How Will Mexico’s President-Elect Impact the Drug War?

June 7, 2024

On June 2, Mexico decisively elected Claudia Sheinbaum as its next president. Once she takes office on October 1, she’ll be the first woman to lead the country. Formerly mayor of Mexico City, Sheinbaum also has a background as a scientist, and contributed to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She represents the left-wing Morena party, home to current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who is term-limited.

Sheinbaum will face a challenging array of issues related to drugs, including how to approach harm reduction and treatment, corruption and violence among law enforcement and trafficking groups, and the US border. What is she likely to do?

Samantha Pérez Dávila is an assistant policy analyst and PhD Student at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Her previous roles include executive coordinator of the drug policy program at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, managing projects including research on drug policy and violence.

She said that while Sheinbaum has shown rhetorical support for harm reduction—and focusing on targeting demand rather than supply of drugs—details are so far scarce, and some indications are troubling. She believes that one of Sheinbaum’s ideas—placing the National Guard under full military command—could be very harmful. Filter asked her more about her thoughts on the president-elect; our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

 

Alexander Lekhtman: Do you read the election result as an endorsement of AMLO and his legacy? 

Samantha Pérez Dávila: I think you could see it as voters showing support for Morena. It has a strong majority in Congress, meaning the party and its allies can pass as many reforms as it wants. This is the first time in Mexico the president will have a Congress very aligned with it. Sheinbaum has presented herself as a continuation of the Morena project and its transformation. Her proposals are very aligned with AMLO’s. One of AMLO’s goals before he leaves office is reforming the judiciary, and Sheinbaum also supports that.

If you carry a certain amount or type of substance, you can go to jail without trial. We have 60,000 people in pretrial detention. Sheinbaum said she wants to keep this, and increase the list of allowable felonies.

 

 AL: What is Sheinbaum’s drug policy plan?

SPD: She hasn’t [made] a strong statement regarding drug policy. During her campaign when she was asked about organized crime, she said she would focus more on “demand” than on the “supply” side. She has said she will continue by focusing on prevention programs, and mentioned harm reduction.

It’s not clear if that will be a continuation of AMLO’s policies; what this means in practice is a campaign that is very stigmatizing. Mexico has a long history of irregularities in treatment centers. There are a lot of treatment centers that operate without authorization, there’s no basis in science or evidence, and sometimes documented human rights violations. There has been no attempt to document these, and have a proper registry and certification process for treatment centers.

Under the “narcomenudeo” reforms adopted in 2009, Mexico created a list of felonies, many of them related to drug use. It makes it harder for you to be detained for something like a small joint, for example. But if you carry a certain amount or type of substance, you can go to jail without a trial or sentence. We have approximately 60,000 people in jail in pretrial detention. Sheinbaum said she wants to keep this in place, and increase the list of allowable felonies.

 

AL: How severe are drug-related problems like overdose in Mexico?

SPD: It’s hard to have a clear picture. Mexico hasn’t held a use survey since 2016. The government health ministry conducted one survey last year, but it wasn’t public. We do not know what the situation is, what [is the] prevalence for any substances. Civil society groups have managed to get the Supreme Court to order the government to conduct a survey, but that hasn’t been announced.

There are some documented cases of synthetic opioid users in the north closer to the border, and cases of fentanyl users being hospitalized or seeking support from treatment centers. We don’t have the same magnitude of [overdose] problem as in the United States, but it’s an important topic.

 

AL: The Biden and AMLO administrations have clashed repeatedly over the issue of fentanyl crossing the border. What is Sheinbaum’s plan regarding the fentanyl trade?

SPD: AMLO said that Mexico does not produce fentanyl; he denied that it is produced, and his recommendation was to prohibit medical fentanyl. Sheinbaum hasn’t said if she agrees with that, but in her organized crime proposal she has spoken about addressing the financial sources of organized crime. She wants to focus more on intelligence and investigation, and having the financial crime unit be more connected with prosecuting agencies and the security ministry. It will be a huge issue because there have been documented fentanyl labs in Mexico. It would be hard for her to deny Mexico is part of the production and distribution process.

 

“Historically the Mexican military has been involved in many atrocities and human rights violations, and we are continuing to see this behavior. I think it would be a terrible idea.”

AL: Sheinbaum has said she may put Mexico’s National Guard under full military control. What do you see as wrong about this idea?

We have a huge problem in terms of the function given to the National Guard. On paper it’s supposed to be a “civil” institution, but in practice it’s military. About 80 percent of its members are military-trained, and there hasn’t been any training for them to conduct normal police functions and engage with civilians.

Historically the Mexican military has been involved in many atrocities and human rights violations, and we are continuing to see this behavior. She hasn’t put forth any plan that would really civilianize the National Guard, and actually was very clear that she wants it to have military command. She’s either going to continue having it operate in a gray legal area, or she will consolidate it by transferring it from the public security ministry to the Secretariat of National Defense. The concern is, she will have a majority in Congress to do so.

I think it would be a terrible idea. The problem is military training is very different from police training. We’re asking soldiers to do citizen security … Our police has military training, and our prosecutors don’t have capacity to do appropriate investigations. We have a huge problem of not having the right people with the correct training to do their jobs.

 

Mexico suffered from a heavily militarized approach against drug trafficking groups adopted in the mid-2000s. How did AMLO change that, and what is Sheinbaum’s plan?

Her approach is very similar to AMLO’s. His approach was “abrazos, no balazos”—hugs, not bullets. It was a non-confrontational strategy. She has proposed continuing two of his programs. The first is “Youth Building the Future,” which offers a minimum wage to young people to go through one year of job training. It is meant to prevent them being recruited by criminal groups and [give them] employment opportunities. The second is “Sembrando Vida” [Sowing Life], which is a crop substitution program.

But these programs haven’t been evaluated. We have no evidence if they’re working. Are youth being trained, and does it make them more employable? We also don’t know if crop substitution is beneficial to farmers. There have been cases around the world where this has hurt farmers because they make less money, or their land is not suited for growing other crops.

 

 


Photograph of Claudia Sheinbaum in 2020 by Maritza Ríos/culture secretary of Mexico City via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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