CIUDAD JUÁREZ, MEXICO — Amid a charged atmosphere in a jammed theater August 7, Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador explained the philosophy behind his unusual step of launching a public consultation process, aimed at bringing peace and reconciliation to Mexico, four months before he takes office.
“[Change] is not going to be achieved with government action alone,” the 64-year-old politician said. “We need the participation of all the people.”
The former mayor of Mexico City, López Obrador led a three-party coalition to a sweeping victory in June, the result of a deep, popular rejection of the status quo and the heartfelt desire of millions of Mexicans for fundamental changes in public safety, governance and the economy. López Obrador has pledged reforms along left nationalist lines that imply greater independence from the United States, an improved standard of living for the popular classes and increased public participation in decisions.
Juárez was a fitting site for the first of the forums, designed to gather public input for new policies that could alter the direction of the so-called narco war (Mexico’s violent and ongoing drug war), secure justice for violence victims and transform Mexico’s relationship with migrants. Femicides have plagued the border city of 1.4 million people since the 1990s and the narco-violence has been escalating since 2005. A record 31,174 Mexicans were murdered in 2017.
Hundreds of Juárenses from different walks of life turned out for the first public forum. Relatives of the missing and murdered showed up with posters and pictures of their loved ones and interrupted López Obrador with questions. Outside, nervous tension gripped a city that’s been slammed with narco-tainted killings, with hundreds this summer alone.
Forum attendees’ recommendations included increasing support for Mexican migrants deported from the United States and repealing the National Security Law passed by Congress in 2017, which formalized the central role of the U.S.-supported Mexican armed forces in the drug war. López Obrador’s incoming government says the proposals will be reflected in national development plans and programs for 2018 – 2024.
Outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto promised a different strategy to fight the drug war back in 2012, but wound up following the path of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, in relying on the military to combat organized crime. At President Barack Obama’s behest, the Peña Nieto administration also increased the detention and deportation of Central American and other migrants before they reached the U.S. border.
But the peace and reconciliation forums imply a departure from the United States, as do statements by new Interior Minister Olga Sanchez considering drug decriminalization.
Cipriana Jurado coordinates López Obrador’s Morena party in the U.S. Southwest. A participant in the Juárez forum, she believes López Obrador’s approach “says a lot about the new government.” She sees support to the relatives of violence victims, whether in Mexico or the U.S., as a policy priority. Families like hers, which sought refuge in the U.S. only to wind up struggling in a strange land, have “many scars” that require healing, she says.
As part of the peace and reconciliation process, López Obrador is considering amnesty for some outlaws, a stance that proved controversial among victims’ relatives. Paula Flores says contemplating forgiveness is easy for those who haven’t suffered personal losses. Her daughter Sagrario, a 17-year-old Juárez factory worker, was abducted and murdered, her body dumped on the outskirts of the city, in 1998.
According to Proceso magazine, other relatives of victims aired similar concerns at three forums that followed the one in Juárez.
Separately, dozens of academics and activists signed a letter to López Obrador with detailed proposals, including greater involvement of the Mexican government in defending the rights of the U.S. immigrant community, cooperating with the U.S. on drug policy only “as a matter of prevention and not of prisons and war” and making Mexico a sanctuary for international refugees. The letter states: “Mexico will not play the role of migra [immigration enforcement] for the U.S.”
One of the signatories, California-based professor and immigrant-rights advocate Armando Vazquez-Ramos, expresses misgivings about some of the personalities in López Obrador’s Morena party, but says he’s nevertheless “optimistic” about the new administration set to take office December 1. He assesses the political transition as the best opportunity for genuine change “in the last 50 years.”