What Does Mexico’s New President Mean for the Drug Cartels?

Andrés Manuel López Obrador delivers a victory speech on July 1 in Mexico City, Mexico.
Eloisa Sanchez/Getty Images

What Does Mexico’s New President Mean for the Drug Cartels?

Many people are optimistic that López Obrador’s election is a sign that Mexico’s drug war is at an end.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected Mexico’s president on July 1 in a landslide victory. According to a count conducted by the National Electoral Institute, López Obrador took roughly 53 percent of the vote, the first time since 1988 that a presidential candidate has been elected with an absolute majority. His left-wing political party, the National Regeneration Movement, is on track to win majorities in both houses of Mexico’s legislature.

López Obrador has boasted that his presidency will signal the start of Mexico’s fourth transformation, modeled after Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1810, the liberal reforms of 1867 and the Mexican Revolution of 1910. López Obrador’s populist victory certainly represents a major defeat for Mexico’s political establishment. However, it remains to be seen whether it means a defeat for Mexico’s drug cartels.

Drug trafficking networks employ 600,000 people in Mexico. These cartels take in between $19 billion and $29 billion annually, making them wealthy enough to field sizable armies. Approximately 15,000 trained fighters work for the cartels, which are equipped with drones, grenades, land mines, machine guns and even armored vehicles. All the cash and firepower equate to the drug lords controlling over 45 percent of Mexico, including the western mountain states and northern border states.

Over 239,000 people have been murdered in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels in 2006. Some blame cartel violence for over half of these homicides, and the situation is growing worse. Mexico is on track to pass 30,000 homicides this year, which would surpass last year’s record high of 29,168 murders. Cartel operatives are even killing government officials; 97 politicians and 48 political candidates have been murdered since last September.

President-elect López Obrador has promised to tackle violence and wipe out political corruption. To accomplish these goals, he has suggested rewriting the rules of the drug war and negotiating a ceasefire with the cartels.

“The failed strategy of combating insecurity and violence will change,” López Obrador said in his victory speech. “More than through the use of force, we will tend to the causes that give rise to insecurity and violence.”

So far, his proposals remain vague. But in April, he suggested granting amnesty to non-violent drug traffickers in a strategy he nicknamed “Hugs Not Bullets.” This strategy purports to reduce drug-related violence by creating jobs for young people instead of punishing them for their role in the drug trade.

“We are going to change this rotten, corrupt regime of injustices and privileges, and we are going to promote development,” he said during a rally in Mazatlan. “I can summarize it in one sentence: work, good salaries and hugs, not bullets. The people of Sinaloa are not bad by nature. It is that many have been forced to take the path of antisocial behavior, many have lost their future—especially the young. That will not happen anymore.”

The president-elect has also indicated that he is open to the possibility of legalizing certain drugs. “All topics should be analyzed,” he said in May at an event organized by several nongovernmental organizations. “Health is affected more by alcohol and tobacco than other drugs, and prohibiting these drugs creates more violence. Why not talk about it? And why not—if it’s what’s best for the country—approve it and implement it, listening to everyone’s input?”

In addition to amnesty and drug legalization, López Obrador is also considering negotiations with cartel leaders. “We’ll invite Pope Francis, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, representatives of international organizations … so that, with local experts and with the victims and families of the victims, we elaborate a joint plan to attain peace in this country,” he said at the same Dialogue for Peace and Justice event.

Many people across Mexico are optimistic that López Obrador’s election is a sign that their bloody war against the drug cartels is coming to an end. But the “Hugs Not Bullets” strategy represents a ceasefire at best. Mexico’s homicide rate may come down if the Mexican government stops antagonizing drug traffickers, but cartel bosses will still control half the country and will face less resistance. And if López Obrador’s socialist economic revival plan fails to lure young people away from criminal networks, his ceasefire may give the cartels valuable time to regroup and remilitarize.

“People have to be reasonable with their expectations,” a professor of Mexican history at Chico State University told Al-Jazeera. “The U.S. is not going to stop arms from crossing the border into Mexico, and the U.S. still has an insatiable appetite for drugs, so the drug traffickers are still going to control parts of the country, and a lot of people are still going to die.”

The roots of the drug war go much deeper than poverty. Approximately 25 million U.S. citizens and 4 million Mexican citizens use opium, heroin and other drugs in a vain attempt to fill a spiritual void in their lives. Such drug addiction is a sickness referred to in the Bible as pharmakeia, and it is listed as one of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-20. The King James translation renders this word as “witchcraft,” but a more exact rendering is actually “the use or the administering of drugs.”

Granting amnesty to drug traffickers, negotiating with cartel bosses, and implementing socialist economic polices will do nothing to weaken the cartels or heal the cancerous sickness of drug addiction spreading across Mexico and the United States. At best, these policies will only temporarily halt drug violence in Mexico while the cartels regroup. Drug-related violence is not a problem that will be solved by the National Palace in Mexico or the White House in the United States. It is a problem that must be solved in the 168 million households spread across Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

“Strong marriages build strong children,” Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry has written in his booklet No Freedom Without Law. “We need strong children who are not vulnerable to drugs. Why do children want to take drugs and destroy their minds? The mind is the only thing that really sets us apart from animals. What is lacking in their lives that would make them want to do that to themselves? Why even take a chance on something so destructive? Because their wills are so weakened, they must have something to fill the void their parents have left—in most cases. Of course, drugs don’t truly fill that void at all—they only bring people into slavery of the worst possible kind. Drug addiction destroys the will!”

If there isn’t repentance on a nationwide scale, the ripple effects of transgressing God’s law will continue to spread until the entire North American continent experiences such slavery.