Erna Paris is the author of From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale from Fifteenth-Century Spain and other books. She spends part of each year in Mexico.
In the history-soaked Spanish-colonial city of Guanajuato in central Mexico where my husband and I winter, life is ordinarily calm. Mariachis serenade diners in the central plaza of the town, and in the evening, couples parade about the garden in a last vestige of the Spanish paseo. The cobblestones and the blue and ochre houses speak their own magic. Four decades ago, my late parents built a home here and I have been returning ever since.
But just last week, a boy was shot not far from our house by members of a drug gang. Close by, four others were murdered for failing to pay “protection money.” Because impunity and corruption corrode this country from top to bottom, the culprits are unlikely to be arrested, let alone tried or jailed. The failure of law enforcement is an issue at the core of Mexico’s dire problems.
In a courtroom in distant Brooklyn, Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera – the leader of the notorious Sinaloa drug-trafficking cartel better known as El Chapo – was sentenced to prison last week for conspiracy to murder, drug trafficking, money laundering and other related crimes, barring the result of his lawyers’ planned pursuit of a new trial; at least five jurors ignored the judge’s orders to stay away from coverage about the case, Vice News has reported. But regardless, given the continuing market in the United States for illegal drugs, and billion-dollar revenues, Mexico’s rival cartels are not about to cease their operations.
So the question becomes: Will the major conviction of a kingpin that has defined a country matter in Mexico?
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the new President also known as AMLO, seems to think so, for he has understood that El Chapo is emblematic of his country’s woes, a symbol of its dysfunction. In the immediate aftermath of the conviction, Mr. Lopez Obrador made a bold attempt to redirect the conversation. He travelled to Sinaloa, the drug czar’s home territory, where high numbers of people are unemployed. Perversely, El Chapo had “helped” his community. He had hired locals into his trafficking network, making Sinaloa exceptionally dangerous; but he had also been beneficent, a hero of sorts. Songs were written in his praise. There was even a restaurant named in his honour.
In a speech to the people of the municipality of Badiraguato, Mr. Lopez Obrador did not stigmatize his audience of El Chapo followers: Instead, he presented the alternative of “peace and reconciliation.” He promised industry to create employment; he announced the building of a new highway, and, most importantly, a plan to build a university in the region. “The people of Badiraguato are good people; they are hard-working people,” he told the cheering crowd.
Mr. Lopez Obrador was elected with the largest majority in Mexican history. He is also the country’s first elected leftist, although he’s hard to pin down. He’s neither a Marxist, nor a revolutionary in the Latin American tradition. He is, however, a radical – with far-reaching strategies for change that may or may not succeed.
The challenges he has set for his administration are breathtakingly ambitious. They include an all-out offensive against violence, corruption and social inequality, the three horsemen of Mexican state failure. These are so endemic to the culture that victory is hard to imagine, but unlike other presidents, Mr. Lopez Obrador has no under-the-table debts to repay of the sort likely to maintain a corrupt status quo. For example, the notoriously corrupt teachers’ union leadership did not hand him votes, nor did other debased institutions such as the judiciary, according to Javier Corona Fernandez, a professor of philosophy and former rector of the Guanajuato campus of the University of Guanajuato. “He ran a populist campaign in which he told ordinary Mexicans that they deserved better,” Mr. Corona told me. “He also has the money and the constitutional power to act boldly.”
So what is the reality symbolized by El Chapo and his ilk, the culture Mr. Lopez Obrador wants to overturn?
To begin with, the statistics on violence are staggering. In 2018 alone, 33,341 people were murdered, the bloodiest year in more than two decades. According to government estimates, 40,000 people have disappeared; there are 26,000 unidentified bodies in the morgues and more than 1,100 burial sites in the country. “Our territory has become a huge clandestine grave," Alejandro Encinas, Mexico’s undersecretary for human rights, told The New York Times.
Because the efforts of previous governments to dismantle the drug cartels have been a spectacular failure, Mr. Lopez Obrador will shift his focus to public safety, to possible truth commissions to investigate unaddressed atrocities and to the granting of reparations for victims. To accountability, in other words. A new forensic institute known as the National Search System will begin operating in March that will include a database of those dead and missing.
Yet even as Mr. Lopez Obrador spoke of reconciliation, he proposed the creation of a National Guard composed of 60,000 military and civilian police on his first day in office. “The people of Mexico need their armed forces to address this grave problem of violence and insecurity right now,” he said. The idea alarmed human rights activists who worried about formally combining military and police functions; however, last month, in a victory for Mr. Lopez Obrador, the chamber of deputies approved the creation of a National Guard. This decision was confirmed unanimously by the Senate last Thursday – a sign of growing support.
As for social inequality, the President has promised to raise the minimum wage. Mexican salaries are the lowest in Latin America; and when the police, for example, are underpaid and undertrained, they risk becoming prey to corruption. The expectation is that in the National Guard, the already better paid and better trained military will oversee a better paid, and better trained, police.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador certainly has big dreams. But are they pie-in-the-sky?
The President has only a couple of months to put his public-security plan into place before he starts to lose support, Prof. Corona says, and there are obstacles. “The potential roadblocks are legal," he said. "Everything he wants to do must be debated in parliament and the outcome is unknown.”
Beyond the urgency of public safety and the necessary effort to reform corrupt institutions, two particular areas need immediate attention. The first is access to postsecondary education. The second is health care.
According to Prof. Corona, just 0.05 per cent of the federal budget is currently directed to education. As a result of underfunding, Mexico’s universities can accept only 30 per cent of applicants, meaning that the general level of education is low. Mr. Lopez Obrador’s goal is that no capable student should be refused access to higher education.
As for medical care, the system is an improvement over what existed prior to 2003, when only a small percentage of people were insured, but it remains fragmented, underfunded and corrupt; for example, 2018 audits revealed that more than 16 billion pesos ($1.1-billion) in federal health-care funding that had been transferred to state governments between 2013 and 2017 is unaccounted for. Mr. Lopez Obrador’s avowed model is the Canadian system of medicare.
One has to admire the ambitions of the new Mexican President, but the high expectations he has created are worrisome. The question of what might happen to his suffering country should he fail looms large since the other political parties are tainted.
“Are you optimistic that the Mexico symbolized by El Chapo will change?” I asked Prof. Corona.
“Not really,” he replied slowly. Like other Mexicans of my acquaintance, he is a realist; in fact, he was so discouraged by traditional Mexican politics that he did not vote in the past election. Nonetheless, he is clearly rooting for the bold visionary whose mission is to save his country.
Given what is at stake for the people of Mexico, Mr. Lopez Obrador deserves our support, too.