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Mexico’s Drug War: Failure of the “Hugs, Not Bullets” Approach

Authors: Clarice Lim Hui Wen, Keeven Cheong Aik Wei

Region Head: Clarice Lim Hui Wen

Editor: Chok Geow


“Abrazos, no balazos.” In 2019, President Obrador announced his ‘Hugs, Not Bullets’ approach towards Mexico’s dangerous drug cartels. This strategy, however, has shown no signs of success. Despite experts stating that the government ought to take a tougher stance against the drug cartels, President Obrador turned a deaf ear to them and has even doubled down on his soft approach. This article will examine alternative strategies that the Mexican government should adopt to effectively combat the drug cartels.


Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has long maintained a ‘Hugs, Not Bullets’ approach to tackling the drug war in Mexico. This approach to ensuring the safety and security of the country entails the Mexican government targeting the root causes of social instability such as poverty and unemployment among the youth through increasing their spending on education and social programs (Tuckman, 2019). President Obrador believes in ending the drug war by dealing with gangs using intelligence rather than brutal force through clearing the streets of any military personnel and replacing them with more highly paid, better-trained police officers and rewriting the drug laws to regulate marijuana while pardoning nonviolent drug offenders (Oré, 2019).

After a video shot by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) showcasing dozens of armed gang members standing in front of armored, camo cars went viral on social media, Mexicans were not only astonished by the amount of firepower that one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels possessed, but were also extremely concerned about the record level of homicides in the country. There were approximately 35,000 murders in 2020 (Reuters, 2020), which can be partially attributed to the increase in drug gang violence in the country.

Nevertheless, President Obrador, maintains that he will persist with his less confrontational approach to crack down on cartels and the ensuing violence, choosing to “fight them with intelligence and not force” (Quackenbush, 2019) with the belief that “violence cannot be confronted with violence” and that “ evil must be confronted with good” (Reuters, 2020).

Failure of the approach

Obrador’s approach focuses on ensuring the public’s safety, relying on every level of the cartel to be filled with honest individuals, instead of seeking to arrest cartel leaders. However, given the historically violent nature of the cartel industry, the number of cartel officials that fit this description is almost zero. Many analysts also argued that President Obrador’s approach emboldens criminal groups as his lack of a hard-line approach suggests that his administration lacks a strategy to combat the drug cartels with no intention to contain them. This makes it easy for drug cartels to continue their activities without fear of prosecution.

Additionally, Obrador had disbanded the Federal, Military and Naval Police in a bid to create a National Guard to assume federal policing functions which would have allowed them to detain suspects, secure crime scenes and carry out arrest warrants (Meyer, 2020). However, with limited information about the number of National Guard members deployed in different security activities like migration enforcement, drug eradication and guarding oil pipelines, it became unclear to the public as to which force is in charge of which areas or how joint operations are taking place. This has allowed cartels to take advantage of the lack of information to act with near impunity, effectively replacing the Mexican government as the de facto power in many provinces, erecting roadblocks, enforcing taxes and policing entire regions.

The loss of the Mexican state’s monopoly on overwhelming military power, combined with the consistently record-breaking murder rates demonstrates how drastically the “Hugs not Bullets” campaign has failed (Reeves, 2020).

Possible strategies to adopt

Locally, the government should develop a concerted strategy to eliminate the source of the cartels’ power by creating more job opportunities, especially in rural areas where there are few alternatives to cartel employment. With the minimum wage in Mexico at a measly USD 6.11, many disenfranchised youths choose to join drug cartels, which hire over 500,000 persons today, to escape the poverty trap. Currently, Mexico is heavily reliant on exporting agricultural and manufacturing goods, while trading almost exclusively with the USA. As such, there is potential to diversify Mexico’s trading partners and expand its reach to the EU markets. This will undoubtedly lead to an increase in safe and legal job alternatives such as farming and factory jobs that will be more appealing to its citizens, thus decreasing the likelihood of Mexicans turning to cartel employment for a source of income, weakening the cartel’s grasp on power (Honan et al., 2020).

Secondly, forming a team of officers dedicated to eradicating organised crime and upholding the rule of law from the Mexican Federal Police will further cripple the cartel’s grasp of power and ensure that members are prosecuted for their crimes. The government should also increase the salary of police officers to encourage the public to join the force and reduce the likelihood of officers accepting bribes. The current average monthly salary of Mexican officers is $700, which is insufficient to cover the basic expenses of an officer’s family (Martinez, 2019).

Globally, with Biden as the President of the United States, the US can consider banning the sales of assault weapons. This is because guns from the US continue to arm and empower Mexican criminal organisations where an estimated 164,000 firearms were seized from criminals in Mexico which were traced to gun shops and factories in the United States between 2007 and 2019 according to Ioan Grillo, an expert on the gun trade between US and Mexico. Actual figures from the Mexican government have put this figure to be close to 2 million instead.

By banning assault weapons in the United States, it can become the backbone of the strategy to reduce contraband weapons in Mexico and would immediately diminish crime by taking away firepower from criminal organizations. A federal ban on assault weapons would stop the new manufacture, import, sale, and transfer of the class of weapons most desired by cartels. Implementing universal background checks that require all buyers of firearms to pass a background check, regardless of whether the seller is a gun dealer or a private seller, would make it harder for cartels to purchase guns and transfer them across the border. Stricter inspection and regulation of gun stores in the United States to ensure that they are not targeted by gun trafficking rings would block cartel supply streams.

Such an approach has also proven to be successful in how a previous bill that banned assault weapons in 1994 had seen a dramatic drop in homicide rates in Mexico, only increasing by 45% when the bill eventually expired in 2004. The effectiveness of banning assault weapons is unparalleled. Such an initiative has also gained traction in the US as Biden bids to crackdown on the rise of mass shootings by calling for the ban of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines while urging Congress to pass bills that would end loopholes in background checks. While the right to bear arms may be protected by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, there is perhaps hope in garnering support in the Senate to gain the mandatory 60 votes to pass legislation that aims to expand and strengthen background checks on gun buyers.


To conclude, Obrador’s ‘hugs not bullets’ approach, though noble, has clearly shown to be ineffective in combating the drug war. The record-setting homicide rates and the daringness of cartels to challenge the government have forced citizens to take action into their own hands. There is a pressing need for Obrador to recognise the failures of his approach and change his stance before more citizens lose faith in the government and eventually flee Mexico to seek asylum in neighbouring countries. With Biden coming into power, President Obrador should attempt to capitalise on the USA’s ‘new beginning’ to rebuild the relationship between Mexico and the US and work together to reduce the flow of arms and drugs across their border, which is a critical problem considering how the majority of the firearms in cartels were smuggled in from the USA. President Obrador must recognise the failure of his approach in combating the drug cartels which have started to gain control of certain regions in Mexico, and calibrate a new strategy quickly and decisively to clamp down on the cartels before it is too late.


1. BBC. (2021, March 24). US gun control: Biden calls for a ban on assault weapons.

2. Honan, J., Haller, E. P., Layton, D. P., & Donnelly, R. (2020, July 1). What can be done about Mexico's drug war?

3. Martinez, M. (2019, September 11). Deadly job: No rush to join Mexico's new police force. BBC News.

4. Meyer, M. (2020, May 26). One Year After National Guard’s Creation, Mexico is Far from Demilitarizing Public Security.

5. Oré, D. (2019, October 15). Mexican Senate set to pass bill to legalize marijuana in next few days. Reuters.

6. Quackenbush, C. (2019, January 31). ‘There is officially no more war.’ Mexico’s President declares an end to the drug war amid skepticism. Time.

7. Reeves, C. (2020, February 20). The Impact of Mexico’s “Hugs not Bullets” Approach. The Organisation for World Peace.

8. Reuters. (2020, July 20). Mexican president sticks to no-war approach after shocking cartel video. Reuters.

9. Tuckman, J. (2019, November 5). Mexico's president under pressure over 'hugs not bullets' cartel policy. The Guardian.

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