Social investment, national guard and intelligence: Can Sheinbaum's security strategy in Mexico work?

Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico's new president, has broken the glass ceiling, there’s no doubt about that. What is less clear, however, is what will happen once the celebrations die down and the complex reality that her administration will have to address is laid bare: high rates of homicides and disappearances, the strengthening of criminal organisations across the country and a justice system that is unable to deal with them.

Text: Josefina Salomón  Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla 

“Attention to the root causes and zero impunity” is how Mexico’s new president-elect Claudia Sheinbaum summed up her security strategy in her first speech after securing nearly 60% of the vote in the largest election in Mexico’s history on 2 June.

Details on the approach that the MORENA candidate will take to security have been scarce throughout the campaign. What we know is that, following in the footsteps of her predecessor and political mentor Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the new administration will prioritise the consolidation of the National Guard – a militarised security force that replaced the federal police in 2019 -, social investment to address what are described as some of the causes of youth involvement in criminal organisations, and the country’s investigative capacity.

While Mexico’s security problems are not new, the task Sheinbaum will face is monumental to say the least. 

First on the list is the sky-high homicide rate, which although it has registered a drop, has reached record numbers over the past six years, according to the most recent report by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). Experts say the actual figures are likely to be even higher with an increasing number of deaths recorded as “without a cause” and enforced disappearances, estimated to be close to 100,000, on the rise. Other crimes closely linked to transnational criminal organisations, such as kidnappings and extortion, are also expanding.

Behind this violence are the hundreds of criminal organisations and small entities that have near total control in some areas of Mexico, in the face of institutions that are unable, or unwilling, to do anything to stop them. 

Tiziano Breda, associate coordinator of analysis for Latin America at ACLED, says there are three factors that explain the strength of criminal organisations, and how difficult it is to tackle them.

“First, the groups fighting for control of certain territories and illicit activities have multiplied. In addition, they have diversified their economic portfolio beyond drug trafficking and now control illegal mining, extortion, fuel theft, and this leads to a rise in the number of victims, which makes it more difficult to protect them. Finally, the criminal organisations that have been operating in the country for many decades have clearly penetrated all levels of the state, which is the biggest challenge,’ he explained to In.Visibles. 

Against this backdrop, is it possible for the “social investment-national guard-investigation” combo to work? Experts on criminal dynamics in Mexico have doubts about the “Sheinbaum Plan”. Here’s what they said:

“The intention was that by militarising security, they could have more territorial control and reduce corruption, but that hasn't happened. Now people have to protect themselves from drug traffickers and from the extortion of the National Guard.” Carlos Zazueta.

1. Expansión de la Guardia Nacional

La Guardia Nacional cuenta con unos 300.000 efectivos en todo el país y ha sido una de las principales herramientas del gobierno de AMLO para luchar contra el crimen organizado. Sheinbaum no solo le dará continuidad sino que prometió expandir la fuerza, concentrar personal en las zonas más violentas del país y fortalecer la coordinación institucional entre el nivel federal y de los estados. 

La nueva presidenta y su entorno confían en que podrán replicar la estrategia que implementaron en la Ciudad de México que contribuyó a la reducción de la tasa de homicidios durante su gestión entre diciembre de 2018 y junio de 2023.

El problema, dice Carlos Zazueta, abogado y experto en derechos humanos y seguridad, es que las estrategias para combatir el crimen son muy dependientes de los contextos y que, aun dentro de un mismo país, son difíciles de replicar. 

“Las realidades de cada localidad son distintas, incluyendo la capacidad de vigilar el territorio. La Ciudad de México, pese a que es gigante, es una ciudad y está claramente hiper vigilada con miles de cámaras. Y no es lo mismo que en el resto del territorio nacional, que puede ser complicado, agreste, con muchos lugares a donde no puedes entrar,” explica.

La Guardia Nacional, además, ha sido criticada por concentrar esfuerzos en vigilar a personas indocumentadas y cometer violaciones de derechos humanos, incluidas ejecuciones extrajudiciales y desapariciones.

“La intención era que, al militarizar la seguridad, podrían tener mayor control territorial y disminuir la corrupción, pero eso no ha ocurrido”, explica Zazueta. “Ha habido muchos abusos, masacres, ejecuciones, extrajudiciales, extorsiones. Con la Guardia Nacional no se han logrado cambiar los hábitos típicos de este tipo de operadores y ahora, con más herramientas, solo han logrado multiplicar la violencia. Ahora la gente se tiene que cuidar del narco y de la extorsión de la Guardia Nacional”. 

La expansión de esta fuerza se dio a la par del aumento del control territorial de las organizaciones criminales que en estados como Michoacán, Colima y Guerrero ya casi han tomado el rol del Estado, adoptando nuevas formas de ejercer la violencia, incluyendo por medio de desapariciones forzadas.

Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, investigadora del Instituto sobre Conflicto Global y Cooperación de la Universidad de California, dice que estas son una forma de violencia adicional que tiene como objetivo sembrar miedo y mostrar poder.

“Lograr desaparecer a una persona es, de alguna manera, un acto simbólico muy poderoso dentro de una comunidad y me parece que los niveles de impunidad que tenemos en el país también generan esta sensación de que tú puedes delinquir y no hay consecuencias”, explica. 

2. Addressing the Causes of Crime

Faced with the expanding control of criminal organisations and the government’s lack of capacity, or political will, to respond, some people took matters into their own hands. From small shopkeepers in Mexico City discussing how to deal with extortion to church members negotiating with narcos in Guerrero, everyone seems to be taking the initiative. 

During his six years in office, AMLO, meanwhile, has lined up his party behind the slogan “hugs, not bullets” that promotes an approach to security that, through investment in social programmes, aims to lure young people away from the arms of criminal organisations that recruit them as “cheap labour”.

The experts consulted say that, although investment in social programmes is positive and AMLO’s economic strategy has contributed to reducing poverty, this approach to security simplifies the problem – as well as the irony of promoting this programme alongside the expansion of militarisation. 

“What we’ve seen is that lack of income is not the only reason young people get involved with crime organisations, there are a number of factors at play and it’s important to address all of them,” says Farfán-Méndez. 

Zazueta explains that some of the other reasons are related to violence, people who are forced into the drug trade through threats to themselves and their families. 

“The government has to make interventions that fit every context. You can’t design two interventions and replicate them, you have to come up with 500 different ones. And that means that the president is not going to have control over everything and I don’t know if that is going to work,” he explains.

For other experts, such as Tiziado Breda, the challenge is to invest in long-term strategies without losing sight of the most urgent needs. 

“Security policies should always have violence prevention at their core, with job creation, improved services offered by the state, protection of citizens, education, infrastructure, but the big problem in Mexico is that while this can be done for the long term, the current violence needs to be addressed with concrete measures immediately, including attacking the impunity and corruption that allow criminal organisations to expand.”

"Security policies should always have violence prevention at their core, with job creation, improved services offered by the state, protection of citizens, education, infrastructure.” Tiziado Breda.

3. Intelligence, investigation and coordination

Another area Sheinbaum promises to prioritise is intelligence and investigation, tackling criminal organisations where it hurts them most: their ability to bring the money they generate from their illicit activities into licit markets. While this is not a new strategy, it has yet to be implemented effectively.

The task is essential but it will involve an uphill battle. Mexico’s institutional weaknesses, particularly in relation to corruption and inefficiency in the justice system, are so great that they have undermined attempts to tackle organised crime for decades. Among some of the main problems of the justice system are the lack of coordination between entities, the reliance on eyewitness testimony to solve cases, the excessive use of pre-trial detention and the links between politicians and judges. 

Zazueta, who has investigated human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings and disappearances in all corners of Mexico, says part of the challenge has to do with the resources invested in criminal investigation and the independence of some agencies. 

“There are no resources and that’s where you see the level of commitment the state has to this issue,” he explains. “There are times when prosecutors can’t go to an area where they need to investigate because they don’t get approval for travel expenses or because there are delays in coordinating with the police or the army to go somewhere in convoy. And that’s complicated because the states are very large, in some you can spend hours and hours on the road to get to a place and others where geographical access is difficult.”

“I think that, first of all, we have to have independent expert services, like a scientific centre that does the tests and gives the information to the Public Prosecutor’s Office because now they depend on the Public Prosecutor’s Office and that doesn’t work. For this to improve, there has to be much more control over what the Prosecutor’s Offices do, otherwise it’s not going to work” he explains. 

Farfán-Méndez, meanwhile, says that while investment in improving investigative capacity is crucial, there is also a need to improve public confidence in the system “people don’t report crimes because they see it as a waste of time. Rebuilding trust in those systems will take a long time and I don’t think it will be an issue only for Claudia’s administration. It will take many, many, years.”