Mere weeks before assuming office as the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often referred to as AMLO, published an eight-pillared plan for the construction of a peaceful future for the nation. Section Six of this 2018 “Plan Nacional de Paz y Seguridad” introduces a new approach to repairing trust in the government and establishing harmony through justice mechanisms over his six year term.
While section six certainly has merit, his proposition of granting amnesty to certain individuals involved in organized crime—and even for entire organized crime groups—is politically infeasible. Amnesty is only truly effective in post-conflict regions, and Mexico cannot be considered a post-conflict state. The nation is in the midst of intense intra-state violence and thus, amnesty will not work to the same effect.
Mexico saw 71 years of uninterrupted single-party leadership under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). While the party appeared to be democratic, in reality it functioned as an authoritarian regime. As Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley argue in “Votes, Drugs, and Violence”, such regimes spawn gray zones of criminality—ecosystems wherein the state and organized crime overlap. When nations transition away from authoritarianism towards illiberal democracy, these zones survive, and fragmentation occurs within the criminal organizations, leading to more intense violence.
As the PRI lost its first election in decades at the turn of the century (and saw an even greater defeat in 2018), crime rates began to rise in the nation; this ongoing rise is a concomitant of Mexico’s transition to illiberal democracy.
According to the World Bank, in 2018, Mexico documented a record high of intentional homicides at just over 29 people per 100,000. The UNDOC’s 2019 Global Study on Homicide argues that this striking increase correlates with a rise in flow of cocaine throughout the country and thus a rise in organized criminal activity.
Trejo and Ley contend that, more often than not, “murder rates tend to increase as countries transition from authoritarian rule to democracy”. One can understand the record high murder rates in Mexico following an increasing trend over the past four years as a symptom of the transition away from authoritarianism.
Without explicit alterations in the organization of the national government, many members of the PRI have remained in power in the legislative body. Its legacy also lives on in the organized criminal groups that have fragmented and become more volatile in Mexico. The nation has neither undergone significant security-sector reform nor rid itself of the vestiges of the authoritarian PRI. Mexico is therefore not yet post-conflict because it is in the midst of a transition.
AMLO addresses the recent surge of violence in his plan, also citing fragmentation and multiplication of criminal organizations as an explanation. In attempts to contend with these trends, section six is founded upon four key axes: “truth, justice, reparations, and a guarantee that crimes will not be repeated”. Through the application of amnesty, he claims, Mexico would finally break the “spiral of violence”.
While the four bases listed are critical in transformative justices processes, the policy fails to acknowledge one feature of a state that is imperative to the success of amnesty: the nation must be post-conflict, having successfully undergone a transition to a liberal democracy.
The most notable danger inherent in implementing amnesty as part of societal peacebuilding is that it can undermine rule of law. Amnesty laws risk strengthening impunity. In addition, perpetrators of violent crimes who are pardoned might commit crimes again if there is no organized intervention in place to reintegrate them. This poses two key questions. The first: how exactly do AMLO and his administration plan to decide who deserves amnesty? The second: how they will deter perpetrators from acting violently once again? All in all, how can the Mexican government “guarantee that crimes would not be repeated”?
In an illiberal democracy experiencing extensive internal warring, leadership can easily use amnesty to pardon only those who are loyal to the current government; members of criminal organizations are also not discouraged from returning to crime when the violent landscape that surrounded them initially persists post-pardon. As Vanda Felbab Brown wrote for the Brookings Institute in 2019, “when transitional justice is employed in post-conflict settings, there is a presumption that violent conflict and human rights violations will not be repeated. But Mexico will continue to face violent criminality for years”.
Without an answer to the questions of who deserves amnesty and how to prevent recidivism, Mexico—a state still enduring the repercussions of an earlier authoritarian regime and in the thick of violent intra-state conflict—is instituting a policy that will do more harm than good. Amnesty in Mexico places its legal code in peril because it is not yet post-conflict.
Successes in other Latin American countries suggest that amnesty can be effective. Panama, for example, has instituted amnesty for members of the many gangs that had previously produced high levels of violence in the nation. Through the Barrios Seguros program, the state has offered job training and hence an effective means of reintegration into society for those formerly involved in criminal organizations. Coverage of this program also noted a slight decrease in the homicide rate in the year Barrios began. The pathway to amnesty requires that those receiving vocational education through the program must willingly disarm; this answers the first question of who deserves amnesty. The second question of how to prevent recidivism is answered via the government offering an education to encourage re-entry into the licit economy.
Panama has effectively addressed these questions because it is a post-conflict state. It is now the 4th most pacific Latin American nation and has not had an army since 1990. Mexico has thus far not eliminated its own internal conflict. While both nations have struggled in this century with climbing occurences of gang violence, only the Mexican government continues to blatantly infringe upon its citizens’ human rights, as would a mid-conflict illiberal democracy.
In fact, in April 2020, the director for Amnesty International in the Americas denounced AMLO’s claims that his government no longer breached human rights laws, citing multiple human rights violations, amongst them tens of thousands of disappearances and many cases of extrajudicial violence. If Mexico has not yet recognized its own democratic failures and remains ignorant of its status as a country mid-conflict and mid-transition, transformative justice policies will continue to fail.
Though this plan acknowledges the nature of punitive and persecutory policies as being ineffective on an individual scale as well as detrimental to state-citizen trust building, AMLO’s proposal of amnesty disregards the context of his own nation. According to one Buendia & Laredo survey performed in 2017, around two thirds of Mexican citizens disapprove of amnesty for gang members. Though this is certainly tied to an internationally common distrust in non-punitive rehabilitation, it can also be read as the appropriate assessment of Mexico’s current situation. How can the nation grant amnesty to criminals without a next step in place? How can citizens trust their government with an undertaking that might very well be ruinous to their justice and legal systems?