Gunmen massacred up to nine members of a family, most of them believed to be children, in Mexico on Monday. These victims’ ages, and reported US citizenship, propelled the story into the headlines. But this is a country where nearly 100 people are murdered each day, one every 15 minutes, and many deaths go unmarked.
Donald Trump, via Twitter, called on Mexico to “wage WAR on the drug cartels”. That disastrous strategy, first unleashed in 2006 in response to an explosion of violence, only exacerbated the problem – fracturing cartels into smaller factions battling for power. Two hundred thousand deaths later, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as Amlo, took power vowing to use “hugs not bullets” to bring peace.
Almost a year on, 29,000 more people have been killed and the death rate is still rising. As a Guardian series shows, the cartels are more deeply entrenched than ever. “Narcos” have diversified into illegal logging, fuel theft and people-smuggling, and are intertwined with local politicians, police and even civil militias formed to counter them. In places, residents have turned to them for basic needs that the state has not met, while outgunned police can only operate by reaching an accommodation with them. US users fuel the crisis: on one estimate, 90% of lethal drugs there arrive from Mexico. Weaponry flows the other way: a 2013 report found that 250,000 firearms a year are bought in the US to be sent to Mexico.
The leftist president correctly identified that the underlying domestic causes of the problems are socioeconomic, and that the country must address entrenched poverty instead of seeking to crack down ever harder. He has promised improved services, small stipends and vocational training for 2.3 million disadvantaged young people. This redistribution is desirable in and of itself, but any crime-reducing effects will be felt only slowly. Dismantling the political and business networks linked to the cartels is equally critical – but Amlo’s plan seems to consist of declaring that corruption is no longer tolerated.
Similarly, shifting away from aggressively confronting the cartels looks sensible, not least because abuses by the state have fuelled the problem. But some fear that the groups who hold power on the ground are exploiting the vacuum. They say Mr López Obrador has no short-term strategy, and some suspect no substantial long-term strategy either.
There are questions about the deadly ambush that killed 13 police officers last month, and more about a bungled attempt to arrest Ovidio Guzmán López, son of the jailed drug lord “El Chapo”. The operation in Culiacán, apparently at the US’s request, went disastrously wrong – with soldiers forced to release him when the cartel essentially took the city hostage, sending a dangerous message of impunity.
Promises to regularise the standards, training and salaries of the various local and state police forces look a long way from coming to fruition. The president has focused on the creation of a new security body, untainted by the human rights abuses and corruption of existing forces. Seventy thousand officers have been hired, and their numbers should double by the end of next year, but so far the national guard has spent its time stopping central American migrants from reaching the US border. It is also a militarised police force, composed mostly of former soldiers and led mainly by military personnel.
These tactics – building a new force, and relying on the army – were tried by his predecessors without success. Amlo’s rhetoric of a sea change is welcome. The question is whether it can be realised.
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