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AMLO mocks victims of violence as Mexico mourns atrocity
A gruesome video of five abducted young men forced to attack each other deeply disturbed Mexico, but the president preferred to play dumb in the face of public pain.
Five friends from Lagos de Moreno in western Jalisco state planned to attend the local fair on a recent Friday night. They instead disappeared – a cruel fate befalling thousands of Mexicans. Photos of the young men bloodied and bound on their knees surfaced on social media. Then came a video in which the friends were forced to attack each other.
An especially gory social media description of the video – deliberately not watched by the author of this newsletter due to its graphic nature – read: “One of the five young people … was forced to beat, stab, and slit the throat of another of his friends.” The Associated Press wrote that the video shows “someone off-screen tossing the youth a brick, so he can bludgeon the victim with it.”
The video horrified Mexico as one of the rare atrocities that stirs outrage in a society seemingly inured to scenes of violence. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was not among the outraged. At his morning press conference on Tuesday, the president pretended not to hear journalists shouting questions on the crime. Then he cracked a cruel joke with the punchline: “I can’t hear” as he smiled with his hand cupped around his ear to feign not hearing clearly.
The victim is always AMLO
AMLO’s communications team subsequently blamed the media, resorting to the president’s oft-used line: “We’re not the same” as his predecessors. But the tactic resorted to the old trope of AMLO portraying himself as the victim – regardless the accusation or atrocity – alleging his political opponents or civil society or journalists in general are orchestrating campaigns against him every time bad news occurs. He’s even alleged crimes occur with the express purpose of harming his administration.
The response continued a pattern of the president paying little attention to victims of violence, too – while never once rebuking the crimes committed by drug cartels. He notoriously greeted the mother of imprisoned Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, but has refused to meet with the mothers of Mexico’s missing – who form search parties to scour the countryside for clues on their disappeared loved ones.
AMLO also insists that Mexico’s security situation has improved under his “hugs, not bullets” security strategy. He stated at a recent press conference:
“We stopped the increase in homicides and we’re achieving a decrease – which has been difficult – because there are no longer massacres, the injured are no longer executed, human rights are respected, there are no more disappeared (persons).”
The comments on executing the injured refers to the high lethality rate in the army’s interactions with presumed narcos. Additionally, AMLO has pushed the erroneous idea that the killings of journalists and environmentalists were exclusively state-sponsored (from the federal government) prior to his arrival rather than the product of rampant impunity and the absence of the state in many corners of the country.
Fewer homicides, more disappearances?
AMLO recently boasted that the murder rate fell 9.7% in 2022 over the previous year, according to numbers from INEGI, the state statistics service (which is considered very reputable.) Analysts, however, have expressed disquiet with the numbers, suggesting prosecutors' offices are classifying crimes incorrectly.
A study by anti-crime NGO Causa en Común found prosecutors increasingly classify murders as “crimes against life and integrity” rather than “culpable homicide” (manslaughter.) Over the first six months of 2023, prosecutors have classified 8,269 deaths as “crimes against life and integrity” – 10% more than the same period of 2022 and nearly double number recorded in all of 2016.
As the official murder rate falls in Mexico, the number of disappearances has increased. Lisa Sánchez, director of the NGO Mexicans United Against Delinquency, told news organization Expansión:
“We know that today there are 50,000 bodies of deceased persons which have not been identified, hence we don’t know if they’re part of the statistics of people killed, although they are counted among the disappeared persons.”
Mexican presidents treat crime as a public relations problem
The National Registry of Disappeared Persons, which tracks persons missing since 1962, listed 97,046 persons as disappeared as of July 28. Some 44% of those persons went missing during AMLO’s administration, according to Expansión.
AMLO has stated he is carrying out a census of disappeared persons – sending a team of political operators (who normally “promote” his social programs) to visit the homes of the disappeared. He insisted early results showed many people safely at home – not missing. But he also revealed his true intentions for the census of missing persons: his public image, telling the country of the scandalously high numbers:
“It’s a campaign against us, being used in a vile way. Anything that helps them attack the government. So I’m offering an apology for what we have been defending.”
The president’s comments continued a strategy of Mexican presidents and politicians to treat criminal violence as a public relations problem rather than a national emergency. AMLO’s predecessor, former president Enrique Peña Nieto, largely stopped speaking of insecurity after taking office in December 2012 – and media coverage of crime diminished – as he promoted an agenda of economic reforms and attempted to change the country’s international image. (The strategy crashed with the rise of the autodefensas (self-defence groups in Michoacán state and later the attack on the 43 Ayotzinapa teacher college students.)
Writing in Animal Político, lawyer and human rights activist Jacobo Dayan called out the president’s true motives for revising the missing persons’ statistics:
“Only for reasons of image is the president is concerned about the number of missing persons. He is not interested in truth, justice and non-repetition. To reduce the impact on his government, he only intends to lower figures and not resolve this humanitarian crisis. And to do this, he announced a ‘census’ of missing persons. …
“Workers from the Welfare Secretariat and state search commissions are going house to house, not to find the truth and justice, rather replacing the prosecutors’ offices which should be carrying out the investigations.”
The region where the five young men between the ages of 19 and 21 were disappeared in Los Altos of Jalisco – known for its deep Catholic culture, blue-eyed inhabitants and tequila distilling and located near the geographic heart of Mexico – has been plagued by cartels disappearing persons, according to Mexican media reports.
Jalisco state officials put the number of missing at 514 persons – in a zone beset by a conflict between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and a Sinaloa Cartel faction headed by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
Authorities have not stated a motive for the disappearance of the five victims in Lagos de Moreno. But the newspaper El Universal cited sources close to the investigation, who offered forced recruitment as a possible motive. The victims, El Universal said, were possibly tricked into showing interest for a job in a call center. The region, it added, was known as a hub of CNJG recruitment and training.
Commenting in the newspaper Reforma, security analyst Eduardo Guerrero posited:
“In most of the country, young people are mainly killed in their 30s. In Lagos de Morenos and its environs, they’re in their 20s. That tells of possible forced recruitment and disputes between the CJNG and the Mayo Zambada group.”
Not all cartel recruiting is so clandestine: Cartel job postings have been circulating online and via WhatsApp messages. An ad making the rounds online promised pay of up to 15,000 pesos monthly ($900) for lookouts (who tip off cartels to the presence of outsiders and the movements of security forces, then mobilize to block highways). It even called for fentanyl cooks, but didn’t list a salary.
No one is looking for ‘El Mayo’
“Bienvenidos MZ” was graffitied on the wall of the property where the five young men were taken in Lagos de Moreno, suggesting the involvement of the Mayo Zambada faction, but cartels are known to attempt pinning atrocities on their opponents – while presenting themselves as defenders the population against predatory outsiders.
Investigative journalist Peniley Ramírez addressed the issue of Mayo Zambada and his continued impunity in her weekly column for Reforma, remarking, “The problem with this hypothesis (of Zambada’s possible involvement) is we don’t know much about ‘El Mayo’” – even though he was considered a cartel boss perhaps on par with El Chapo or perhaps his No. 2.
The U.S. government is offering a $15,000,000 reward for El Mayo’s capture. But Ramírez revealed a shocking revelation: No one is looking for El Mayo. Ramírez wrote:
“‘No one in the government is investigating El Mayo,’ a senior obradorista functionary told me recently. The affirmation isn’t entirely true. In recent months, El Mayo’s employees have been detained. However, the perception reveals a deep concern, which I’ve heard from other senior officials in the federal government on the silence around the Zambada and his criminal actions, not from the past, rather today.
“The U.S. has an open criminal case against El Mayo from more than 20 years. It also has a pending extradition. In Mexico, sources from the federal prosecutor’s office, who asked not to be identified, state that there is no case against him nor recent investigations. …
“How many more deaths are needed so that Mexico seriously investigates El Mayo?”
Jalisco violence continues
The atrocity in Lagos de Moreno continued the organized crime horror afflicting Jalisco – Mexico’s third most populous state and home of the CJNG.
In July, explosive devices killed four police and two civilians in the Guadalajara suburb of Tlajomulco, a municipality increasingly notorious for clandestine graves containing the remains of presumed drug cartel victims.
The Associated Press reported a series of seven roadside bombs were detonated in a coordinated attack on police, who were called to investigate the possible discovery of graves – which are often located by collectives of families (themselves increasingly under attack) who form search parties to find their missing loved ones. The AP wrote of the attack:
“The governor of Jalisco state said the explosions were ‘a trap’ set by the cartel to kill law enforcement personnel.
“Luis Méndez, the chief prosecutor of Jalisco state, said the blasts late Tuesday in the township of Tlajomulco were so powerful they left craters in the road, destroyed at least four vehicles and wounded 14 other people.
“It appeared to be the first time that a Mexican cartel killed law enforcement personnel with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and was the latest example of the increasingly open, military-style challenge posed by the country’s drug cartels.”
AMLO CASTS DOUBT ON DEA ASSESSMENT
AMLO has a habit of publicly defending the Sinaloa Cartel – and never having a cross word for narcos, regardless the atrocity.
He also has a habit of publicly doubting or berating the DEA – most notoriously in April, when U.S. prosecutors indicted Los Chapitos (the Sinaloa Cartel faction run by sons of the cartel’s imprisoned leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán) and the DEA boasted of infiltrating Los Chapitos. He compared the DEA’s infiltration to espionage on Mexico and called it “abusive interference, arrogance, which must not be accepted for any reason.”
AMLO and his administration also have a habit of playing dumb in the face of revelations on fentanyl trafficking from U.S. officials. AMLO notorious claimed no fentanyl comes from Mexico and implausibly insisted there was no consumption in the country.
He again played dumb with declarations from DEA administrator Anne Milgram, who provided an estimate on the size of reach of Mexico’s two biggest drug cartels: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Milgram said of the two cartels:
“The Sinaloa Cartel reportedly has a presence in 19 of the 32 Mexican states. It has been identified that there are currently more than 26,000 members, associates, facilitators, and brokers affiliated with the Cartel around the world.
“The Jalisco Cartel's rapid expansion of its drug trafficking activities is characterized by the organization's willingness to engage in violent confrontations with Mexican Government security forces and rival cartels. The Jalisco Cartel reportedly has a presence in 21 of the 32 Mexican states. It has been identified that there are currently more than 18,800 members, associates.”
AMLO: ‘We don’t have that information’
Speaking at a press conference, AMLO insisted the information presented by the DEA didn’t exist:
“We don’t have that information. I don’t know where the woman from the DEA got it. I hope she gives us more details because I think that she said the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation have 40,000 (in 100 countries.) Please tell us what proof they have. … I say in total respect, in the United States government, there is no coordination among them.”
AMLO then insisted that in Mexico – unlike the United States – “We put things in order (on security matters). … Now, everyone works together.”
He concluded his rant with a pair of unfounded claims. First, that 70% of homicides in Mexico are attributable to conflicts between drug cartels. The statement echoed the erroneous claims during the administration of president Felipe Calderón that nearly everyone killed during a period of rising violence was somehow tied to organized crime.
Second, AMLO cast shade on statements from U.S. officials, including Christopher Landau, U.S. ambassador to Mexico during the Trump administration, that 35% to 40% of Mexican territory was controlled by drug cartels. “It’s that they don’t have good information,” AMLO said.
Dubious DEA methodology?
Security analysts in Mexico raised questions on the DEA’s assessment of the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels. Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group, questioned the DEA’s methodology. He told this newsletter the DEA assessment likely counted the estimated numbers of foot soldiers and operatives in each cartel, but also included the ranks of its partners and smaller allied cartels.
“Their expansion has been driven by alliances with local outfits and by setting up satellites,” Ernst said. “Those often have at least a degree of autonomy. So what do you count as properly belonging to the organization, and what as mere affiliates? … Even more complicated, how do you count white collar and official operators?”
He continued, “It becomes tricky because we don’t have a whole lot of fine grained knowledge about how power and control are negotiated within this very wide criminal network”
A pattern of playing dumb
AMLO has repeatedly tried to deny the obvious on matters of security, then showing signs of cooperation after the fact.
He infamously claimed fentanyl wasn’t produced in Mexico and sent a letter to the president of China asking to help the United States on the issue. He later credulously wondered aloud where fentanyl comes from after China after the Chinese foreign ministry claimed, “There is no such thing as illegal trafficking of fentanyl between China and Mexico.”
But AMLO later boasted he finally had proof after the navy intercepted chemical precursors from China arriving at the port of Lázaro Cárdenas. The Defense Secretariat (SEDENA) in June revealed that it had busted 1,740 illegal drug labs since 2018 – along with 1,725 kilograms of fentanyl in 2023 and 7,565 kilograms over the past five years.
When White House security advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall stated: “Mexico is the principal pathway fentanyl is coming into our country,” public security undersecretary, Luis Rodríguez Bucio, followed AMLO’s lead and also played dumb. He told a public forum:
“Asserting that much of the fentanyl that reaches the United States is through Mexico, one wonders where that data comes from. … I think maybe she doesn’t know where she gets that information from.”
Mexico lacks a cartel assessment
Some analysts offered an unflattering explanation for AMLO’s dismissive attitude on the DEA assessment, suggesting dereliction on the drug cartel problem: he lacks credible estimates on the power of criminal groups challenging the state in wide swaths of the country – and increasingly causing havoc abroad.
AMLO’s irritation with the DEA, wrote academic Sergio Aguayo, “is logical because it contradicts the triumphalism of his discourse,” that crime is declining and the country is undergoing a transformation during his presidency. Aguayo continued, saying in his column in the newspaper Reforma:
“In spite of the prominence of criminal organizations, we lack something so basic as a trustworthy diagnosis on the evolution of their power. It’s possible the governments of Mexico and the United States have opted not to do it to not alarm their citizens. …
“It’s disconcerting because that’s to say (AMLO) has been in office for five years without requesting a diagnosis on the global presence of these cartels from embassies, consulates and Mexican military attachés.”
In the absence of official information – other than some estimations from military intelligence, which were leaked in a hack of the Defense Secretariat (SEDENA) – analysts and journalists have stepped into the void. Eduardo Guerrero, principle of the security consultancy Latania, published calculations using open-source data in the newspaper El Financiero.
Guerrero acknowledged the difficulties. “Due to the high rates of impunity in Mexico, prosecutor’s offices and (the prison system) do not allow for a calculation of the number of people working for organized crime.”
He calculated the Sinaloa Cartel having between 4,300 and 7,100 members, a figure increasing to between 9,400 and 14,800 members if the ranks of “allied and subordinate organizations” are included. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) has somewhere in the range of 9,900 to 16,500 members – which swells to 21,900 to 33,900 if allies and subordinate organizations are included.
The numbers only include frontline people, Guerrero says, while omitting “more numerous groups” such as small-time drug dealers, extortion collectors or lookouts (who can include vendors, taxi drivers and people working in public places) “who are subcontracted.”
“In some rural regions, where there is intensive marijuana or opium poppy production, up to one-third of the population works in cultivating such crops. In urban areas, taxi drivers and others in transport – and frequently the police, too – often have some sort of subordination to criminal actors.”
These people form part of the social base of the cartels, according to Guerrero, “who could play a strategic role” – such as mobilizing in the face of threats. Such a mobilization occurred in July after thousands blocked the Mexico City-Acapulco highway, swarmed the Guerrero state legislature and took police and public officials hostage – all in an attempt to gain the release of two cartel leaders.
The cartels’ international reach
The DEA says the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG operate in close to 100 countries. One of the more infamous examples of the Mexican cartels’ international reach is Ecuador, which has been rife with violence in recent years – provoking an outpouring of migrants heading toward the United States.
The murder rate in Ecuador has quadrupled over the past five years, according to the Financial Times, which reported: “Last year, 4,800 murders were reported in the nation of 18 million, almost double the number from a year earlier.” Violence in the previously placid Andean country has provoked outward migration – with Ecuadorians heading north toward the United States.
Fernando Villavicencio – an investigative journalist and politician – was campaigning against the incursion into politics of gangs linked to Mexican drug cartels. He was assassinated while on the hustings – following the candidate’s revelations he had received threats from Los Chonos, an affiliate of the Sinaloa Cartel. Supposed members of another criminal group known as Los Lobos – linked to the CJNG – later claimed credit for the attack. Los Lobos later disavowed that claim.
“If not a failed state, then Ecuador has already advanced disturbingly far down the path to becoming a narco-state,” analyst Will Freeman of the Foreign Relations Council wrote in America’s Quarterly. “There have been signs of complicity and collusion by officials in the prison system, police, armed forces and judiciary. You can’t understand Villavicencio’s killing—or the murder of other recently-slain politicians—without that context.”
Slain candidate had accused AMLO of cartel inaction
“(Andrés) Manuel Lóepz Obrador should face his problem with the mafias. There, in that country, where a large part of the political class has been financed by drug trafficking.”
AMLO, who publicly thanked drug cartels for behaving after the 2021 Mexican midterms (in spite of the Sinaloa Cartel appearing to have mobilized in favour of his MORENA party in Sinaloa state), once again seemed to provide cover for drug cartels. He showed visible irrigation at a press conference upon hearing suggestions that Mexican cartels somehow had a hand in Villavicencio’s assassination.
The president, who indulges conspiracies and regularly accuses opponents of untoward acts with the flimsiest of evidence, insisted on Thursday:
“I would not dare to advance anything about the motives because there are no elements to do so. You have to act very responsibly, not casually blame anyone and wait for the investigations”
A reporter asked if Mexico had information on the accusation. AMLO responded, “No,” then continued:
“What catches my attention is that immediately they started spreading blame in a very sensational and unserious way, very irresponsibly, in media outlets … which in the majority of these cases are manipulation, not media outlets.”