Bullets, not hugs

Across Mexico, narcoviolence is spiralling out of control.

Narcoviolence across Mexico has surged to levels not seen since the 1980’s. Cartels are now better armed than the police and almost daily shootouts are increasingly resembling warzones in Ukraine and the Middle East. Washington is increasingly concerned about the deteriorating security situation in its southern neighbour – inaction will contribute to increased migratory flows; it will also undermine confidence in the administration of president AMLO.

The government has recently touted a 3.6% reduction of homicides across the country in 2021. Progress certainly, nonetheless the total figure leads the region, with some 33,308 homicides last year. Even this figure does not consider unaccounted figures in homicide statistics. What of the 18,250 individuals reported “missing” from December 2018 to October 2021? Few are likely to ever be identified.

A Mexican retired general and former director of the Homeland Security Investigations Center explained, “The reality is that across many areas of Mexico, Organised Criminal Groups (‘OCGs’) exert de facto territorial control. Washington is deeply concerned about the escalation of violence in the country. The images of cartel violence on the border of Laredo, Tamaulipas, Tijuana, Baja California or Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua, show the lack of control with drug blockades and confrontations against Mexico’s security forces.”

“The reality is that across many areas of Mexico, Organised Criminal Groups (‘OCG’s’) exert de facto territorial control.”

Former director of the Homeland Security Investigations Center

In other words, president AMLO’s strategy of “hugs not bullets” has failed. What is particularly concerning for the government, and for Washington, is that OCG’s are rapidly diversifying their revenue streams. Whilst drug trafficking remains their bread and butter they are increasingly turning to kidnapping, extortion, fuel theft and human (especially migrant) trafficking. The latter has become highly lucrative as the US and Mexico have significantly strengthened migratory restrictions. OCGs are also expanding their interest in illegal logging and water trafficking especially in areas where state presence is weak, or where the authorities can be easily intimidated.

A former president of congress and an expert in regional security explained the financial dimension, “The census authority marked that OCG revenue was almost 2% of GDP, but it is more likely closer to 10%. The reality is that many Mexicans, out of fear, prefer to pay a flat fee to OCG’s than to the State itself, and that is a huge vulnerability. If Mexico collects 11 or 13% of its GDP without oil, a very low rate, the perceptions of ‘security tax’ on drug trafficking is higher.”

“The reality is that many Mexicans, out of fear, prefer to pay a flat fee to OCG’s than to the State itself.”

Former president of congress, Mexico

Meanwhile, the AMLO administration continues to deal with crime by deploying the National Guard to hotspots. The Guard’s presence is intended to deter criminals but does little to address the socio-economic root causes of insecurity. Whenever criminal activity temporarily decreases thanks to this measure, its not long until OCG’s again rear their head.

Unless the Biden administration – through the Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities, for example – pressures the administration to rethink its strategy, it is unlikely that Mexico will adopt a different approach to tackling the power of OCG’s. For now, it appears to have neither the resources nor the political will to do so.

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