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Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 13, Nº. 1 (May-October 2022)
117
THE DESECURITIZATION OF DRUG TRAFFICKING IN MEXICO UNDER THE AMLO
ADMINISTRATION
LUIS MIGUEL MORALES MEZ
lmoralesgamez@gmail.com
PhD specialized on Security and policy on the drug trafficking combat in Mexico. Expert in
strategies for crime and violence prevention in Mexico. Lead researcher with numerous
publications focused in citizen security, police reforms with politically- sensitive awareness
(Mexico). In-depth knowledge of bilateral relations US-Mexico citizen security policies, conducting
several research projects in collaboration with US universities as a guest researcher. He has work
experience as a political advisor and auditor, project management in academic research projects,
and public policy strategic projects.
Abstract
The present paper analyzes, from the perspective of desecuritization theory, the manner in
which Andrés Manuel pez Obrador (AMLO) changed the policy of the Mexican government
for tackling drug trafficking in the country from a military to a social approach. The aim is to
establish whether this strategy has been successful in comparison with the open war waged
against the drug cartels over the twelve years preceding the AMLO administration. Given that
this desecuritization strategy resulted from political decision-making rather than social
pressure, the analysis presented here focuses on the President’s position and the actions he
has taken.
Keywords
Securitization; desecuritization; drug trafficking; Mexico; violence; military.
How to cite this article
Gámez, Luis Miguel Morales (2022). The desecuritization of drug trafficking in Mexico under
the AMLO administration. In Janus.net, e-journal of international relations. Vol13, Nº. 1, May-
October 2022. Consulted [online] on the date of the last visit, https://doi.org/10.26619/1647-
7251.13.1.8
Article received on October 10, 2021 and accepted for publication on March 14, 2022
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 13, Nº. 1 (May-October 2022), pp. 117-134
The desecuritization of drug trafficking in Mexico under the AMLO administration
Luis Miguel Morales mez
118
THE DESECURITIZATION OF DRUG TRAFFICKING IN MEXICO
UNDER THE AMLO ADMINISTRATION
LUIS MIGUEL MORALES GÁMEZ
Introduction
On taking office, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) changed national policy with
regard to drug trafficking organizations, deciding to exclude the Secretaría de la Defensa
Nacional (SEDENA or the Secretariat of National Defence) and the Secretaría de la Marina
(SEMAR or Secretariat of the Navy). The last two presidential administrations had
charged these two ministries with managing the threat posed by trafficking organizations,
a threat which remains foremost among the nation’s priorities.
From the election as president of Felipe Calderon, in 2006, until the end of the
administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, in 2018, one of the main security issues facing
Mexico has been the fight against drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). These previous
administrations dedicated significant national resources to this effort, with Calderon even
requesting support from the United States of America in the form of the Merida Initiative
(MI).
In their theoretical proposal on the securitization process, Buzan, Waever, and De Wilde
(1998) consider that the response, when a statesman or elite stakeholder declares
something or someone to be a threat to national security, demands that a variety of
resources be dedicated to responding to said threat. Both statesmen and elites must
consider the actions and resources that will be required by this response. In some cases,
society is aware of the threat when this securitization process is ongoing, supporting the
decisions made by both statesmen and elites, while in others, society is either oblivious
to or is not sufficiently informed of the threat as a result of said statesmen and elites
keeping this information out of the public domain (Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, 1998).
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 13, Nº. 1 (May-October 2022), pp. 117-134
The desecuritization of drug trafficking in Mexico under the AMLO administration
Luis Miguel Morales mez
119
The present paper analyzes both the shift, in responsibility for security, from SEDENA
and SEMAR to the newly established Mexican National Guard and the data corresponding
to the implementation of social programs for young people with the aim of reducing
violence and insecurity. It should also be noted that another aim of AMLO’s
desecuritization policy is also to eradicate corruption in public security institutions
alongside the rollout of scholarship programs and job training to prevent the recruitment
of young people by criminal organizations.
We will also analyze how AMLO proposed his desecuritization strategy by declaring the
end of the drug war”, arguing that previous administrations’ declaration of war on the
DTOs had failed to resolve the threat and that the violence involved in this war had simply
incited more violence. His position is that DTOs are not a security problem in themselves
and are, instead, a symptom of economic and social injustice in Mexico. In light of the
foregoing, the present paper seeks to explore how this desecuritization policy reduces
crime, violence, and the threat posed to the State, comparing it to the securitization
policy applied by previous administrations, which involved direct armed confrontation
with drug traffickers.
Theoretical framework for securitization and the desecuritization
process
Security from a constructivist perspective, describe the process of securitization and how
it functions, as well as the role played by statesmen and the elites when publicly
identifying threats and channeling resources and actions to prioritize their policy agenda.
A securitization process involves identifying what statesmen and the elites consider as a
threat to national security and the actions that they are willing to take to tackle it (Buzan,
Waever and De Wilde, 1998).
Wolfers points out security can be either objective (when the threat is recognized as real)
or subjective (the threat is merely perceived), a distinction crucial to establishing national
security for the State, as it requires both an understanding of the perception of a threat
and an assessment of the evidence supporting this perception (Wolfers, 1962).
Successful securitization comprises three factors: the existing threat; the emergency
action taken to address it; and the effects of rules violations. Waever describes security
as a “speech act”, wherein an issue is presented as a priority that must be resolved by
taking action, thus enabling an agent to claim the necessity and right to use significant
measures and the resources they require. The main interest of this discourse is to
understand how a threat is publicly presented and identified as a security issue (Waever,
1996).
The public must discuss the existence of a threat in order to be able to legitimize the
measures and actions taken against it, which, once legitimized, can then be addressed
by the State. The absence of public acceptance would entail solely a securitization
movement rather than a securitized object. Securitization studies seek to understand
how to securitize, what objects (threats) to securitize, who (subjects) to securitize, why
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 13, Nº. 1 (May-October 2022), pp. 117-134
The desecuritization of drug trafficking in Mexico under the AMLO administration
Luis Miguel Morales mez
120
(the reasons) to securitize, under what circumstances to securitize, and the factors that
determine when securitization has been successful.
Desecuritization is “the shifting of issues out of emergency mode and into the normal
bargaining process of the political sphere”. The desecuritization process involves the
choice not to rely on public scrutiny of the threat (namely whether it is subjective or
objective) and is seen by said authors as the “optimal long-range option, since it means
not to have issues phrased as threats against which we have countermeasures but to
move them out of the threat-defense sequence and into the ordinary public sphere”
(Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, 1998: 4-8).
Waever points out that the inner circle, “the elite”, questions the actions of statesmen,
who try to reestablish order by either affirming that the threat is present or pretending
that nothing wrong has happened. However, in reality, circumstances are changed by
the presence of the threat and the new priority should be to establish the truth pertaining
to the situation faced by the State (Waever, 1995).
The present study focuses on the speech act conducted by AMLO, in which he
announced the end of the war against DTOs, arguing that there are alternatives solutions.
However, insecurity remains a problem that manifests in criminal violence, the constant
expansion of the DTOs’ operational capacity in Mexico, and the emergence of new
criminal organizations (Cattan, 2019).
In her paper Reconstructing desecuritization: the normative-political in the Copenhagen
School and directions for how to apply it, Lene Hansen points out how an issue can be
desecuritized, firstly by means of its relationship to politics, given that the securitization
of an issue is a political phenomenon. Secondly, an issue can be desecuritized in the
public sphere, which would be a much more political decision than simply politicizing the
issue, while, thirdly, via a collective decision, society decides to desecuritize an issue as
this would be more effective than securitizing it. Finally, Hansen invokes Waever’s
reflection about “détente” and how this concept forms the basis for desecuritization
(Lene, 2012).
Based on the research described above, the present paper posits that the public sphere
is a useful concept for explaining how Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)
desecuritized the governmental response to DTOs, which can be framed as a bargaining
process by means of which his government decided to downgrade a securitized
emergency to a desecuritized issue.
Hansen describes how a shift in focus from an emergency or threat to a bargaining
process conducted in the public sphere suggests a shift from the securitized (the issue
relates to a sphere of public policy that requires the allocation of resources or some other
form of communal governance) to the politicized (the state does not deal with the issue
and it ceases to be subject to public debate and decision).
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 13, Nº. 1 (May-October 2022), pp. 117-134
The desecuritization of drug trafficking in Mexico under the AMLO administration
Luis Miguel Morales mez
121
Image 1 Analysis of theoretical discussion
Source: Author’s own
Boswell suggests a flow of ideas connecting public discourse and policy practice, while
the Copenhagen School sees the political sphere as a dynamic space in which actors seek
to justify their policies and destabilize those of their opponents. (Boswell, 2007).
The presidential election campaign and AMLO’s promises
As stated above, from the beginning of Felipe Calderon’s administration, in 2006, to the
end of Peña Nieto’s administration, in 2018, the principal security policy implemented in
Mexico had involved confronting the DTOs. The initial objective had been to reduce
violence on a national level and to prevent the DTOs from bringing their products into
North America, for which specific purpose the US government provided Mexico military
equipment and trained its military personnel (Astorga, 2015). While this US financial
support was known in Mexico as the Merida Initiative (MI), it was largely perceived in the
US Congress as simply a tranche of international aid to be approved year-on-year as part
of its budget.
In Mexico, this security policy resulted in continuous violence and deaths, at the hands
of both the DTOs and the State (which was now responding militarily), which was
exacerbated by endemic corruption and a flawed justice system that failed to prosecute
criminals. Therefore, the objectives of the MI shifted to promoting governmental and
institutional reforms in Mexico, including the judicial system, and strengthening the rule
of law (Cook, Rush, Ribando, 2008: 1-6).
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 13, Nº. 1 (May-October 2022), pp. 117-134
The desecuritization of drug trafficking in Mexico under the AMLO administration
Luis Miguel Morales mez
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Although this financial assistance began in the last year of the administration of George
W Bush, it was continued by his successor Barack Obama, who stipulated that Mexico
needed to take more action to tackle the violence, stem the growth of the DTOs, and also
address the corruption observed in governmental institutions. However, these criteria
were not met, with the violence increasing year-on-year and the DTOs competing for
market share. (Camhaji and García, 2019; Infobae, 2019).
During the period discussed above, AMLO was a prominent political figure, having run
twice for the Mexican presidency and losing twice due to what he described as the
corruption within the electoral system, and one characterized by the news media as a
threat to national security. In his third presidential race, AMLO campaigned against a
major opponent - the flawed security policy pursued by the last two administrations,
representing two different political parties, the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN or National
Action Party) and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI or Institutional
Revolutionary Party).
Image 2 - Graph for homicides per year in Mexico
Data source: National Institute of Geography and Statistics (INEGI) (2020).
https://www.inegi.org.mx/sistemas/olap/proyectos/bd/continuas/mortalidad/defuncioneshom.as
p?s=est
During this campaign, AMLO set out how he was going to deal with violence and drug
trafficking from an alternative perspective, namely dealing with it as a social problem,
solving the causes that draw people into drug trafficking and identifying economic and
social alternatives for them. He proposed the removal of the military from the streets,
not only because it was never intended to be used for public security activities but also
because its constant human rights violations only increased the levels of violence. Finally,
8867
14 006
19 803
25 757
27,213
25 967
23 063
20 010
20 762
24 559
32 079
36,685 36 661
36 773
16972
0
5 000
10 000
15 000
20 000
25 000
30 000
35 000
40 000
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Homicides per year in Mexico 2007- 2020
Homicidios por año de registro
Homicides per year
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e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 13, Nº. 1 (May-October 2022), pp. 117-134
The desecuritization of drug trafficking in Mexico under the AMLO administration
Luis Miguel Morales mez
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he proposed an amnesty for those involved in the drug trafficking business, particularly
the poor (López, 2018: 105; Oré & Díaz, 2018).
By relating drug trafficking and violence in Mexico to social and economic problems,
rather than a threat to the State and government stability, AMLO was signaling a change
of perspective from that pursued by the last two administrations. He argued that the
violence used by the State to regain control over drug smuggling routes into US territory
was unacceptable, phrasing his approach as “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not bullet
wounds.
Once elected, AMLO’s policy position was enacted in the National Plan for Peace and
Security 2018-2024, which claimed that “…violence and insecurity involve the confluence
of a great number of factors, starting with those of an economic and social nature, such
as the lack of quality employment, the insufficiencies of the educational system, and
institutional breakdown…” (Gobierno de México, S/F: 2). The plan associated the
objectives of achieving peace and security with two main factors: the institutional
corruption that encouraged drug trafficking; and the need for both popular wellbeing and
social justice to be reinforced by the law.
AMLO’s scholarships and violence
Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidential election in 2018 with 53.19% of the
total number of votes cast, becoming the first presidential candidate to receive that level
of support in many election cycles, giving a clear mandate for him and his policy platform.
Despite this mandate, critics pointed out that the popular expectations this had raised
would not match the results achieved during his time in office (Rojas, 2018: 1-4).
The section on security in the National Plan for Development 2018-2024 states that the
new vision for security in the country, given the deficiencies in terms of employment and
education for young people, was going to “…remove the social base from criminality by
means of the mass incorporation of young people into education and work…” (Presidencia
de la República, 2019 (a): 11). The objective of this vision was to end the war on drugs
in the country.
As part of the promises made during the campaign, AMLO began by announcing the social
programs for students and young people under the rationale that this policy would best
garner initial popular support. In February 2019, months after being sworn in, he
announced, in a ceremony at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Square of the Three Cultures)
in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, the first of these scholarships program, Young People Writing
the Future, remarking that:
“…in our country there are 16 million young people living in poverty, imagine
if a criminal offers to employ them as the hawks”, as they are known
colloquially, who inform [their employers] as to who is entering and exiting
the communities...” (Presidencia de la República, 2019 (b): 27).