It was just small talk. A quick conversation about weather, traffic and pollution. I was, after all, in Mexico City, a metropolis of more than 20 million with more than its share of big city problems. But as soon as the cab driver realized his customer was a journalist, and a fellow Mexican living in the United States, he made an interesting reflection.
“Americans,” he said, “are always blaming us for drug trafficking. But they always fail to mention that Mexico wouldn’t be a drug trafficking diving board if they didn’t have the giant pool of addicts in their country.”
It was 2011 and it had already become painfully clear that then-president Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs had backfired, with a crime wave that was shaking the country and a record number of drug-related deaths.
It was not the first time I had heard the drug problem explained that way from the Mexican perspective. As a matter of fact, in the book “The State and Security in Mexico,” Mexican scholar, security analyst and author Raúl Benítez Manaut attributes the original idea to President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (page 26) who ran Mexico between 1964 and 1970 and was Lyndon B. Johnson’s counterpart for most of his presidency.
According to Benítez Manaut, after Johnson complained that Mexico’s efforts to stop drug trafficking were like “a trampoline,” then-president Díaz Ordaz reprised the image with a pun on the Spanish trampolín (diving board), responding, “Close your swimming pool and there will be no more trampoline.” The phrase stuck.
The recent massacre of three Mormon women and six of their children in northwestern Mexico has reopened an old debate about how to stem the flow of drugs from Mexico into the United States and how to annihilate the drug cartels that have terrorized the country with ever-increasing levels of violence and cruelty. What is Mexico supposed to do now?
Tragic as it was, the massacre in a region between the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, and just south of the U.S. border, was only the latest example of the downward spiral of security in Mexico.
If there were any doubts, the power of these criminal organizations became abundantly clear in October when Mexican special forces captured Ovidio Guzmán López, 29, son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former Sinaloa Cartel leader who is now serving a life sentence at a maximum-security prison in Colorado after being convicted of drug conspiracy and various trafficking charges in New York.
The younger Guzmán was captured in the city of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state, which gives its name to the cartel. But only hours after Guzmán’s detention, his captors were forced to release him after a city-wide battle where the Sinaloa Cartel overpowered law enforcement.
Also in October, hitmen suspected of belonging to another criminal group had ambushed and killed 13 police officers in the neighboring state of Michoacán. The next day, 14 civilians and one law enforcement official died in a gunfight between members of a criminal group and security forces in Guerrero near the city of Iguala, according to authorities.
There has been no answer yet to the question of what to do now to improve security. There were more than 33,000 homicides in Mexico in 2018 alone.
Current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office last December, was elected in part because he promised to improve security. While campaigning, he said his strategy would consist of “hugs, not gunshots” (abrazos, no balazos… it rhymes in Spanish). However, the death toll has only risen, with 22,059 murders in the first nine months of this year, compared to 21,581 in the same period last year.
Part of López Obrador’s plan was to form a National Guard which, in theory would be deployed to hotspots throughout the country to improve security. However, thousands of those troops were given the mission of stopping the flow of Central American migrants, not curbing crime: A 15,000-strong contingent was sent to the U.S.-Mexico border in June. An additional 2,000 members of the guard were sent to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, adding to the 4,500 troops already spread across the area.
When a photojournalist took a picture of members of the guard detaining a mother and daughter as they attempt to cross the Rio Grande, many criticized President López Obrador, saying the national guard had become, in effect, Donald Trump’s border wall.
Mexican columnist Denise Dresser shared the photo and others in the series with a biting description, citing US political pressure to stem migration. “Here the National Guard demonstrates its ‘civil’ character, its ‘respect for human rights,’ its ‘training’ to conduct police work, and its plain conversion in Border Patrol now into the service of Donald Trump.”
José Antonio Ortega, president of the Mexico City-based Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, recently told me the current state of security in Mexico means it’s time for the president to overhaul his security strategy.
“President López Obrador’s strategy is not working. That’s why only a few days ago we asked him to change it. He has to act against the private militias at the service of the criminal groups, he has to enforce the law, he has to take action to put an end to the kind of impunity we’re seeing right now,” Ortega said on November 5.
For Ortega, equivocating on a strategy is proving to be just as dangerous as the tough enforcement policy used in the last two administrations. “The message we’re sending to criminals is that here they can kill, kidnap, extort and the president is not going to go against them, but is going to call their mothers so that they get a scolding. That’s what the ‘hugs, not gunshots’ policy is all about,” Ortega said.
North of the border, US president Donald Trump seems to agree, urging López Obrador toward more decisive force against the cartels. On the morning after the Sonora attack, Trump tweeted, “This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth. We merely await a call from your great new president!”
But as the Mexican national guard works to stem migration to the US, those very cartels are selling drugs in America and buying guns from America – a cycle that has prompted some Mexicans to wonder: “What about the Americans’ responsibility in all this?”