Mexico’s Appeasement of Drug Cartels Will Only Facilitate More Violence
Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 13
In early October 2019, a war-like scene broke out in the northern Mexican city of Culiacán after a series of stunning missteps by security officials. A forgotten warrant, escaped prisoners, and no plan for backup were just a few of the massive oversights made by Mexican
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his military. These circumstances led to a gunfight in the streets of the city between the country’s most notorious drug cartel, the Sinaloa cartel, and militarized police. Children leaving class hid behind cars while prisoners escaped from detention facilities amid the exchange of gunfire. The cartel quickly encircled the soldiers, according to eyewitness reports. This battle culminated with eight dead and with eight Mexican soldiers captured by the cartel, arguably a fate worse than death. But all was not lost, as Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of the infamous founder and former leader of the cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was captured by police. The very same day the Mexican government decided to release him, along with three other Sinaloa members, back to the cartel as part of a “political deal” to quell violence.
This unprecedented step of releasing a cartel leader after capturing him following a military operation was not received well by the people of Culiacán, let alone the rest of a nation facing increasing levels of violence. Many pundits in Mexico called it a momentous failure for the country, a notion echoed by citizens who stated that they no longer believed the government could protect them. A statement released by a coalition of former Mexican military officials said the move worried them. Mexico seems to have taken a few steps back when it comes to defeating drug traffickers, and much of the blame lies at the feet of AMLO.
This abject failure to strike a blow to the Sinaloa cartel is a symptom of AMLO’s willingness to appease the cartels in the name of peace. This strategy is not working. Murder rates in Mexico have soared in the past year, currently sitting at an average of 90 murders per day, and show no signs of slowing down. Cartels continue to bring in substantial amounts of revenue each year and are growing in their defiance of the nation’s government. Extreme displays of power, such as the hanging of 19 bodies from a bridge next to a banner threatening rival cartels in Michoacán, are becoming more and more frequent. In the face of all this violence and bloodshed, AMLO has stuck to his campaign promise of fighting the cartels with “hugs, not bullets.” Notably, he called an ambush of soldiers in Michoacán that left 13 dead “regrettable” and stated that he believed that the police should not interfere with crime in order to prevent more killings.
If AMLO’s appeasement strategy had worked in the past, this move would not have caused such an uproar, but it hasn't. Instead, he is allowing these criminal networks to grow unabated by security forces and is signaling to them that he has no plans to interfere with their business. When AMLO announced in January 2019 that there “was no more war” with the cartels, he said that he wanted to leave the past behind and move toward a more peaceful future. Allowing cartels to continue to grow is antithetical to the process of achieving peace in Mexico.
AMLO has proposed some policy initiatives that would lessen the stranglehold drug traffickers have on the nation, such as decriminalizing all drugs. However, the issue with this proposal is that the cartels are not just selling their product in Mexico but also in the United States. Therefore, decriminalization in Mexico would not necessarily lead to decreased violence between cartels fighting over market share. Mexico has a judicial system that is under-equipped to handle reported crime, with only four percent of crimes reaching the judicial system due to a lack of judges and prosecutors. AMLO’s refusal to accept American aid geared towards the war on crime, such as funding for more judges and police equipment, believing it to be at odds with his pivot towards development instead of force, is leaving the country idle in the face of increasing cartel presence. Instead of confronting the problem head-on, AMLO suggested funding a church-run television network to promote morality in the nation and to convince cartel members that there is a better path.
Not only are AMLO’s policies of appeasement not working in the short-term, they are setting up decades of unbridled crime in a nation that is nearing its breaking point after decades of persistent violence. If criminal enterprises are allowed to expand without any effective pushback, the country will soon reach a point where events like the one seen in Culiacán become commonplace. Innocent Mexicans will continue to experience increasing levels of violence until cartels fall out of power. The government is already outgunned and outmanned, and as AMLO speaks in platitudes he fails to understand the gravity of the situation. This gap in preparedness will continue to widen, and the consequences from this inaction will be felt long after AMLO and his party are no longer in power.