operation, forcing a delay and allowing cartel members to consolidate their forces. “If this had been planned differently, perhaps we would have devoted more air support,” conceded Secretary of Defense Luis Cresencio Sandoval. Mexican authorities also chose not to coordinate with the United States — a break from the practice of recent administrations. Since 2006, American officials have been intimately involved in the war on Mexico’s criminal organizations. López Obrador’s decision to keep the United States out of the biggest such operation since 2016 signaled a dramatic shift in American involvement in Mexico’s drug war.
In 2006, then–Mexican president Felipe Calderón declared a war on the transnational criminal organizations operating in the country. The cartels had grown so violent that some American officials expressed fears Mexico could become a failed state. The following year, Calderon asked for assistance from the Bush administration — a request the Mexican government had previously hesitated to make due to concerns about foreign involvement in the country’s domestic affairs. Ultimately, the two sides agreed to a bilateral partnership called the Mérida Initiative. It was the first time Mexico had accepted foreign aid for national-security purposes, and was seen as symbolizing a new era of coordination between the U.S. and Mexico.
According to Alan Bersin, the former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the aim of the Mérida Initiative was to “systematically dismantle Mexico’s massive criminal syndicates.” The partnership involved direct military assistance — including sales of military aircraft and helicopters — as well as intelligence sharing, training programs for Mexican police and prosecutors, and border-security coordination. The U.S. pledged to tackle American firearm trafficking into Mexico and demand for drugs, while Mexico pledged to stem crime and corruption within its borders.
Since then, the U.S. has spent roughly $2 billion on the program, which the Obama administration broadened in 2013 around four pillars: (1) disrupting organized criminal groups, (2) institutionalizing the rule of law, (3) creating a 21st-century border, and (4) building strong and resilient communities. As part of this recalibration, American officials began providing training and technical assistance as Mexico transitioned to an accusatorial justice system, and providing equipment to forces on Mexico’s southern border. In an effort to meet the fourth pillar of the program’s expansion, the U.S. Agency for International Development oversees human-rights and crime-prevention initiatives in Mexico.
Though the bilateral cooperation facilitated the capture and incarceration of high-level targets, such as “El Chapo,” as well as increasing extraditions from Mexico to the U.S., cartel violence grew steadily. Experts such as the Congressional Research Service’s Clare Seelke say the “kingpin strategy,” which targets criminal leadership, has fueled cycles of violence, as diffuse criminal networks vie for territory and power. Despite these flaws, says Bersin, the strategy succeeded in turning an existential threat to Mexican national security into a local, albeit serious, law-enforcement concern. In short, he argues, a long-term, concerted decimation of criminal organizations was worth a short-term increase in violence.
But the strategy has fundamentally shifted since López Obrador took office. In August, the Mexican president said the Mérida Initiative “has not worked.” Rather than focusing on military or law-enforcement cooperation, López Obrador said Mexico and the U.S. should partner in developing the economies of southern Mexico and Central America. As part of his strategy of “hugs, not bullets,” he has committed to rooting out corruption, reforming drug policy, softening the penal system, and investing in at-risk youth. He has also called for decriminalizing drugs and focusing on treatment programs as part of his National Development Plan, which is short on details and eschews the immediate concern of transnational crime.
In Bersin’s view, “President López Obrador has let his ideology and sentiment overcome what a sound security policy ought to be predicated on.” The Mexican president has sidelined the navy — Mexico’s most effective force in combating drug cartels — in favor of a newfangled National Guard that is not yet prepared to confront transnational cartels. As a result, homicides in Mexico hit a record high last year of 29 per 100,000 people and show no signs of abating.
These decisions culminated in the release of Guzmán — a calamity reminiscent of the event that spurred Calderón to start the drug war in 2006, when members of La Familia Michoacan rolled five decapitated heads onto the dance floor of a nightclub in Uruapan. But whereas that event fostered increased cooperation with the U.S., the release of Guzmán will likely have the opposite effect: American officials will be less likely to share confidential intelligence with a Mexican administration that has shown no commitment to fighting organized crime.
To be sure, merely redoubling military efforts will not defeat the cartels, either. Eric Olson of the Wilson Center tells National Review that “Mexico has had large military deployments in the country’s most violent states for several years with negligible results.” Because local governments and police forces remain corrupt, decapitated cartels can continue to vie for power.
Instead, Olson says the U.S.–Mexico partnership should focus on institutionalizing the rule of law and building stronger, more resilient communities. Such a policy would entail routing corruption in local governments and professionalizing the country’s policy force. In tandem with a deeper understanding of criminal organizations’ business models and a focus on their financing, it would be more likely to stabilize Mexico than a military-focused strategy, Olson believes. “You can’t arrest your way out of this problem without dealing with corruption and the rule of law,” he says.
But without a receptive Mexican government, such initiatives will be difficult to effectuate. State Department officials have spent years training Mexican prosecutors and police officers, but that technical training has not been applied consistently due to a lack of political will on the Mexican side.
The one bright spot in the bilateral relationship of late has been coordination on immigration. In June, López Obrador agreed to deploy the National Guard to Mexico’s southern border to stem the flow of migrants from Central America, and his government has kept asylum seekers in Mexico while their legal cases proceed in the U.S. Between 2015 and 2018, Mexico apprehended more than 520,000 Central American migrants. Drug seizures in the country have also increased in recent years. But it’s the action on migration that has given López Obrador cover in discussions with the Trump administration, which is much more concerned about migration to the U.S. than about Mexico’s cartel problem.
To be sure, Mexico is not in a state of emergency. With violence geographically concentrated, the kinds of widespread calamities witnessed at the height of Colombia’s drug crisis have not materialized in our neighbor to the south. Businesses still operate rather smoothly despite high levels of violence, and the Mexican economy continues to grow. But if transnational criminal organizations continue to undermine Mexican authorities, the ensuing instability will hurt American businesses and workers, while fueling increased migration from Mexico.