Abrazos, no balazos – so goes Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s political mantra. Hugs, not bullets. There’s been plenty of both in Mexico’s blood-soaked month of murder. The newly elected president has pledged to end his nation’s violence epidemic, but the butchery shows no sign of abating. In recent weeks, narco militants have shot government troops into submission, forced the release of key cartel figureheads, and – most sickening of all – massacred an innocent family. President Obrador says he’ll stand by his soft-touch approach, but the mounting anguish – and anger – is hard to ignore.
When hundreds of heavily armed gangsters overran the streets of Culiacán last month, the world awoke to Mexico’s murderous meltdown. Ovidio Guzmán – son of imprisoned narco kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán – was briefly held by the authorities, but his Sinaloa Cartel subordinates soon exploded onto the scene. They erected roadblocks, attacked the homes of military families, and slew 14 security personnel. Notified of the disastrous operation, President Obrador – or AMLO, as he’s widely known – capitulated and ordered Guzmán’s release.
Then, scarcely a fortnight later, more abject misery. Nine Mormon worshippers, women and children, were slaughtered during a roadside ambush. Details are still emerging, but officials believe it may have been a case of mistaken identity – narco thugs seeking retribution on a rival’s family.
Such blood-curdling chaos would end on his watch, AMLO promised upon taking office late last year. 2018 had been particularly painful for Mexicans – a record 29,000 were killed. Most were victims of the country’s deepening drugs struggle, either directly, or as innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. Alarmingly, 2019 is set to be bloodier still.
But AMLO intends not to change tact, repeating in recent weeks his belief that only a systematic approach can address the burgeoning bloodbath. “This is about thinking how to save lives and achieve peace and tranquility in the country using other methods,” he said after the Culiacán killings, refusing to advocate a more muscular response. Instead, the president hopes to tackle the unrest’s root causes: social deprivation, poverty, and widespread corruption.
AMLO’s approach isn’t without merit. In 2006, President Felipe Calderón pledged to fight fire with fire, cracking down on cartels with a series of high profile arrests. But the scheme backfired badly. With the kingpins incarcerated, drug gangs fragmented, spawning scores of new murderous outfits. Six cartels became 37, each locked in unending internecine warfare. In the thirteen years since Calderón launched his ill-fated policy, 250,000 Mexicans have died.
But AMLO’s more gradual methodology seems equally ineffectual. While socioeconomic factors undoubtedly play a role in the violence, there’s a glaring reality the president refuses to grasp: far poorer countries than Mexico have a better handle on organised crime.
Bolstering the nation’s pitiful public institutions must be a priority, most experts agree. Mexico’s justice system is marred by sky-high impunity rates, above 99%. This has a knock-on effect for public trust in the courts – fearing no good will come of complaints, fewer than 10% of crimes are reported.
Likewise, Mexico’s police forces are in parlous condition. An over-reliance on military tactics has left officers ill-equipped to carry out their civilian duties, analysts argue. “Soldiers are trained to use the maximum force necessary to combat enemies, not to deter or investigate crimes and interact with the population,” said Maureen Meyer, director of the Washington Office On Latin America (WOLA)’s Mexico programme. Just last month, 27 members of the La Union Tepito gang – caught with drugs and high-powered weaponry – walked free on a police-error technicality.
And the Culiacán catastrophe has plumbed new depths of distrust in the authorities. A litany of operational errors occurred: inadequate intelligence, sub-par protection for soldiers’ families, attempting the arrest during the day. Recognising these failings (and realising that they can strong-arm the government into submission), many fear the cartels will be newly emboldened.
Among those worried is President Trump, who has offered AMLO assistance with his worsening narco nightmare. It’s a quandary for the Mexican – he has railed against foreign intervention, but is – for better or worse – financially beholden to the US. When, earlier this year, Trump threatened tariffs amid surging illegal immigration, AMLO duly agreed to bolster his border guard, stretching already strained security forces.
Mexico simply can’t afford for its US relationship to flounder. American lawmakers are yet to ratify the nations’ free trade deal, leaving Mexican businesses – who sell 80% of their products to US buyers – in limbo. That’s bad news for AMLO’s anti-violence strategy, which hinges on job creation and rising wages. There’s been little movement in either since he took office – GDP growth is sluggish, climbing a paltry 0.1% in the most recent quarter.
To break Mexico’s interminable cycle of bloodshed, that needs to improve. But so too does the effectiveness of its police forces, which won’t come easily. And even if AMLO’s stumbling security services find their feet, chronic distrust in the country’s courts will put a block on real progress. It’s an unenviable position for the Mexican, but one he must persevere with. Fail like his predecessors, and the cost will be unfathomably high.