“Shoot them! Shoot them!” drug cartel thugs shouted as they chased Mexican soldiers out of Nueva Italia, a weigh station amid the lime groves of Tierra Caliente in western Michoacán state. The scenes of soldiers fleeing thugs scandalized Mexico – going viral on social media and offering a rude reminder of the increasing brazenness of organized crime as the country’s president pursues a security policy of “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not bullets.)
Speaking at his morning press conference after the event, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador doubled down on “hugs, not bullets” security strategy – which amounted to a presidential hug for thugs. AMLO, as the president is known, commended the fleeing soldiers for de-escalating the situation by getting out of Nueva Italia.
“We take care of the members of the armed forces, the National Guard. But we also take care of the members of the gangs, they are human beings. This is a different policy,” AMLO said May 12. “For me, it was a responsible attitude” on the part of the soldiers.
The conciliatory words for cartel thugs contrasts with the scorn AMLO routinely shows law-abiding Mexicans. They include the businessmen, the middle class, civil society, scientists (31 of whom are being pursued on organized crime charges), physicians, the political opposition and feminist collectives – whom he’s branded “conservatives” for demanding action of feminicides.
But AMLO has never had a cross word for narcos.
His posture toward drug cartel raises uncomfortable questions, especially as AMLO’s “different policy” of not engaging criminal groups isn’t pacifying the country as promised. And the role of criminal organizations in allegedly assisting his MORENA party in state and local elections raises even more uncomfortable questions.
AMLO has never defined “hugs, not bullets” or outlined a coherent security policy. But it provided a sticky catchphrase for his successful 2018 presidential campaign. It also came in the context of a proposed amnesty he promised for people involved with drug cartels and organized crime. He delivered it in the heroin producing heartland of Guerrero state and it appeared an unmistakable appeal for votes in communities dominated by drug cartels. Observers in these regions say it was positively received. Like the “hugs, not bullets” policy, the proposed amnesty was vague, even if campaign surrogates tried to fleshing out the idea by saying it would apply to lower level people such as opium poppy growers and the hoards of scouts known as “halcones,” who tip off cartel leaders to the presence of police and soldiers and other suspicious activity. AMLO also repeated the bromide: “You can’t fight fire with fire,” and spoke often of addressing the root causes of crime – which he considers to be poverty and corruption.
“There are no indications of success,” Ernesto López-Portillo, head of the citizen security program at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, told the Financial Times of AMLO’s approach to public security. “We don’t know anything. What we have is a presidential discourse that everyone hears, but we don’t have a strategy, we don’t have processes and we don’t have results.”
- FEWER CONFRONTATIONS WITH FEDERAL FORCES
Mexico’s murder rate remained stubbornly high at 29 murders per 100,000 residents during the first two years of the López-Obrador administration, though it fell by 3% in 2021. Analysts and observers say the president’s posture has produced fewer confrontations between security forces and criminal groups. Security analyst Eduardo Guerrero told La Vespertina, an El País podcast, in July 2021 that they number of “massacres” with the participation of federal forces dropped from “nearly 60” in 2018 to only four during the first half of 2021. The reduction, Guerrero said, perhaps comes “at a cost of losing control and governability in some territories.” Guerrero expanded on the consequences of not directly confronting drug cartels:
López Obrador’s big mistake was a miscalculation, when he thought that if the army and National Guard did not get involved in direct confrontations with organized crime, they would somehow curb their expansionism, their aggressiveness. It think that it reveals a lack of understanding of how these criminal enterprises work, what their objectives and aspirations are. What (criminal groups) have done instead is take advantage of the withdrawal of federal forces and expand into new areas of operation and thereby become a danger to new populations.
Former Bishop Salvador Rangel of Chilpancingo-Chilapa, whose diocese serves oft-violent Guerrero state and who controversially got to know many cartel bosses – to the point he negotiated kidnappings and organized collections of food for impoverished villages after the price of heroin poppies crashed due to the introduction of fentanyl – echoed those sentiments. “Government, the authorities, have been soft and narcotics traffickers are not soft,” he said in a March interview. “They go about their business and all that they do and I think they’re taking advantage of this kindness from the government.”
- A SPECIAL FONDNESS FOR THE SINALOA CARTEL?
AMLO’s policy of not speaking badly of drug cartels is especially pronounced with the Sinaloa Cartel, along with his seeming deference for its imprisoned former leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and his family. AMLO was touring Sinaloa state (on the Pacific Coast) when Guzmán was re-captured in early 2016. When asked about the capture, AMLO responded, “Nothing is said about the cartel that robs the most: the Los Pinos Cartel” – a reference to the presidential residence AMLO refused to live in – “which is headed by (former president) Enrique Peña Nieto.”
He later intervened in asking the U.S. Embassy to grant a visa for El Chapo’s mother so she could visit her imprisoned son at a supermax penitentiary in Colorado. (Consuelo Loera received a humanitarian U.S. visa in June 2019.) AMLO later greeted the matriarch – warmly embracing her – in March 2020 as she conveniently awaited his arrival as he inspected construction of a highway running through the rugged Sierra Madre. (He later cited COVID restrictions for refusing to meet the families of victims of violence protesting his appearances in provincial cities.)
The embrace of El Chapo’s mother followed his ordering the army to stand down after soldiers captured one of El Chapo’s sons, Ovidio Guzmán, in October 2019. Cartel gunmen mobilized in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacán, torching vehicles and eventually threatening the lives of military personnel and their families.
“When it was decided, so as not to put the population at risk, so that civilians would not be affected, [it was] because more than 200 innocent people in Culiacán, Sinaloa, would lose their lives if we did not suspend the operation, and the decision was made. I ordered that this operation be stopped and that this alleged criminal be released”
AMLO previously said his security cabinet decided to free Ovidio Guzmán and he backed the decision. He also claimed that he was unaware the operation to capture the younger Guzmán was occurring, saying he was only told of it at 4:45 p.m. on the day of the operation, which began at 2:30 p.m.
Ovidio Guzmán remains on the lam. A new Drug Enforcement Administration poster advertises rewards of up to $45 million for information on the remaining leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel – which include El Chapo’s sons (Los Chapitos) and cartel bosses “Caro” Quintero and Ismael Zambada, “El Mayo.”
- AMLO: the new ‘benefactor’ in Sinaloa?
Analysts are often at a loss to explain AMLO’s attitude toward the Sinaloa Cartel. Guerrero, the security analyst, offered the theory, “He has a vision of the Sinaloa Cartel as a sort of Robin Hood … a social benefactor for the entire Pacific Coast.” El Chapo was reputedly generous and went about building schools, fixing roads and renovating churches – acts of mob charity, which contrasted with politicians thieving public funds. But some analysts scorn the suggestion that El Chapo somehow benefitted Sinaloa and the sierra: Badiraguato, AMLO’s home municipality, remains the poorest in the state.
But AMLO himself appears to be making a play for narco hinterlands, positioning himself as a benefactor for a region suffering economically due to the collapse in prices for campesinos’ cash crops: marijuana (which lost value after California and U.S. states decriminalized cannabis) and opium poppies (due to fentanyl displacing heroin.)
AMLO traveled to Badiraguato in February 2019, shortly after El Chapo was sentenced in a New York court. He drew thousands to the county seat, including many presenting people petitions for presidential intervention.
The president didn’t mention El Chapo – referring to him as “a person being tried in the United States” – but promised to finish building a highway through the Sierra Madre, connecting Badiraguato with other drug-producing communities of the remote Golden Triangle of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa state, and open a university. Local observers saw the president building a political base among people who previously saw El Chapo as a benefactor – and see his sons, who grew up in Culiacán rather than the impoverished sierra, as a new generation they don’t relate to. As Adrián López Ortiz, editor of the Sinaloa newspaper El Noroeste, said:
“AMLO knows drug cartels don’t do business or prosper without a social base and that base is bigger than we think, especially in the sierra. That he would go to Badiraguato is a way of recognizing that social base and saying ‘I’m here for you.’”
The relationship between AMLO’s MORENA party and organized crime is the subject of no shortage of speculation. The speculation especially heated up in Sinaloa after political operators from rival parties were kidnapped by cartel gunmen the eve of the June 2021 election. Ismael Bojórquez, editor of Culiacán weekly Ríodoce with deep sources in the Sinaloa underworld, wrote of the incident: “(The assailants) forced them to reveal where they were keeping the money for mobilizing their political base and buying votes.” Bojórquez wrote that 20 persons were kidnapped the night before the June 6 vote and were not released until polls closed the next day.
MORENA won Sinaloa elections in romp – as it did in 11 of the 15 other states holding gubernatorial races. The party and its allies also kept a majority in Congress, but failed to win a super-majority necessary for approving constitutional reforms. López Ortiz wrote after the elections, “Organized crime in Sinaloa is flexible and adjusts its violence and financial operations, according to its specific territorial needs.” He continued:
“It’s not that MORENA is ‘narco.’ Rather Sinaloa narcos can align with MORENA now as it did before with (the PRI and PAN.) It’s simple. Sinaloa organized crime plays to win and bets with resources and provoking fear on those closest to its interests and preferences.”
Some observers continue seeing signs the cartel is continuing to turn out votes for the president and his party. AMLO promoted a recall vote April 10 – oddly pushed by AMLO himself rather than the opposition – which turned out only 17.7% of eligible voters. But turnout in the poorest parts of Sinaloa hit 22% – higher than the state capital or even Mexico City, where MORENA and parties identifying as “left-wing” have governed since 1997 – according to journalist Anabel Hernández.
Sinaloa is but one of the states where political collusion with drug cartels is considered common – or is suspected. Some 91 politicians, including 36 candidates, were killed in the nine months leading up to the 2021 elections. A source in Michoacán state says a similar scenario to Sinaloa played out there ahead of the 2021 gubernatorial elections – specifically in Nueva Italia, where videos showed soldiers being chased out of town. The source said:
“When there were gubernatorial elections, they went around telling people in supermarkets that if they didn’t vote for MORENA, they would burn down their businesses, they would remove them from their businesses.”
Outgoing Michoacán governor Silvano Aureoles sounded the alarm on narcos taking over the government as he was leaving office, alleging suspiciously high turnout across Tierra Caliente and an unusual large number of spoiled ballots. He camped outside the national palace in Mexico City, wanting for warn AMLO – who never paid him any attention.
Much of what he said came as no surprise. And it was an accusation had been hit with himself. The source in Tierra Caliente said Aureoles was accused of protecting a criminal organization in region known as Los Viagras. (Aureoles denied charges from a Los Viagras’ leader he sent the leader 1 million pesos to organize votes in 2018 and 10 million pesos to “guarantee calm in the state.”) “The government has been colluded with criminal groups for some time now,” according to the source. “This chutzpah you’re seeing now is because the boss of these cartels made a threat.”
- CARTELS BATTLE, DROP BOMBS WITH DRONES
Michoacán unfolds to the west of Mexico City. It takes in the monarch butterfly reserve, rich avocado-growing regions and an especially sweaty region known as Tierra Caliente (Hot Earth.) Then-president Felipe Calderón sent soldiers into Tierra Caliente shortly after taking office in December 2006. It sparked an escalation in violence as drug cartels dug in. And the incumbent La Familia Michoacana in Tierra Caliente ferociously resisted. It made meth with precursors imported from China through the port of Lázaro Cárdenas and shipped out iron ore from mines in the region. The cartel also preached values and personal improvement from a homespun version of the Bible – authored by a leader known as “El Más Loco” (the craziest one). “These people carry a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other,” a local priest told this reporter in 2009.
Self-defense groups (featured in the film “Cartel Land”) grabbed guns to run off the Knights Templar – formerly La Familia Michoacana – which had turned predatory and extorted local populations. But many of the self-defense groups had unclean hands and were eventually coopted by the government.
Nowadays, Tierra Caliente remains disputed: a coalition of criminal and self-defense groups known as Carteles Unidos has been fending off incursions from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). The CJNG has tried for years to take Michoacán from the neighboring state of Jalisco, but has never been able to displace the local cartels. The conflict has featured open battle – with the CNJG ripping up roads to prevent passage and even deploying drones dropping explosives.
- THE ARMY: MISSING IN ACTION?
Priests in the Diocese of Apatzingán, who serves Tierra Caliente, have been especially outspoken about the inaction of federal forces. A priest in the timber-cutting community of Coalcomán issued an open letter in August 2021 asking why soldiers wouldn’t intervene, when a barracks had been built there within the past decade. “There’s a military base with hundreds of soldiers (in Coalcomán) which is ‘waiting for orders’ while we’re being destroyed,” the priest wrote. “People are experiencing uncertainty due to violence: cars being burned, highways blockaded, killings everywhere, forced exiles, destruction of the highway to Michoacán, destruction of telephone lines, little internet access and (being) surrounded by armed people defending their interests.”
Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group, described a complex situation in which soldiers sometimes respond – and sometimes sit in their barracks. “I think they take a much more proactive role, take sides and actively participate in that particular conflict, along with other conflicts across Mexico,” said Ernst, who has spent extended periods studying security in Tierra Caliente over the past decade.
“These forces participate proactively in those conflicts (in Michoacán) and team up with one side or another, lend their resources, manpower, firepower to one side or the other for larger strategic considerations or just for reasons of more immediate corruption and collusion. They are a decisive factor in how these conflicts play out beyond inertia or general pacifism.”
Defense Secretary Gen. Luís Cresencio Sandoval said the soldiers chased out of Nueva Italia by the CJNG didn’t fight back because they were being pursued by unarmed people. The army had destroyed a methamphetamine lab and marijuana grow-ops prior to departing in a hurry. Mexico City newspaper Reforma attributed the confrontation in Nueva Italia to a dispute over methamphetamine trafficking as cartels vie for control of the port of Lázaro Cárdenas – 100 miles south, where chemical precursors are imported from China – and the route into the interior of Mexico and toward the United States.
In an April report for the International Crisis Group, Falko Ernst interviewed the second-in-command of an armed group and observed the following:
“The armed groups’ subsistence hinges on their ability to extract rents from the Michoacán economy’s four principal cash cows, chiefly through protection rackets. ‘The truth is,’ he said, ‘that everybody wants in on the avocados, the limes, the port [of Lázaro Cárdenas, key for importing illicit substances] and the [iron ore] mines. Those [groups] cut off will continue pushing. They just have to.’”
IN OTHER MEXICAN NEWS
- TWO MORE MURDERED MEXICAN JOURNALISTS
The misery for Mexican journalists deepened as two reporters were murdered outside an Oxxo conveniences store in the state of Veracruz. The May 9 murders of Yessenia Mollinedo Falconi and Sheila Johana García Olivera brought the 2022 death toll for Mexican journalists to 11 – surpassing the eight journalists murdered in Mexico in 2021 and shooting past the total for war-torn Ukraine this year. Motives for the murders remain uncertain, though Mollinedo previously covered crime for, El Veraz, and received death threats as recently as April 30, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. García was new to the online publication – which had stopped putting reporters’ bylines on stories – but had her home previously shot up.
Press freedom advocates attribute the slayings of so many Mexican media workers to impunity as most of the crimes committed against them go unpunished. AMLO promised an end to the murder of journalists, but has reacted angrily to suggestions his government could do more to stop such crimes – even alleging that the raising of the issue was nothing more than a means to attack his administration.
- RECORD MIGRANT DETENTIONS IN MEXICO
Mexico set a record for migrant detentions during the first four months of 2021, stopping 77,626 migrants – mostly Central Americans, according to news organization Animal Politico. Those numbers surpass the number of migrants apprehended during the same period of 2021 by 90%. The totals for 2022 also surpassed the previous record year of 2015 – when the Plan Frontera Sur to stop migrants in southern Mexico was in effect – by 56%, Animal Politico reported.
The country also recorded 11,271 child migrants stopped during the first trimester of 2202 – 72% more than 2021 and 124% more than 2020.
- MIGRANTS RIOT IN PIEDRAS NEGRAS DETENTION CENTER
Migrants rioted in the early morning hours of May 17 in the border city of Piedras Negras, opposite Eagle Pass, Texas – with some escaping into the streets. Mexican media reported a group of migrants in the facility caused a short circuit in a fan and used rags to start a fire, prompting immigration authorities to open the emergency exists. The National Immigration Institute (INM) confirmed a fire was set in its Piedras Negras facility, but said no serious injuries were reported and migrants were “transferred to a secure area.” The INM statement did not mention if any migrants escaped.
A source who works with migrants in Piedras Negras described the INM facility as overcrowded “without basic conditions.” The newspaper Reforma put the numbers inside the INM detention center at more than 200. It reported some 160 migrants had been moved to the municipal gym, where they were being detained.
Mary Anastasia O’Grady chronicles in the Wall Street Journal how AMLO’s insistence on building an new international airport far to the north of Mexico City (AIFA) – and canceling an already partially constructed airport in 2018 in the eastern exurb of Texcoco (in an act of political messaging to the business class to assert his control of the country) – has provoked chaos in the skies and caused several near misses at the still-operating Mexico City International Airport (AICM.)
- DEA LOSES PARKING SPOT FOR PLANE IN MEXICO
Reuters reporter Drazen Joric has broken the news that Mexico has stopped allowing the DEA to station a plane in the country – a move possibly hindering anti-drug operations. Effectively, Mexico denied the DEA a parking place for its plane, which it had on standby. Joric wrote, “The aircraft’s removal threatens to undermine U.S. efforts to battle organized crime groups inside Mexico and risks delaying extraditions of high-ranking capos.”
But it follows a series of actions by AMLO to undermine the DEA. He previously shut down an elite anti-narcotics unit, which had worked with the DEA for 25 years. AMLO also submitted legislation in late 2020 – quickly approved – which stripped foreign agents of their diplomatic immunity and required them to share any information obtained with Mexican officials.