Failed mission raises doubts about Mexican security strategy
MEXICO CITY – A sloppy operation that failed to nab Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's son - followed by days of changing explanations - has revealed that Mexico's government has no clear security strategy, experts say.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his security Cabinet have defined their strategy by stating what it is not, according to analysts, saying Mexico is no longer waging a war on drugs or seeking to capture or kill cartel kingpins, as previous governments did.
But these words were apparently contradicted by the bungled Oct. 17 mission to capture Ovidio Guzmán in the western city of Culiacan, the Sinaloa Cartel's backyard, which aimed to nab a cartel figure and unleashed violence across the city.
When asked to define what his strategy is to tame Mexico's high murder rate and deadly drug cartels, López Obrador often mentions an assortment of social programs.
On Friday, López Obrador asked the public for more time to turn things around.
"This is a transformation process that is being carried out," he said. "The old still hasn't died and the new hasn't finished being born ... I ask for one more year to completely change this."
A day earlier, López Obrador said his government will not be forced into a drug war and implied corruption was to blame for violence and drug trafficking.
"This is pacifying the country by convincing, persuading without violence, offering well-being, alternative options, better living conditions, working conditions, strengthening values," he said.
On the campaign trail he used the catchy phrase: "abrazos, no balazos," or "hugs, not bullets."
But during his presidency, Mexico is on track to record more than 32,000 murders this year, and 13 people died in Culiacan while an army antidrug unit captured and then released a drug lord to avoid further bloodshed.
"He can't continue with this strategy of peace and love with the criminals and say that there isn't war," said Raúl Benítez, a security expert and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "The criminals are declaring war on the government and the country, the citizens, the people."
López Obrador also faced questions Thursday about uncharacteristically public grumbling from within Mexico's military. A Mexican newspaper this week published a speech by Gen. Carlos Gaytán to other military officers after the Culiacan debacle, following cartel attacks on Mexican security forces.
The retreat in the face of cartel gunmen reinforced the impression that the government long ago relinquished effective control of whole towns, cities and regions.
"We're worried about today's Mexico," Gaytán said. "We feel aggrieved as Mexicans and offended as soldiers."
López Obrador brushed aside any concerns of a schism within military ranks, who he has favored with increased responsibilities and resources.
"I don't have the slightest distrust of the army," López Obrador said. "On the contrary, I have the support, the loyalty of the army."
Experts say climbing homicide numbers and the administration's inability to communicate a coherent security strategy do not paint an optimistic picture for the remaining five years of López Obrador's term. So far, he has blamed predecessors for inherited problems.
"How to marry this 'humanist' and 'progressive' vision of the president and his government with the undeniable reality and undeniable necessity of containing not just the drug trafficking groups but also the ordinary criminal violence" is the question faced by Mexico's president, according to Erubiel Tirado, coordinator of the national security, democracy and human rights program at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.
The most visible element of a security strategy under López Obrador was the creation of the National Guard. The new force was supposed to fill the security void created by corrupt, disbanded or outmatched police forces and to reduce the country's dependence on the military for domestic policing.
A large portion of the guard, however, was detoured to immigration enforcement duties under pressure from the United States.
"They're not a police force that is professionalized, that is trained in conducting investigations, surveillance, intelligence and that have special teams to conduct arrest operations in a finer way, not through confrontations in the streets," said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston.
It also remains unclear how the National Guard fits with the social programs that López Obrador says will attack the root causes of crime in Mexico.
"There doesn't seem to be any kind of holistic or integrated thinking about how you link violence-prevention programs, which the government talks a lot about, with actually prosecuting organized crime," said Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute.
López Obrador also says little about strengthening Mexico's justice system, a key component of reining in security problems.
The lack of a clear strategy worries Mexico's neighbors to the north.
In October, Payan visited personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City who expressed concern.
"They clearly said that they were waiting for the (López Obrador) administration to have a clear strategy and to communicate to them what the administration intends to do and how they intend to do it," Payan said.
The U.S. has enjoyed varying levels of cooperation from recent Mexican administrations in prosecuting the drug war, but has struggled to find channels for that cooperation under López Obrador.
"The sense that I have from my conversations is that the López Obrador administration considers these American agencies as part of a war on drugs that he wants to put behind him," Payan said.
In the case of Ovidio Guzmán, the U.S. has requested his arrest for extradition.
On Thursday, López Obrador, responding to speculation the U.S. government had pressured Mexico to act, said: "We do not take orders from Washington."
Wood, of the Wilson Center, doubted this would be the last time that Mexico, facing U.S. pressure, goes after a drug lord under López Obrador.
"There was huge disappointment on the part of folks in Congress and in the State Department and intelligence services with the way that the Culiacan mission was mishandled," Wood said.
"Now, the question is, next time that they capture a high-value target, what will they do if faced with the same kind of situation? Will they back down or will they double down?" Wood asked.
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