Drug wars in Mexico are as conventional as sombreros and Burritos. For decades, cartels have been fighting for territory and power – while the government has acted as an inept bystander. The current president López Obrador has pledged a paradigm shift in the cartel wars. In lieu of fighting them, he is conducting an appeasement policy – with fatal consequences even beyond Mexico’s borders.
The Cartels Aren’t Interested in Compromise
It is a one-sided peace mission President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is undertaking. His credo, “abrazos, no balazos”, meaning hugs not bullets, could be mistaken for a comedy show script. It sounds simply too naïve to be official policy. Nevertheless, it is the reality in Mexico these days, a country that never managed to get the cartel wars under control nor the violence that makes Mexico one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Unsurprisingly, the first 19 months of Obrador’s presidency have been a fiasco, a farce. Example? The government recently released the son of drug kingpin “El Chapo”. Not due to lack of evidence but due to the Sinaloa Cartel. Once the arrest occurred, the cartel appeared in armoured vehicles in the city, committed arson and engaged in shootings with the authorities. Not unusual for Mexico: it was the authorities who had to retreat.
The message was sent: release Guzman’s son or all hell will break loose. The government succumbed to the cartel’s demands, and Ovidio Guzman walked out of jail the very same day. The government’s excuse? Guzman’s release was made to avoid an escalation of violence in order to protect the population. Translation: The Mexican government does not have the power, nor the reputation for applying any form of pressure onto the cartels. The executive branch is a government branch in name only.
Appeasement Doesn’t Work
It fits in with the president’s appeasement approach, which he has been pursuing with regard to the cartels since taking office: leave the cartels alone to end the violence, carte blanche in the middle of a war. The issue with the “abrazos, no balazos” approach is that the violence has not decreased but exacerbated. Homicides have not disappeared but are at a record high.
In the period from January to April, it was, according to official information, a record 11,535, after 11,266 in the same period last year. For López Obrador, who had sharply criticized his predecessor for the high number of murders during the election campaign, his first year in office was the bloodiest in recent Mexican history: in 2019, a total of 34,582 people died a violent death. The majority of these murders are related to drug crime in the country. An end does not seem to be near. Since the extradition of El Chapo into the US, the resulting power vacuum has been attempted to be filled by several cartels and gangs.
However, the violence of the cartels also affects many people outside the crime syndicates. These included assassinations of police chiefs, murders of a federal judge and his wife or the massacre in a rehab clinic in which 24 people were murdered only recently.
Obrador’s Popularity is Still High in Mexico
Obrador’s popularity remains high despite his apparent incompetence. His approval ratings are usually between 50 and 68.4 per cent, primarily as his government has invested heavily in the reduction of poverty and simplified access to loans for agriculture. With the fight against economic inequality, the president seeks to remove the breeding ground for organized crime, but he seems to ignore that the cartels are long-established criminal enterprises, financially bigger than Walmart. Shortage of new prodigies due to slightly more pesos in one’s pocket hence seems inconceivable.
Instead, he continues to endanger the country with his appeasement policy as the long-term effects are highly likely an overwhelming increase in crime of all kinds and security organs that are unable to curb the violence of the cartels as these are currently able to operate at will.
Obrador’s policies also ignore the fact that the Mexican drug trade is a global problem. As a producer and middleman, the country supplies the majority of the heroin and cocaine consumed in the United States, of up to 90 per cent. Moreover, the ongoing drug war is forcing hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to migrate to the United States – with dramatic political and humanitarian consequences.