Mexico’s ‘Hugs, Not Bullets’ Strategy Fails to Curb Drug Cartels: Report

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Photo courtesy International Crisis Group

Mexico’s efforts to combat drug cartels have been complicated by a diversion of resources to fight the coronavirus pandemic, and by U.S. pressure to stem the tide of undocumented workers heading north, according to a report by the International Crisis Group.

The diversion of resources are one reason—but far from the only one—why the so-called “hugs, not bullets” strategy launched by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has failed to significantly curb crime-related violence which took over 35,500 Mexican lives last year, the report said.

In a study focusing on the violence in the Mexican state of Guerrero, which it called the “epicenter” of organized crime in the country, the Crisis Group blamed endemic corruption and the rise of armed citizen defense groups which often acted as lawlessly as the gangs.

“As in Mexico as a whole….the immediate prospects for reducing violence in Guerrero are disheartening, especially at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects threaten to command official attention and squeeze public resources,” the report said.

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Map of Mexico showing state of Guerrero. by International Crisis Group

“A continuing wave of assassinations, disappearances, enforced disappearances and internal displacements shows how criminal violence has morphed into local armed conflicts of which civilians are the main victims. Early signs indicate that these competing groups have no intention of ceasing their activities as a result of the coronavirus.”

Lopez’ pledges to end the militarized “war on drugs” of his predecessor through economic assistance, anti-corruption measures and the creation of a new law enforcement body—the National Guard—to replace the military role—propelled him to a landslide victory in July, 2018.

But few of those pledges have materialized, and even the available resources designated for them have been undermined by competing national priorities, the report said.

“Under U.S. pressure to stop Central Americans from passing through on their way north, Mexico has channeled a significant portion of the National Guard’s resources to migration control,” the study authors wrote.

And the outbreak of COVID-19, which has so far infected 33,000 Mexicans and left 3,000 dead—experts say this is an undercount—has placed new pressure on the government.

For example, hostilities in just one of the Guerrero towns during the early stages of the pandemic have highlighted “the importance for the Mexican government of balancing disease control with its existing security tasks,” the study said.

The authors of the study described Guerrero, a mountain enclave on the Pacific Coast, as an example of the “worst of what collusion between criminals and security forces could do,” and a “harbringer of how crime will evolve elsewhere in the country” if government anti-crime measures continue to remain weak and ineffective.

It was the scene of one of the worst atrocities of Mexico’s drug crisis—the disappearance and  presumed massacre of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teaching college in 2014.

Guerrero is also the home of the popular international resort city of Acapulco, which has been so deeply engulfed by corruption that it had to disband its police force.

The explosion of murder in Guerrero can be traced to the 2009 killing of drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva by Mexican federal forces. With a power vacuum at the top of the crime hierarchy controlling the trade of narcotics, mostly marijuana, the state soon erupted into a deadly competition for influence among dozens of smaller groups.

‘Self-Defense’ Armed Groups

The violence and terror spawned by the fragmentation of organized crime in turn spurred community groups to take up arms in “self-defense” organizations—and some of those groups eventually became involved in criminal activities.

One group, known by its acronym of FUPCEG, now operates in 762 communities in the state and comprises more than 10,000 members.

A FUPCEG leader said he had been a successful tomato farmer before taking up arms, which he maintained that he had found personally distasteful.

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A heroin cook and trafficker operating out of Guerrero shows off his handgun during an interview, Photo by CRISISGROUP/Falko Ernst

“Do you think that I chose to be in a place like this, sleeping in the dirt and eating beans and eggs all the time?” he told a member of the Crisis Group team. “Of course not. And do you think I want to have to teach these men [points to armed guards close by] to kill? I don’t.

“But it’s not by choice. It’s something I’ve had to do”.

The Crisis Group team said it was unlikely the Mexican government could make more than a dent in the criminal violence ravaging the country.

“There’s no quick fix,” the report said.

But it recommended that the president “adapt to the particularities of regional conflicts” with targeted initiatives responding to local needs instead of adhering to a grand strategy.

The initiatives should focus on preventing human rights violations and ending impunity for government and police officials linked to corruption, and providing both resources and protection to victims’ organizations, the Crisis Group said.

“Past reforms failed not least because they aimed at sweeping, system-wide change and got watered down when they met resistance,” said the study.

The complete study can be downloaded here.

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