Amid mounting drug war deaths, Mexico’s president sticks to strategy

This has been a horrific week for Mexico.

On Monday, at least 13 police officers were shot and killed during an ambush in the western state of Michoacán.

Fifteen people, including 14 civilians and one law enforcement official, were killed Tuesday in a shootout near the city of Iguala, in Guerrero.

But in a country tragically accustomed to such violence, it was Thursday’s events in Culiacán that were truly stunning.

It was there that authorities arrested Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán and now a top leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, who is wanted for extradition to the United States.

But Culiacán is the heart of the cartel’s territory and it responded to Guzman’s capture by turning the city into a war zone.

Gun battles between authorities and criminals erupted city-wide. Armed with high-caliber rifles and automatic weapons, including what appeared in one video to be a truck-mounted machine gun, cartel members overwhelmed government forces with sheer firepower. Seven people — including one civilian, a law enforcement officer and five so-called “aggressors” — were killed, government officials said.

Outmanned and outgunned, authorities were forced to release Guzman, a stunning admission of defeat.

Two years after Mexico extradited El Chapo to the United States, the cartel he left behind made a dramatic statement: that it, not the government, is in charge in Sinaloa.

Taken together, the incidents illustrate Mexico’s daily reality of unprecedented death and destruction — and a government’s inability to change that.

A government claim to fix the problem

When President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office last December, he became the latest Mexican leader forced to confront skyrocketing violence fueled by drug cartel activities around the country.

But AMLO, as he is often referred to, promised to do things differently. Whereas his predecessors “fought fire with fire,” AMLO would take a new tack.

His administration promised to address what it called the root causes of violence, namely economic insecurity. The approach would feature less armed conflict with cartels and try to solve the problem in a long-term way.

On his first day in office, he created a new national guard force tasked with ensuring short-term peace and security for beleaguered citizens.

And in the wake of another wave of violent incidents this week, the President continues to insist his strategy will work.
“The strategies that were applied before turned our country into a cemetery and we don’t want that anymore. I have said it a thousand times, nothing by force,” he declared at a Friday morning news conference.

López Obrador made similar comments after the shootings in Guerrero and Michoacán.

Numbers don’t lie

As the death toll continues to mount, maintaining support for arguments detailing long-term solutions becomes more tenuous.

Critics argue that it’s all well and good to want to tackle the problem of violence in a fundamental, systemic way. But not at the cost of essentially ignoring the fact that scores of people are dying every day.

“I do believe that the López Obrador administration has a lot of good will to turn things around,” said Falko Ernst, a Mexico security analyst for the Crisis Group. “But they’re so far completely missing the short-term component in their strategy. So we’re looking at a patchy strategy that cannot work because it denies that force needs to play a role.”

Ernst also argues that drug cartels, already sensing a longer leash from the López Obrador administration, could take the government’s capitulation in Culiacán as a sign of immense weakness.

“It sets a dangerous precedent,” said Ernst. “The Mexican state has been successfully forced into submission and this could trigger repetition by other armed groups.”

López Obrador argued that releasing Guzmán López was the right thing to do.

“The capture of a criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of the people,” he said, citing the threat to innocent civilians during the shootout.

López Obrador was elected last year in a landslide and still enjoys broad popular support.

But more than 33,000 people were murdered in Mexico in 2018. That number will likely be eclipsed this year.

In the face of such death, how long will the public continue to support López Obrador’s game plan to stop it?

It’s not clear. But as Mexicans wait for an answer, more people are dying in the drug-fueled violence that continues unabated.