Mexico’s President-Elect Plans to End the Nation’s War on Drugs

Lambert here: Ending a war is always laudable, but those who profit from it will always be eager to share their feelings of loss with you.

By Phillip Smith, who has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. Smith is currently a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. Originally published at Alternet.

On July 1, leftist politician Andres Manuel López Obrador—often referred to with the acronymic AMLO—won the Mexican presidency in a landslide. When he takes office in December, with his party in control of both houses of the Mexican Congress, Mexico’s drug policies are likely to see some radical changes.

Just what AMLO does will have significant consequences on both sides of the border. His policies will impact how much heroin and cocaine make it to the streets of America, as well as how many Mexicans flee north to escape prohibition-related violence, and how much drug money flows back into Mexico, corrupting politicians, police, and the military.

That AMLO—and Mexico—wants change is no surprise. A vigorous campaign against the country’s powerful and violent drug trafficking organizations—the so-called cartels—unleashed by rightist president Felipe Calderon in 2006 brought the Mexican military into the fight, but instead of defeating the cartels, the campaign, still ongoing under President Enrique Pena Nieto, has instead led to record levels of corruption and violence.

In 2012, when both the U.S. and Mexico had presidential elections and the drug war death toll was around 15,000, Mexico’s drug prohibition-related violence was big news north of the border. But in the years since then, as U.S. attention to Mexico’s drug wars wavered, it’s only gotten worse. Last year, Mexico saw more than 30,000 murders, and the cumulative drug war toll in the past dozen years is more than 200,000 dead and tens of thousands of “disappeared.”

But the toll runs deeper than just a count of the casualties. The relentless drug war violence and the endemic corruption of police forces, politicians, and even sectors of the military by cartels have had a deeply corrosive effect on the citizenry and its belief in the ability of the country’s political institutions to address the problem.

López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, campaigned heavily on the need for change, especially around drug policy, corruption, and public safety. “Abrazos, no balazos” (“hugs, not gunfights”) was one of his favorite campaign slogans. AMLO campaigned cautiously, hammering away at crime, corruption, and violence and mentioning different drug policy-related changes, but not coming out with specific policy proposals. Still, from his own remarks and those of people who will be assuming key positions in his administration, we can begin to sketch an outline of what those policies may look like.

Marijuana Legalization

Mexico is one of the world’s largest marijuana producers (although the local industry has been taking a hit in recent years from completion north of the border), it has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of the herb, and it has legalized medical marijuana.

AMLO’s pick for interior minister, former Supreme Court official Olga Sánchez Cordero, has made no secret of her plans to seek full legalization and said last week that AMLO may seek a public referendum to gauge popular support for it. Why maintain pot prohibition when Canada and U.S. states are legalizing it, she said. “What are we thinking? Tell me. Killing ourselves. Really, keep on killing when… North America is decriminalizing?”

Drug Legalization

The possession of personal use amounts of all drugs has been decriminalized in Mexico since 2009, but that hasn’t stopped the violence. AMLO and his advisers say he is open to considering taking the next step and legalizing all drugs.

“We’ll analyze everything and explore all the avenues that will let us achieve peace. I don’t rule out anything, not even legalization — nothing,” AMLO told the New Yorker during the campaign.

“The war on drugs has failed,” wrote Sánchez Cordero. “Nothing contributes to peace by legislating on the basis of more criminal punishment and permanent confrontation. Violence is not fought with violence, as López Obrador rightly points out.”

Drug legalization would be a radical step, indeed. It probably isn’t going to happen under AMLO, since that would pit Mexico not only against the U.S., but also against the international anti-drug treaties that serve as the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. But he is putting the idea squarely on the table.


As a candidate, AMLO floated the idea of amnesty for those involved in the drug trade, a notion that created huge controversy and forced his campaign to clarify that it did not mean cutting deals with bloody-handed cartel leaders or their henchmen. Instead, his campaign clarified, he was referring to peasants growing drug crops and other low-level, non-violent workers in the illicit business.

“Kidnappers? No,” said Sánchez Cordero about possible amnesty recipients. “Who? The people working in rural areas, who are criminals because they work in the illegal drug business, but haven’t committed crimes such as murder or kidnapping.”

Demilitarization and Policing Reforms

For the past 12 years, the Mexican military has been called on to fight the cartels and suppress the drug trade. But the level of violence has only increased, the military is implicated in massive human rights violations (as can only be expected when a government resorts to soldiers to do police work), and finds itself subject to the same corrupting influences that have turned state and local police forces into virtual arms of the competing cartels.

With regard to cartel violence, AMLO repeatedly said on the campaign trail that “you don’t fight fire with fire” and that what was needed was not soldiers on the streets, but social and economic assistance for the country’s poor and unemployed—to give them options other than going to work for drug gangs. Just this week, AMLO announced a $5 billion package of scholarships and job training support for the young.

Still, AMLO isn’t going to send the soldiers back to the barracks immediately. Instead, says one of his security advisers, his goal is to do it over the next three years. He has also proposed replacing the military presence in the drug war with a 300,000-person National Guard, composed of both military and police, a notion that has been bruited by earlier administrations as a means of effectively replacing tainted state and local police participation.

Here, AMLO is not nearly as radical as with some of his other drug policy proposals. He as much as concedes that the bloody drug wars will continue.

“I’m not overwhelmed by any of it,” Eric L. Olson, an expert on Mexico and security at the Wilson Center in Washington, told the Washington Post. “It falls well within the norm for what other politicians have been saying.”

The U.S.-Mexico Relationship

Over the past couple of Mexican administrations, Mexican security agencies have cooperated closely with their U.S. counterparts in the DEA and FBI. It’s not clear whether that level of cooperation will be sustained under AMLO. When he was running for president in 2012, he called for blocking U.S. intelligence work in Mexico, but during this campaign, he insisted he wanted a strong relationship with the U.S. on security and trade issues.

While Mexico may chafe under the continued threats and insults of President Trump, it benefits from security cooperation with the U.S. and would like to see the U.S. do more, especially about the flow of guns south across the border.

“We are going to ask for the cooperation of the United States” on gun trafficking, said Alfonso Durazo, one of AMLO’s security advisers, repeating an ongoing refrain from Mexican politicians.

Mexico has also benefited from DEA intelligence that allowed it to kill or capture numerous cartel figures. But AMLO is a much pricklier personality than his predecessor, and between Trump’s racist Mexico- and immigrant-bashing and his imposition of tariffs on Mexican exports, U.S.-Mexico relations could be in for a bumpy few years. AMLO’s moves on changing drug policies at home are also likely to sustain fire from the White House, further inflaming tensions.

“The bottom line is he’s not going to fight the drug war in the way that it’s been fought in the last few decades,” David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego who is an expert on security issues in Mexico, told the Post. “That is potentially a huge change.”

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. Lord Koos

      Ugh, yeah I hope not. Legalization has been done in smaller countries like Portugal, Jamaica and Uruguay with beneficial effect.

      1. KFritz

        Portugal has NOT legalized drugs. Personal possession is an “administrative” offense, not a criminal offense. As per well referenced Wikipedia article.

        1. Tinky

          The only meaningful distinction is that technically, if one is caught using or possessing a small quantity of drugs for personal use (established by law, this should not exceed the quantity required or average individual consumption over a period of 10 days), where there is no suspicion of involvement in drug trafficking, he or she will be evaluated by a local Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, composed of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker.

          But need I really mention that the above is exceedingly rare? Drugs are, for all practical purposes, legal to consume. The main difference between Portugal and places where they are truly legal is that they cannot be legally sold.

  1. The Rev Kev

    At this point in time. Mexico has far more to lose doing the same sort of stuff that lead it into the situation it is in than trying something new. Perhaps he cannot make marijuana legal like is happening in the US but he might simply say that there will no longer be any prosecutions for having a joint as they cannot afford the court time and costs involved. This would be a start. It would be a matter of reassessing Mexico’s priorities to Mexican aims and ideals.

    1. Expat2uruguay

      The article says that small amounts of all drugs for personal use is not prosecuted under the law presently. Isn’t that the same as what you’re saying “would be a start”?

  2. Arizona Slim

    This paragraph bopped me over the head:

    With regard to cartel violence, AMLO repeatedly said on the campaign trail that “you don’t fight fire with fire” and that what was needed was not soldiers on the streets, but social and economic assistance for the country’s poor and unemployed—to give them options other than going to work for drug gangs. Just this week, AMLO announced a $5 billion package of scholarships and job training support for the young.

    What would happen if this trend came to the USA?

    1. jonst

      It would get laughed out of America. The same way it is going to get laughed out of Mexico. Hugs indeed. Go ahead, try it.

      1. Larry Coffield

        Yes, unlike civilized nations, we weaponized the drug war to be a feeder system for enslaving surplus labor. Unless poor people, especially blacks, tire of being mass incarcerated for expanding the prison slavocracy, we can keep on laughing.

  3. Carl

    I could be way off here, but I don’t see legalizing marijuana as a way of stopping the violence, since the cocaine and other hard drugs will continue to flow north. Maybe it’s a step towards legalizing all of it, but again, most of the violence has to do with the trafficking, not personal use. Flows of guns from the US? Yikes! Didn’t realize that was a thing.

    1. Expat2uruguay

      The idea is that legalization makes it no longer profitable for illegal drug trade. Here in Uruguay marijuana has been completely legalized and is grown and sold by the government, the first country in the world to do so. aside from buying it from the government, you can grow it legally or be part of a cooperative that grows it for the group. no matter which way you get the marijuana, you are a registered user with the government and your quantities are limited.

      The reason for the legalization was to deprive the drug traffickers of funding. The results are not in yet, it only became fully available legally this year.

      1. readerOfTeaLeaves

        I’ll add some statistics from Washington state, one of the original states to legalize marijuana, below.

        (maybe I should alter my screen name to ‘readerOf…NotThatKindOf…Leaves’…?

      2. readerOfTeaLeaves

        Current tax revenues being generated for a single U.S. state (Washington), now that pot legalization is in effect and products are sold in state-sanctioned, tax collecting businesses:

        Washington state collected a total of $319 million in legal marijuana income and license fees in fiscal year 2017, all but $4 million of it from the state’s marijuana excise, or sales tax. The data are in the Liquor and Cannabis Control Board’s FY 2017 Annual Report (p. 15).

        The report also shows that the marijuana revenues were more than $113 million that from liquor, and that the marijuana excise tax income to the state for fiscal 2017 of $319 million grew by almost $130 million from the prior year.[italics mine]

        IOW, a growing body of data suggests that the policy benefits of legalization are impressive and will only increase (although it’s hard to believe they’ll escalate at their current rate). The tax revenues are already producing benefits in US states that have adopted legalization, and no sane public official is going to forego those benefits.

        More at:

    2. John Zelnicker

      July 12, 2018 at 8:03 am

      The marijuana trade provides the cartels with the majority of their revenue. Eliminating that source of income should reduce the ability of the cartels to pay for the violence. To do this effectively, it is necessary to give citizens the right to grow their own cannabis crops and allow for farmers to grow for distribution through government sanctioned and taxed businesses, in addition to making possession legal.

  4. Tom Stone

    Carl, Google the ‘Gunwalker” program.
    A tone point the US DOJ was the largest supplier of guns to the Cartels, the exact number sold has never been revealed because “National Security:
    Those guns were linked to nearly 2,000 murders.

    1. Carl

      I was aware that the US trained the military folks who became Los Zetas, but the gun supplying was news to me. Thanks for the reference.

  5. Heraclitus

    Read Sam Quinones’ ‘Dream Land’ (2015). The most important Mexican drug producers are not a cartel. They’re from Nayarit, a small town of 21,000 and its surrounding villages. They are the ones–individual entrepreneurs–who discovered how to sell Mexican Black Tar heroin in rural areas in the United States. I believe that they, more than anyone else, are responsible for Donald Trump being elected President. The rural parts of Ohio have been as hard hit as any other part of the nation. But heroin use is now rampant in rural Michigan, Wisconsin, and lots of places Trump won. I think this is what pushed these communities over the edge and led millions of people who voted for Obama to vote for Trump.

    The Nayaritis don’t carry guns; they bring the drugs to their clients, rather than selling them on the street; they change cars every two months, and dealers every six months. They don’t go anywhere where there is an established cartel. Often, if their dealers were caught, they were simply deported, as they never had much in the way of drugs on them. US prosecutors are oriented towards big busts. They saw the Nayaritis as a nuisance, when they were really the most important thing happening.

    1. Lord Koos

      I don’t know the numbers on Mexican heroin, but Afghanistan is supplying something like 90% of the world’s supply. From what I’ve read, The marijuana biz is much larger in terms of $$ than is the Mexican heroin trade.

  6. Pym of Nantucket

    Prohibition taught the US everything you need to know about the effect of banning something people want – it was an unmitigated disaster and a foundational point for a lot of US organized crime. The willful denial of how much of a scam wars on drugs are is in plain sight. I guess what is surprising is how gullible people are when they vote for such policies. The enforcement/incarceration industry is the main beneficiary, as well as the shady edges of secret police forces which are highly leveraged by untraceable confiscated cash (in printed physical notes).

    What is also surprising is how opposite sides of the political spectrum don’t see the similarity in firearms and drugs, and that prohibition is a fool’s game. This is probably because supply side thinking is popular in spite of how ineffective it is.

    Reducing demand is the key, and has been exceptionally effective in harm reduction from tobacco world wide. Sadly, there are elements of our society who are fundamentally opposed to the public education and harm reduction programs needed to make dents in the death toll or in the damage to our society, be it from drugs or from guns. Clearly, the war on drugs is profitable for some well placed people and their lobbyists.

    1. fajensen

      Prohibition taught the US everything you need to know about the effect of banning something people want

      It also taught some people that with the right connections, one can set up a family dynasty with the money made from providing the banned substances – all the way to president.

      Once a billionaire, all criminal activity will be cleansed, Making enough money works like purgatory!

  7. Steven Greenberg

    Heraclitus. I don’t think millions of people who voted for Obama, voted for Trump. Millions of people who voted for Obama did not vote in 2016. Trump won with fewer votes than Romney got when he lost to Obama.

    1. tegnost

      millions who voted for the o man did not vote, and millions of people flipped
      13% of 62 million equals millions maybe you can cite alternative data,_2016
      fewer people voted, and many of those were voting to disrupt, while many others did not vote because why bother, the master class doesn’t give a damn about us (see deplorable, see hope and change, see bailing out the richest most truly deplorable cretins on wall st and beyond)

    2. Ginavon

      I voted for Obama and then found out how bad he was …then I voted for Trump there are tons of us who did do it.

      1. Arizona Slim

        I resemble that remark. Cast two votes for Obama, he made my personal economy a lot worse, so I cast my 2016 vote for Jill Stein.

        Yeah, it was a protest vote. But I didn’t see any better alternative.

  8. saylor

    Portugal made a big step years ago that has done nothing but show good results.

    If we spent 1/4 of what the U.S. budget for drug enforcement on social education and support we would not have this problem of demand being as large as it is.

    But in regards to crime, that only stops it on the street level (muggings, prostitution and break-ins)

    The big ‘shoot outs’ such as in Mexico really can only be stopped by basic legalization with government support of controlled supply.

    Unfortunately we have let the global drug cartels (not just in Mexico) become so rich that even with full legalization now, [they] would still wield tremendous influence. And legalization is not in their best interests.

    1. Newly Anonymous

      Hmm, not so sure about that. The rapid gearing up of legal cannabis cultivation, especially in Canada has some in the finance/ investment world suggesting a mid term oversupply, which will inevitably lead to falling prices. However, said cartels will probably just shift sideways to smack, coke and ice , where the profits are higher, the dose quantities are smaller, and addictive problems are much greater.
      As for Portugal, I visited for the first time last September, and knowing beforehand about their relatively long standing legalisation of previously illegal drugs, I was amazed to only smell one joint in three weeks and observe not one person “s… Faced” , or even close. This despite very high levels of unemployment, and spending time in both the gritty Fado district of Lisbon and the tourist hedonism of the Algarve.
      PS First law of Capitalism: constrict supply and up goes the price(and profits)

  9. Jack Parsons

    These were the least popular preso candidates for a very long time. There were a lot of ballots filled out Rep or Dem downballot, but with the President slot at the top empty, b/c people just could not bring themselves to poke it.

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