MEXICO CITY — While successfully campaigning across the country last year, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador coined catchy slogans for solving the country’s security situations. “Hugs, not bullets,” he repeated often. “You can’t fight fire with fire!” he would say. “Scholarship students, not sicarios!”
The slogans spoke to López Obrador’s call for moral renewal and combatting what he considers the root cause of crime and violence: corruption and poverty. Eleven months into his administration, however, Mexico’s homicide rate continues racing to new records levels. The ambush of three carloads of women and children in northern Sonora state marked the most recent indignity.
In the wake of the Sonora slayings – which claimed the lives of three women and six children, all U.S. citizens – López Obrador has doubled down on his discourse of changing security strategies, while pinning Mexico’s problems with violence on his unpopular predecessors.
“These are issues that come from a long way back,” he said at a press conference Wednesday, “which were worsened by a strategy of wanting to resolve things only with the use of force.”
An austere figure with a slow-speaking style, who works 16-hour days and tours the country tirelessly – taking commercial flights – the man commonly called “AMLO” has proved popular. His approval rating hovers around 65 percent. He speaks of inheriting “a country in flames” and often reminds Mexicans of his unpopular predecessors, casually comparing them to organized crime – “the mafia in power,” he previously called them – and speaking of his political opponents as doing more damage to Mexico than drug cartels.
It’s found a receptive audience in Mexico, where inequality is rife and fatigue with corruption and the elite’s excesses fueled AMLO’s electoral success. In interviews in the western state of Jalisco, organized crime expert Edgardo Buscaglia says he has found people in crime-ridden areas who essentially confess “We know the Jalisco cartel does damage, but it doesn’t do worse damage than corrupt politicians and businessmen who are with the government.”
Vast stretches of the country seemingly exist on the periphery of Mexican society and see a scant state presence – including the fundamentalist communities in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains near the U.S. border with Arizona and New Mexico that were founded by offshoots of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Residents of the fundamentalist community of Colonia LeBarón donated a building and land for a Federal Police base – and help pay the officers’ salaries – after an anti-crime activist, Benjamín LeBarón, was murdered in 2009, said Brent LeBarón, a relative of the victim.
They also learned to live alongside warring drug cartels: identifying themselves to gunmen at checkpoints, staying off lonely roads at night and steering clear of shootouts.
“Obviously, they’re fighting over turf and access to roads and getting their drugs to the border,” LeBarón told USA TODAY.
But LeBarón cited another factor driving the violence: a strategy of killing or capturing cartel kingpins.
“When a head man gets caught or killed or someone else replaces him,” he said, “that’s when they see a weak point and try to take over turf.”
Such internal squabbling erupted in western Sinaloa state after the 2016 arrest of Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who now sits in a U.S. prison cell.
But Mexico’s weakness and the apparent lack of a security strategy was shown last month. Soldiers nabbed El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán Lopez, but were forced to release him after sicarios blocked roads in the city of Culiacán with burning vehicles and unleashed chaos. Critics accused AMLO of allowing criminals to cow the state, but he insisted he avoided a bloodbath.
“There’s no longer a war against narcotics traffickers,” he told reporters Oct. 30. “We’re not going to expose the lives of civilians, using the euphemism of collateral damage. That’s over.”
Mexico’s runaway violence has increasingly captured U.S. scrutiny. And AMLO’s discourse of “hugs, not bullets” has come under criticism, too, as U.S. politicians muse openly about military intervention.
“Hugs, not bullets. That may work in a children’s fairy tale,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told Fox News this week, “but in the real world, … the only thing that can counteract bullets is more and bigger bullets. If the Mexican government cannot protect American citizens in Mexico, then the United States may have to take matters into our own hands.”
President Trump – who has lauded AMLO as, “The great new President of Mexico” – also weighed in, tweeting, “This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”
Further U.S. intervention is a nonstarter for many in Mexico. AMLO also dismissed the notion on Thursday, saying Mexico would act on its own.
Analysts say the U.S. government has been working in Mexico for the better part of a decade, but the crime and killings continue as security strategies fall short and Mexico fails to strengthen its institutions or enforce the rule of law.
“Those notions of stepping up military presence in Mexico or betting on military solutions stems from a complete misreading of recent history in the sense of it has increased violence, it has made things worse rather than better,” said Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group.
The United States has been involved “both in designing and carrying out Mexican security strategy over the past administrations,” along with “capture and kill operations, extraditions – including ‘El Chapo’” – and collaborations between the Drug Enforcement Administration and Mexican Navy, Ernst said.
But they’ve “failed to build institutions in the aftermath of weakening criminal organizations and haven’t addressed the most fundamental question, which is corruption and collusion.”
For all of this talk of changing course on security and moral renewal – AMLO often invokes Christianity and cites Scripture, practices previously scorned in Mexican politics – the president has often turned to the military.
He created a new militarized police known as the National Guard, which was mostly staffed by soldiers and supplants the Federal Police. The guard’s first deployment, however, has been to stop Central American migrants trying to transit the country. Barely 4,000 guard members are assigned to Sonora and Chihuahua – where the fundamentalists came under attack Monday – compared to more than 6,800 members stationed in southern Oaxaca and Chiapas state, which are transited by migrants.
The current approach doesn’t adequately dismantle criminal structures or address issues such as the cartels infiltrating politics, analysts say.
“The militarization of Mexico has been a causal factor [of the violence] and has only tossed gasoline on the fire,” said Buscaglia, senior research scholar in Law and Economics at Columbia Law School and an adviser to governments on combatting organized crime.
“Mexico has never had an anti-mafia strategy. Mexico always continued speaking of a public security strategy, which it also doesn’t have.”