Public safety is emerging as a key campaign issue in the battle between the ruling party and the opposition in Mexico

Both leading presidential candidates have placed crime at the center of their platforms. Xóchitl Gálvez is promising to build a mega-prison, while Claudia Sheinbaum wants to integrate the National Guard into the Army

inseguridad en mexico
A municipal police officer watches the streets in Maravatío, a city in the Mexican state of Michoacán, after the murder of two mayoral candidates, on February 27, 2024.Fernando Llano (AP)
Zedryk Raziel

Xóchitl Gálvez — the presidential candidate for the opposition coalition formed by three major Mexican political parties (the PAN, PRI and PRD) — began her campaign last Friday with a rally in Fresnillo, a city in the state of Zacatecas. The act was loaded with symbolism, since Fresnillo is the most unsafe city in Mexico, according to a study by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. The state is also governed by MORENA, the ruling party.

There, Gálvez said — if she is elected president — one of her goals is to build “a very high-security prison with cutting-edge technology, so that criminals are afraid of ending up in there.” Subsequently, the media began to talk about a “mega-prison,” with analysts comparing it to the Terrorist Confinement Center built by the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele.

Slightly further south — in the state of Guanajuato — the standard-bearer of the ruling party, Claudia Sheinbaum, responded with a rally. The state has historically been governed by the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and has one of the highest murder rates in Mexico.

There, Sheinbaum — the former head of the government of Mexico City — criticized the prison proposal put forward by Gálvez: “They (the opposition parties) propose mega-prisons for young people; we propose universities and public education, paying attention to the causes [of crime],” she affirmed.

Insecurity has become the main issue in the 2024 Mexican presidential campaign. And no one seems to take responsibility for the causes of the crime wave. The opposition claims that the lack of public safety is the fault of the government which is about to finish its term: the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2018-2024). Meanwhile, the ruling party alleges that the crime rate is due to past administrations, when the PRI or the PAN ruled Mexico.

The incumbent president of Mexico got fully involved in the campaign this past Wednesday, despite the restrictions imposed by the electoral authorities. He criticized the opposition, claiming that insecurity is being exploited for political purposes. “It’s evident that [the opposition] is using violence — magnifying it, making what happens bigger — for political or political purposes, for this campaign season,” he said, during his daily televised conference.

While López Obrador made accusations of “politicking” from the National Palace, outside the official residence, a group of students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Normal School organized a spectacular demonstration against their government. They protested the obstacles in the investigation looking into the disappearance of 43 students, which took place nearly 10 years ago. The families of the disappeared have criticized the Mexican Army’s refusal to open hundreds of files, which are crucial to knowing the truth about the case. The claims are a direct repudiation of the president’s discourse, as well as a practical representation of the open wound caused by the high number of murders and disappearances in Mexico. The daily average at the end of last year was more than 80 homicides each day, a slight decrease from earlier in 2023. Despite everything, however, this past six-year presidential term will end as the most violent in the country’s recent history.

Sheinbaum — poised to succeed López Obrador — declared hours later: “What happened today doesn’t seem right to me. The National Palace has opened its doors [to the public], particularly for the fathers and mothers of Ayotzinapa. The president of the Republic has received them on various occasions.” The presidential candidate for the ruling party suggests that this was a provocation, which could have culminated in a confrontation.

Protesters break down a door of the National Palace, in protest of the Ayotzinapa case, on March 6, 2024.
Protesters break down a door of the National Palace, in protest of the Ayotzinapa case, on March 6, 2024.Stringer (REUTERS)

The relatives of the victims are staging a sit-in in the capital’s main plaza — the Zócalo — just a few steps from the National Palace. They’re demanding a personal conversation with López Obrador, sans intermediaries. But the government hasn’t addressed this demand. The sit-in remained in Mexico’s main square even at the start of Sheinbaum’s campaign, confronting the celebratory spirit of the ruling party.

At one point, the group of teachers-in-training got impatient: while protesting outside the Palace, they seized an official vehicle and used it to break down a door. They tried to enter the premises, but were stopped with tear gas and shields. Politics is politics.

The Mexican people’s biggest fear

Insecurity — which is the issue that is front-of-mind for voters — offers a picture of the country’s reality. The latest Enkoll survey for EL PAÍS showed that 53% of Mexican voters consider insecurity to be the country’s biggest pending problem and the issue that presidential candidates must urgently address. Following this is the issue of corruption (32% mentioned it) and then the economy (15%). All of them are pressing issues — some more abstract than others — but the citizens have made it clear that living in peace is the priority. They want to have the certainty of being able to walk down the street, knowing that they’ll arrive safely at their destination and that their loved ones will be ok.

The problem is so prevalent within Mexican democracy that the candidates have begun their battle for the presidency by offering remedies. And, in the heat of the debate — given the urgency and size of the monster that is crime — some proposals have bordered on the spectacular. Gálvez has been harshly questioned about her idea to build a mega-prison: she has already had to clarify that she’s not envisioning massive raids, like what President Bukele has done in El Salvador against the gangs. In the Salvadoran case, the state of emergency has filled the prisons with over 70,000 people — many of them innocent — in just a few months.

“We’re going to build a special prison for the worst criminals. Enough of prisons being the place where extortion takes place, where people have privileges, where criminals aren’t afraid [to be jailed], because inside, they live almost like they did on the street,” the candidate said. She then specified: “We’re not talking about sending young people who we catch tagging walls to prison,” but rather “hardened criminals, like someone who raped and murdered a girl.”

Gálvez has insisted that she will put an end to López Obrador’s policy of having the National Guard and the Army limit themselves as much as possible from patrolling the streets and avoiding confrontations with organized crime. She is deeply opposed to the policy, which the president summarizes with his famous slogan: “hugs, not bullets.” It hasn’t been able to prevent massacres.

“You don’t even have to send the Army to shoot criminals: you have to apply the law and that doesn’t mean shooting them, it doesn’t mean killing them. I don’t know why they think that applying the law means extermination,” Gálvez shrugged. However, she has been forced to distance herself from former president Felipe Calderón, of the PAN, who governed from 2006 until 2012. His strategy of direct confrontation with the drug cartels — the centerpiece of the so-called “War on Drugs” — saw overwhelming figures of violent deaths and disappearances.

Based on the latest count released in December 2023, around 113,000 Mexicans are estimated to have “disappeared.”

A member of the National Guard supervises the site where the body of a woman was found abandoned, in Tijuana, on December 26, 2023
A member of the National Guard supervises the site where the body of a woman was found abandoned, in Tijuana, on December 26, 2023Omar Martínez Noyola (Cuartoscuro)

“Look at the difference between the strategies. In one case, the war against drugs is proposed. We (the ruling party) don’t propose war, but rather the construction of peace,” Sheinbaum contrasts. She has followed López Obrador’s line of attributing the problem of violence to social causes, to the neoliberal economic model and to the breakdown of the social fabric. The candidate has proposed reinforcing social programs for young people, opening more universities and creating more sources of employment. She has also proposed giving the National Guard its own investigative powers, while improving coordination with prosecutors and state police forces. According to her plan, she says that local governments will be able to increase their number of troops and their weapons, while improving their capabilities for rapid-response. Her proposed strategy to reduce crime also involves reforming the judiciary, so that there are more controls over the actions of judges.

In the past, Sheinbaum was reserved about López Obrador’s plan for the National Guard — a civilian institution — to be placed in the hands of the Army. But this past Monday, during a press conference, the candidate said that she will seek the consolidation of that security body under the control of the Ministry of Defense.

The opposition standard-bearer, meanwhile, wants to gradually send the military back to their barracks, with a view to converting the National Guard into a completely civilian institution. She wants to remove certain powers from the Armed Forces — such as the ability to oversee certain businesses and administer projects — which were given to them during the López Obrador administration. She has also proposed opening a National University for Security — in order to train specialized officials — and create a rapid-response team in each state, to act against the cartels.

The dance of campaign proposals and promises has begun, just like in every election year. The two leading candidates are offering solutions to the most worrying issue for Mexicans, in order to carve out support. So far, the recipes tested haven’t managed to get the country out of the bloody stage of the drug war, almost two decades after it began.

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