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Mexico's president states willingness to negotiate peace deals with cartels

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Mexico has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Last year alone, more than 30,000 people were killed in the country, many of them ensnared in the ongoing violence between rival cartels. Now Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is publicly stating his willingness to negotiate peace deals with the country's most powerful cartels. It's an attempt to stop the bloodshed. His comments came after an activist whose brother went missing called on the cartels to end the practice of forced disappearances. For more, we're joined by Falko Ernst. He focuses on Mexico for the International Crisis Group. Thanks for being with us this morning.

FALKO ERNST: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

KHALID: So I want to begin by understanding the current environment in Mexico. Let's just start by talking about how much power the cartels have in Mexico these days.

ERNST: So we are up against a huge security challenge in Mexico. The number of criminal groups, active armed criminal groups in Mexico, has more than doubled over the past decade. And we are looking at about 200 non-state armed groups active in Mexico on the ground today. And over the past and the current administration, they have been able to further accentuate their power over territories, populations, illicit economies and politics. And they're exercising great violence against especially civilian populations, which have been left vulnerable to their increasingly predatory practices.

KHALID: So when Obrador was elected, he had vowed to end Mexico's drug war, promised, essentially, this non-confrontational approach with cartels. How has that gone? Has he done that?

ERNST: Well, he hasn't really done that so far, basically. There has been more continuity in spite of his promises to double down on hard-handed anti-drug policies. And he has instead just - a U-turn and sent more troops to the streets. And the number of confrontations between state forces and criminal forces are still very high.

KHALID: So now that Mexico's president has publicly said he is open to these peace deals with the cartels, help us understand how likely it is that this idea would become a reality.

ERNST: The reality is it has already become a reality under this and current administrations as well. So you have a routine engagement on an informal level outside of the law between state, including military forces, and these armed groups. They negotiate their permanence. They share territory. And sometimes this is driven by agendas of self-enrichment that are well present within the state. So on an informal level, we already have that.

KHALID: OK.

ERNST: Now, the difference now is that Lopez Obrador is coming out and saying publicly that he would be willing to engage in such a way in order to get violence down.

KHALID: So you're saying that they already have had, this administration and previous administrations, some sort of peace deals, but it hasn't necessarily curbed the violence?

ERNST: Yes, exactly. So the problem has been, under this administration specifically, that essentially criminal groups, some of which I talked to as part of my work, have been told, including by the armed forces, that if they curb spectacular violence, public violence, shows of force that make the headlines, that they will be granted leeway to govern their own territories. The problem is that this can be a part of a pacification strategy, but that this and previous administrations haven't formulated a long-term plan of how to unwind criminal power, for which it would need disciplinary tools to rein in their power over populations.

KHALID: OK. So in about the last 30 seconds we have, I just want to know what you think, then, ultimately needs to happen to reduce the violence in Mexico.

ERNST: Well, right now, I mean, the problems are so overwhelming that any administration coming in will find it really, really hard to have the financial and institutional tools at hand to meet all of these challenges across the board wholesale. And what they would need to do is to focus and concentrate resources and efforts to specific regions that still produce the bulk of lethal violence.

KHALID: OK. Falko Ernst is a Mexico senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. Thank you so much for your time.

ERNST: Thanks very much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.