The murder of nine members of a US Mormon community by drug cartel gunmen in Mexico has added to growing alarm in the US at rising violence on its southern border.
The horrific attack on unarmed mothers and children has undercut Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s claim to be transforming a country that has been wracked by 13 years of drug wars, in which more than 200,000 people have been killed.
The government has vowed to end the corruption and impunity that has allowed drug violence to spiral, but has backed away from the military-style confrontations favoured by its predecessors — a strategy that Mr López Obrador has dubbed “hugs not bullets”.
Even after decades of drug violence, the murder of three women and six children, all dual US-Mexican citizens, has struck a nerve on both sides of the border. It has led to calls from US Republican senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley for Washington to “take matters into our own hands” and to impose sanctions to curb drug trafficking.
It follows another incident that made global headlines three weeks earlier, in which a bungled bid to arrest the son of jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán sparked a cartel siege of the Sinaloa state capital Culiacán.
Experts say the Mexican president’s obstinacy in the face of emboldened cartels could backfire.
“There is real alarm in US policy circles about what is happening in Mexico and the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any plan or strategy about how to address security,” said David Shirk at the University of San Diego, whose work includes the university’s Justice in Mexico project aimed at helping improve the country’s rule of law.
Alejandro Poiré, who served for a year as interior minister under former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, said that unless Mr López Obrador changed strategy, “it will be hard to have any significant advance in diminishing violence and improving security”.
“If he doesn’t, it won’t just be more of the same, it’ll be much worse of much more,” he added.
The violence also risks convincing US opponents of the revamped Nafta free trade agreement, known as USMCA, to delay its ratification, and scare off investment at a time when economic growth has sunk to zero during Mr López Obrador’s 11 months in office.
“It’s another pretext for not moving ahead with USMCA,” said Duncan Wood, head of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.
One former military commander was scathing: “All the people who were well trained are out of the loop. The consequence is 36,000 Mexicans killed in his government. He hasn’t saved any lives, the cartels are stronger.”
“I think the strategy is well intentioned . . . but changes need to be made on the basis of the new reality,” said Jorge Torres Aguilar, head of the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico. Security and the rule of law are the top concern of his organisation’s 1,450 corporate members, almost four out of 10 of which already spend more than 5 per cent of their operating budgets on security.
Businesses tend to see cartel violence as “manageable risk”, according to James Bosworth, founder of consultancy Hxagon. “‘Hugs not bullets’ is a cute slogan, but everyone agrees what’s needed is police and judicial reform and to be able to prosecute impunity.”
Mr López Obrador has changed tack before, having performed a U-turn on his initial broad welcome to Central American migrants after pressure from US president Donald Trump. But the closest he has come to revising his security strategy is to acknowledge that the places where the National Guard has been deployed could be reviewed.
Mr López Obrador will have to “pick his battles,” said Mr Bosworth, who recommended concentrating on Tijuana on the Californian border, the central state of Guanajuato and the western state of Michoacán, which have seen particular surges in violence.
There is urgency on both sides of the border. While Mr Trump wants preventing the flow of lethal synthetic drug fentanyl to be the focus, Mexico wants Washington to do more to halt the southbound flow of weapons used in most of Mexico’s killings.
“These last two incidents, while high profile, are not one-offs,” noted Antonio Garza, a former US ambassador to Mexico. The government, he said, was “losing time. Very empowered groups can make their demands very real and very known”.
The armed forces also appear to be not as united behind Mr López Obrador as he likes to project. La Jornada newspaper leaked an unusually critical closed-door speech by General Carlos Demetrio Gaytán Ochoa in which he said: “We are worried by Mexico today. We feel aggrieved as Mexicans and offended as soldiers.”
What could ultimately trigger a change is one of Mr López Obrador’s most closely watched indicators: his approval ratings, which have dropped one point a week since the debacle in Culiacán and now stand at 59.8 per cent, according to pollster Mitofsky. A worsening economy is another dampener on his approval ratings.
The president will only revise course “when the impact on public opinion is greater than his stubbornness”, Mr Wood said.