Despite Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s best efforts to combat the cartel influence through peaceful means, the continuing rise in deaths and the shocking rise in cartel displays of power has meant that the policy of de-escalation and appeasement, that the President’s 2018 electoral policy “Hugs, not Bullets” was based on, has already come to an end. What remains to be seen is if the cartel’s genie, that has grown in power and confidence over the last several years, can be placed back into its bottle.
To understand the policy that brought about this blatant rise in cartel control, it is necessary to look back to the failed efforts of the appeasement of violent men throughout history, from the Columbian government’s appeasement of Pablo Escobar to Chamberlain’s concessions to the Third Reich. President López ran in 2018 on a policy of dedication with the cartels over his predecessor’s ultra-violent policy that was supported both financially and politically by the U.S. government. The escalation of the drug war under Felipe Calderón and Peña Nieto’s escalation through the introduction of military assets into the fight has, according to official statistics, led to over 200,000 confirmed deaths and over 31,000 missing persons. This level of violence was catastrophic for both the economy of the Mexican nation and the public trust in the officials that they had elected to protect them.
This violence and institutional failure created a systemic distrust of an establishment that had failed them, combined with an economy that, according to world bank statistics, was in a near-perpetual state of stagnant growth. Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered a change from that. During his 2018-2019 election bid, he ran on a policy of liberal economic growth and an approach of appeasement and limited concessions to the cartels in a policy he paraded as “Hugs not Bullets”. Unfortunately, while these policies were enough to convince the wider Mexican public, it relied on every level of the cartels to be filled with honest individuals, and given the historically violent nature of the cartel industry, the number of cartel officials that fit that description was almost zero.
Obrador’s policy was manipulated by the cartels the moment it was introduced in December 2018, as should have been predicted when a nation gives mass-murderers a chance at spreading their power without the threat of judicial retribution. The disbanding of the Federal, Military and Naval Police and the botched re-establishment of these forces into the National Guard completed the total removal of Mexico City’s thin veneer of power over the cartels. This allowed all but the smallest cartels to act with near impunity, effectively replacing the Mexican government as the de facto power in many provinces, erecting roadblocks, enforcing taxes and policing entire regions.
This increase in the cartel’s power and marked advance in their control of larger areas has been demonstrated on multiple occasions. For example, a noticeable increase in cartel roadblocks, set up with the intention of extorting the local populous out of thousands in protection money. These open displays of power have escalated all the way to open war with the Mexican government. This erupted in Culiacán during October 2019, after the accidental arrest of El Chapo Guzman’s son and high ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel, which proved that cartels can win in open conflict. The loss of the Mexican state’s monopoly on overwhelming military power, combined with the consistently record-breaking murder rates demonstrates how drastically the “Hugs not Bullets” campaign has failed. This failure is directly calculable in the macabre currency of human life, with Mexico’s Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection (SSPC) reporting that 453 homicides were recorded in Guanajuato province in January 2020. This marks a 53% increase from the 293 homicides in January 2019, making it the most violent month in Mexico’s history.
Given this failure, many Mexicans and law enforcement officials are asking both themselves, and the Mexican government, if the deadly cartel bull can ever be coaxed out of the China shop that is the Mexican drug trade.