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Doubts grow over López Obrador’s ‘hugs’ strategy to fight Mexico crime

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Via Financial Times

The murders this week of nine members of a prominent Mexican-American Mormon family — including eight-month-old twins and four other children — by suspected cartels in northern Mexico’s drug badlands was a stark reminder of the security challenge facing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The massacre, which has left the country in shock, came barely three weeks after Mexico botched the arrest of one of the sons of jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The capture, then release, of Ovidio Guzmán in October proved a fiasco in which the Sinaloa Cartel laid siege to the state capital of Culiacán for hours, outmanning, outgunning and outmanoeuvring Mexican security forces.

“If the Sinaloa Cartel did that, just imagine what the Jalisco New Generation Cartel could do,” noted one chief executive from the Jalisco state capital, Guadalajara, referring to Mexico’s most aggressive criminal group.

Yet, despite calls to respond more aggressively, Mr López Obrador has been unwilling to change tack on security. After the attack on the Mormon family, he even claimed — despite evidence pointing to the contrary — that Mexico had “been able to halt the escalation of violence”.

During his election campaign last year, Mr López Obrador vowed to break from his predecessors’ stance and pacify a country suffering record homicide rates. He pledged to pull soldiers off the streets and tackle the root causes of crime. He has scrapped police forces, replacing them with a National Guard under military command. His self-described “hugs not bullets” strategy has also included programmes of bursaries for young people to prevent them getting into trouble and organised crime. He has urged cartel members to “think of their mothers”.

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“Our strategy is going very well because we are dealing with the causes that lead to violence,” he said last month after the Guzmán fiasco.

However, there are signs that public opinion is starting to doubt the president can deliver more than just comforting words. For now, the president enjoys 73 per cent popularity. Experts see two reasons for it: 23m Mexicans have more cash, thanks to state handouts; and the president’s communications mastery — aided by a lifeless opposition — has allowed him to spin setbacks into success.

But Mr López Obrador’s approval ratings have declined since a peak of 81 per cent in February, according to poll of polls Oraculus. And a survey this week in Reforma newspaper, which the president routinely attacks, found that 60 per cent thought the security strategy was failing, up from 56 per cent in October.

“Previously people’s expectations were underpinning his approval rating — and the money helped,” said Jorge Buendía, one of the pollsters behind Oraculus.

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard (L) take part in a call with U.S. President Donald Trump after members of a Mormon family were killed by unknown assailants near the U.S. border, at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico November 5, 2019. Press Office of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, right, takes part in a call with Donald Trump on Tuesday after the killing of the Mexican-American family © Reuters

Critics at home are becoming more vocal. Alex LeBaron, a former politician, slammed the government’s strategy on Twitter, posting a video of a burnt-out vehicle in which his relatives died in a remote area where authorities say cartels fight over territory.

“This is how we live under the government of @lopezobrador_. Mexican Mormons, innocent women and children ambushed in the mountains of Chihuahua are riddled with bullets and burnt alive by the Cartels that rule in Mexico,” he wrote.

Mexico’s security situation is also a source of contention with the US. Donald Trump took to Twitter to criticise his Mexican counterpart this week.

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“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,” Mr Trump wrote on Tuesday. “If Mexico needs or requests help in cleaning out these monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively.”

Mr López Obrador has declined the offer and stuck to his guns, but that may not last. “The time will come when reality bites,” Andrés Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister, said. 

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