Nothing New In Mexico: Obrador’s Approach Takes Flak From The US And Cartels

The Mexican drug syndicate, Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), are using weaponized drones in gang warfare, Forbes reported last week. This is only the latest in an escalation in impunity, militarization and violence shown by the CJNG over the recent months. Facing increasing pressure from the US government, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador must come to a decision on how to respond to these provocations.

Even before the militarized drone discovery, CJNG has consistently made headlines this summer with unprecedented displays of force. From the assassination of high-level officials to releasing a series of videos on social media brandishing their firearms, it is clear that CJNG are mounting a challenge both to the state and to rival cartels. Security analyst and newspaper columnist Alejandro Hope estimated that there was more than $1 million worth of armaments and vehicles on display in one of the videos published.

“I’m seeing that the CJNG like none other before has decided to take on the state in toto,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a security consultant. “They are a formidable challenge to the state.” Despite this apparent escalation, Obrador has stood by his “hugs, not bullets” policy to combat drug-trafficking and violence, having declared the “war” on drugs to be over. In response to CJNG’s most recent stunts, Obrador stated, “We will fight them with intelligence and not force. We will not declare war.”

Now one of the DEA’s five most dangerous transnational criminal organisations in the world, CJNG stepped into the power vacuum created by El Chapo’s capture in 2016. This arrest was the highlight of the “decapitation strategy”, a large-scale militarized crackdown aimed at capturing or killing Mexican drug cartel kingpins. In a coordinated effort, US and Mexican government succeeded in removing 25 of the top 37 drug kingpins.

However, according to Gen. Charles Jacoby, commander of U.S. Northern Command, the decapitation strategy has had no “appreciable, positive effect”. In fact, the policy has had disastrous long-term consequences, especially on the Mexican civilian population. Critics say that it led to an increase in violence as cartels and leaders struggled for power and created a proliferation of smaller, more violent gangs across Mexico.

Despite evidence that the decapitation strategy has failed before, the DEA have put a record $10 million bounty on the boss of CJNG, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, otherwise known as El Mencho, and are pushing for another, even heavier militarized crackdown.

At the beginning of his presidency, the left-wing populist Obrador declared that he would prioritize reducing homicide rates over apprehending cartel bosses and opt for a pacifistic, intelligence-based approach. Despite this promising start, after twenty months in power, Obrador has not followed through. Instead, Mexico finds itself in an uncertain – and increasingly violent – middle ground.

While successes include the freezing nearly 2,000 bank accounts related to CJNG in June and the establishment of a nation-wide apprenticeship scheme, most of the government’s actions reveal a lack of commitment to the new pacifistic approach. In May, the government first captured and then released Ovidio Guzman, El Chapo’s son, after his gang threatened retribution. Furthermore, like his predecessors, Obrador has created a National Guard to replace police forces. Critics say this decision has made little difference as the forces continue to be underpaid and badly supervised. Vidal Romero, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico says López Obrador’s administration does not have a strategy to combat the drug cartels. “They are doing the same as previous governments,” he says, “but they are saying they are not doing the same as other governments”.

There can be no quick solution to a problem created by decades of systemic corruption, governmental neglect, violence and poverty. However, repeating old strategies that have already been proven to be destructive is irresponsible and dangerous. Unfortunately, America’s continuing support for the decapitation strategy comes as no surprise, especially considering the fallout is mainly suffered on the other side of the border. On the other hand, Obrador’s current approach, which is neither highly intelligent nor pacifistic, is not working either.

It is important to note that the failure of one, non-violent approach does not mean pacifistic approaches should be labelled as ineffective. Indeed, scholars such as Vanda Felbab-Brown have pointed to the importance of long-term institution building and the need for rule of law in Mexico as the only long-term solution.

Rafaela Alford
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