Mexico’s presidential election opens a new chapter in democracy and security against a backdrop of pervasive violence.

Mexicans have voted to change the course of their history. The results of the 1 July election – a landslide victory for Andrés Manuel López Obrador – overwhelmingly rejected the country’s status quo.

In Mexico’s largest democratic exercise to date, in which over 3 400 political posts were contested, organized-crime groups threatened, however, to influence the voting in some municipalities. But, in the end, a combination of long-standing national insecurity, inequality and corruption provided the momentum to shift the electoral balance in favour of leftist coalition Morena (Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional national regeneration movement’), headed by López Obrador.

Yet this election also stands out for being the most violent in Mexico’s democratic history. Since campaigning began in September 2017, more than 140 murders connected to political activities have been recorded, according to data from risk analysts Etellekt. Journalists, mayors and over 50 candidates who did not make it to Sunday’s ballot were among the dead. And more than 600 other cases of politically related aggression were registered, including kidnappings, extortion, threats and intimidation. This is set against a backdrop of escalating violence nationwide, in which May 2018 was the most violent month on record for over 20 years.

Despite the violent campaign, turnout was strong, with over 60% of voters braving long distances and many hours of waiting, as well as risk to their own security.

Although the voting process itself was generally peaceful across the country, it was marred by a number of violent incidents. In the northern municipality of Cosalá – which lies in the home territory of the Sinaloa Cartel, an organized-crime syndicate – armed groups threatened people at the polling stations, ordering them to vote for the candidate from the ruling party, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), and not the opposition. Two journalists were detained for hours and threatened with guns. As the election results showed, in Sinaloa, where these armed groups had been intimidating voters, the PRI won. In contrast, Morena swept 90% of the voting districts elsewhere.


Mexico’s electoral campaigns and organized crime

Violence is not new in Mexican elections. Yet, as demonstrated by the Electoral Risk Atlas, the levels seen in this election cycle were unprecedented. Violence is the primary tool wielded by Mexico’s criminal groups to exert influence over the appointment of political candidates and consolidate their territorial control. The widespread violence, and the atmosphere of fear and intimidation that it has created, has shaped the electoral landscape in a number of ways.

As the New York Times has reported, many political candidates chose to abandon their campaigns out of fear for their safety and that of their families. Others were unable to safely travel to campaign in their communities. In some cases, criminal groups actively promoted their own preferred candidates, blurring the line between authorities and criminals.

The democratic process in Mexico – barely 20 years in the making – has been further threatened by the suppression of freedom of speech and political debate, as demonstrated by the dangers faced by the Mexican press. Human-rights NGO Article 19 has documented more than 200 attacks on journalists in 2018 alone, 60 of which were directly related to the electoral process; six journalists were assassinated. Red Rompe el Miedo (a web platform created by human-rights defenders and journalists) has registered 141 cases of assault, 52 on election day alone, all seeking to intimidate journalists who are determined to speak out.

These problems have worsened in the latest election cycle amid large-scale shifts in Mexico’s criminal economy. Long-standing strategies to counter organized crime in Mexico have favoured the targeting of kingpins and the decapitation of large cartels. This caused criminal groups to splinter into smaller rival factions, which control smaller areas of territory. Operating within smaller, more localised territory has forced these new groups to find ways to exert control over local governance and political figures.

The political landscape has also become more fragmented. In recent years, Mexico’s incipient democracy has shifted from a one-party state into a pluralistic system, where greater competition between parties has seen the reins of power regularly changing hands. Several scholars have noted how this shift has interrupted long-established ties between organized crime and corrupt officials, increasing conflict between the state and criminal interests, and resulting in pervasive violence.

The increase in the supply of drugs due to changes in trafficking routes to the border with the US has also brought illicit money into local economies and compromised the position of municipal and state authorities. At the same time, pluralization has brought with it a degree of decentralization of the state’s power to the local-authority level.

Criminal groups therefore increasingly need to compromise these local authorities, which goes some way to explaining why these elections became a battleground in a very literal sense. However, it must be stressed that, since Mexico has experienced a fragmentation of both the political and criminal landscapes, there is no single or simple explanation that can be used to categorize the recent violence. Although violence has been widespread, each case is a response to different, localized factors.


López Obrador and his promises of change

In this environment of insecurity, Mexicans have turned to López Obrador as a symbol of discontent with the security policies of the last 12 years. In 2006, he lost the presidential election by a narrow margin to right-wing leader Felipe Calderón amid massive protests. On assuming office, Calderón immediately launched a ‘war on drugs’ through a militarized approach to combating organized crime. In 2012, López Obrador once again lost out to Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, amid accusations of fraud and further civil unrest. A case of third time lucky, López Obrador’s victory has finally been sealed, and received peacefully by opponents.

Mexico needs change, and López Obrador was the only candidate to offer a radically different perspective on security from the formulas of previous governments. During his campaign, he called for an amnesty on certain drug-related crimes as a means to pacify the country, although this was criticized and labelled by some as populist, and his team have not explained in detail how such a measure would work in practice. As a candidate, he also promised to repeal Mexico’s Internal Security Law, which serves to normalize deployment of the military in the fight against organized crime. Recently passed by the previous administration, the controversial legislation has drawn criticism from civil society and international organizations.

The UN human-rights representative in Mexico, Jan Jarab, expressed his concern over the Internal Security Law in a missive to the Senate, saying that it would ‘reduce the incentive to professionalize civil institutions, and would favor the consolidation of the military approach to security, which has failed to reduce violence and has increased the number of human rights violations’.

According to his new ‘national project’, López Obrador’s security strategy promotes development as the key to prevention. For the president-elect, providing young people with opportunities for education and decent work seeks to replace drug trafficking as an economic option. Other policies focus on the professionalization of state ministries, capacity-building of agencies and a full-frontal attack on corruption and impunity, issues that were central to the campaign ticket that led him to the presidency.

In his victory speech, López Obrador promised a phase of social reconciliation. Speaking of a new chapter of peace and justice in the history of Mexico, he promised to replace the ‘fight against insecurity and violence’ with a fight against its causes – ‘inequality and poverty’. Although known to be intolerant of his critics, López Obrador has promised to design his security policy by drawing from a broad coalition of opinions.

Olga Sánchez, an ex-judge of the Mexican Supreme Court, has been invited to head the Department of the Interior by López Obrador, who also promised to form a cabinet with 50% female representation – a first for the country. Sánchez has vowed to reduce the military presence on the streets. She also promised to decriminalize recreational use of marijuana, which will certainly challenge the current global prohibitive policies on drugs, and lead no doubt to a new chapter in Mexico–US relations.

The new president’s strategy promises a dramatic departure from the country’s longstanding militarized approach to its societal problems. The electorate are hopeful, but the challenge will be immense.