The festering security crises in Mexico
are ominous. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) campaigned to end the
so-called drug war strategy against bloodthirsty narcotraffickers. He has
described his security policy as “hugs, not bullets” (abrazos, no balazos).
In the first 18 months of his six-year term, AMLO shelved specialized anti-drug
units, pared back cooperation with the United States, and pledged to attack
poverty as the root cause of organized crime. Until recently, he sidelined the
Navy’s marine units that were adept at tracking and capturing criminals — including
the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, now serving a life sentence in US
For the United States, the illicit drug trade is a problem that cannot be ignored. The US Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2019 threat assessment reported, “Mexican TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States; no other groups are currently positioned to challenge them.” The report continues, “Mexico is the source country for most heroin and methamphetamine consumed in the United States, and remains a major transit zone for cocaine from South America destined for the United States.”
As AMLO’s predecessor learned, neglecting security policy emboldens criminal organizations and invites bloody turf wars among the six well-articulated cartels that operate with virtual impunity in Mexico. Today, an ultraviolent battle is raging nationwide between the expansionist Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) and the Sinaloa Cartel (run by “El Chapo’s sons and other henchmen). The two syndicates battle each other and smaller gangs for control of local drug sales and smuggling routes across the US border.
In 2019 — AMLO’s first full calendar year in office — a record 34,600 Mexicans were killed in drug-related violence, and 2020 is on pace to exceed that staggering figure. Alarmingly, this number does not include the more than 60,000 persons considered “disappeared” since 2006, many of whom are almost certainly dead due to narco-related violence, too.
On June 26, Mexico City’s police chief, Omar García Harfuch, was attacked on one of the capital’s principal avenues during his morning commute. A squad of 39 hitmen in 13 vehicles — armed with sniper rifles, other automatic weapons, a grenade launcher, and 50 molotov cocktails — intercepted Harfuch’s small motorcade. The chief survived, but his head of security was among three guards and an innocent bystander murdered. Within hours, Harfuch tweeted, “This morning we were cowardly attacked by the CJNG….” CJNG safehouses were raided, and many of the surviving gunmen were tracked and detained.
an attack on a senior official who commands 90,000 police officers in the
nation’s capital was an extraordinarily brazen act,” the Mexican analyst
observes. AMLO’s reaction was almost nonchalant, saying he has no intention of responding
by declaring “war” or making “pacts” with criminals. The latter reference was
curious, because some
speculate that the attack on Harfuch was a message to AMLO, who some perceive
favors Sinaloa in its power struggle with Jalisco.
One Mexican commentator noted that AMLO condoned the freeing of El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán, after an abortive arrest in October 2019, and met with the elder gangster’s mother and lawyers in March 29. Last month, however, authorities arrested the mother and sister of José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, known as “El Marro,” alleged leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel that terrorizes the besieged state of Guanajuato. In early June, Mexican financial investigators struck a blow against the Jalisco cartel’s illicit money laundering operations, seizing $1.1 billion in suspected CJNG accounts.
Meanwhile, the old-line leftist AMLO has courted favor with the Trump administration by diverting Mexico’s new national guard to patrol the southern border against Central American migrants. That may serve as an explanation, however inadequate, for the dramatic drop in drug seizures in 2019, which reached their lowest levels in the last six years. Compared to 2018, marijuana seizures were down 35 percent; heroin and methamphetamine seizures plummeted over 60 percent. Cocaine seizures climbed nearly 7 percent. At the same time, crimes related to organized crime have tripled.
While the White House has labored on immigration and trade, Attorney General William Barr has traveled frequently to Mexico to take up the law enforcement agenda. An extraordinary encounter between US and Mexican prosecutors to discuss ongoing investigations and potential cooperation took place in February. US Ambassador Christopher Laundau gets high marks for urging the host government to take the drug threat more seriously. According to published reports, Barr has pressed successfully for Mexico to step up the pace of extraditions of criminals under US indictment. Moreover, AMLO apparently has agreed to reengage Mexican marine units on sensitive anti-drug operations.