Last month, Mexico’s government began the formal transition to its new administration. In July Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) won the first outright majority in a presidential race since 1988, carrying 31 out of the country’s 32 states, Obrador ran on a MORENA party platform, atop the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition, composed of other leftist groups such as the Labor Party and the Social Encounter Party. Despite the efforts of the PRI and PAN political parties to convince voters that an Obrador victory would move Mexico down a Venezuelan path, voters responded positively to his “Mexico first” style promises.
Make amnesty, not war
Obrador has vowed to reshape Mexico’s drug war, advancing a controversial strategy against the cartels that would afford kingpins amnesty in exchange for peace. This would move Mexico away from the traditional counter-narcotics strategy, which is supported by the US through the decade-old Merida Initiative. Under the approach, Washington provides direct aid to Mexican-led efforts to fight organized crime and drug trafficking. Obrador has argued that the modern-day militarized drug fight has failed to stop narcotics smuggling and violence, and does not address the poverty that leads many to the drug trade. Olga Sanchez, the new administration’s proposed interior minister, has suggested the new approach will differ “in combat, in social policy, in drug policy, [and] in politics.”
Transitional justice is an integral part of the incoming government’s security strategy, which would involve leniency for those who plead guilty, truth commissions to investigate atrocities, and reparations for some victims. Offenders would see reduced jail time, but be subject to the imposition of stricter weapons controls to gradually demilitarize cartels. Anti-corruption initiatives in the ports and stricter customs controls would stop illegal drugs and weapons from entering the country.
The new strategy against the cartels is evident in the announcement of a joint US-Mexico team based in Chicago, which will target the leaders and finances of drug cartels shipping opioids into the US. The step represents a demilitarizing of Mexico’s war on drugs, by simultaneously addressing the demand-side of the trade. Other evidence of demilitarization include removing the military from policing the streets, instead professionalizing local forces to handle sophisticated criminal gangs.
Letter to El Norte
Obrador’s warning that no one will threaten Mexico with building a wall on its northern border was rightly characterized as a statement aimed at President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Yet that assessment overlooks the fact that preventing migration will be a key priority of the new administration. Obrador has spoken of the importance of ensuring that Mexicans do not feel forced to migrate because of poverty or violence. His plan for doing so rests heavily on his belief that reduced corruption will lead to increased investment, re-energizing Mexico’s agriculture and energy industries, and financing improved education and healthcare. Investment in public works, such as railways and re-planted agricultural and timber fields, is intended to restore Mexico’s economic health through ecology. Yet Obrador also has strong views on the role to be played by the US. Highlighting the role that Central American countries play in Mexico’s emigration problem, he has urged Washington to include them in a regional development plan.
Trade-wise, Mexico has been an increasingly important export market for the US, and securing continued access to American marketplaces was a crucial objective for Mexican industrial groups. On Monday, August 27th, the US and Mexico reached a bilateral deal regarding adjustments to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The new consensus involves issues as varied as automobiles, dispute settlement, and and agricultural issues. Concerning the automobile industry, the new deal requires 75% of the value of a vehicle to be produced in the North American region. This is an increase from NAFTA’s original threshold of 62.5%. The pact also requires greater use of North American steel aluminum, glass, and plastic than the original agreement, which would only benefit the two nations’ machine industries. Mexico and the US also agreed to eliminate a settlement system for anti-dumping disputes originally written into the original NAFTA text. This could pressure Canada to make concessions on its own Chapter 19 policies. Additionally, the deal contains enforceable labor provisions that will require Mexico to adhere to International Labor Organization (ILO) standards. This should drive Mexican wages higher, and lessen the country’s draw as a place for labor-intensive investment. The move could also translate into more robust Mexican consumer demand over time. Agriculturally, the revised-NAFTA terms allow the US to remain tariff-free for Mexican farmers, who remain America’s biggest suppliers of agricultural produce. This should keep food costs low in the US, and help maintain one of Mexico’s largest industries.
So far so good
Mexican-American relations remain hostage to the promises of their respective governments. Obrador’s campaign promises for Mexico will be expensive to keep and Trump’s own statements mean that the construction of a wall on the US’ southern border will remain a live political issue. At the same time, the fact that the American and Mexican administrations have been able to maintain harmony despite significant policy change has surprised observers. After a period of rhetorical claim and counter claim, that augurs will for improved bilateral relations.