Murders rise to record in Mexican president’s first year in office

Slayings, often fuelled by the nation’s drug cartels, climbed to 34,582 last year. (AP pic)

MEXICO CITY: Murders in Mexico rose to a new record in 2019, the first full year of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s presidency, posing a challenge to the popular leader to make good on a campaign promise of reducing violence.

Slayings, often fuelled by the nation’s drug cartels, climbed to 34,582, compared with 33,743 a year earlier, according to data released by the national public security system.

The 2.5% increase represents the least since homicides fell in 2014 and compared with increases of 17% to 28% in the previous three years.

“What’s relevant is that homicides continue at an extremely high level, and the only change is the height of the wave,” said Vidal Romero, a professor of political science at Mexico’s Autonomous Institute of Technology, or ITAM, and co-director of the Center for the Study of Security, Intelligence and Governance.

“Things haven’t changed, and there’s no policy that’s getting to the root of the problem.”

Drug traffickers pose a shared threat to the US and Mexico. Murders in the Latin American nation are often carried out with weapons smuggled in from the US.

Meanwhile, American overdose deaths, from drugs that frequently originate in or travel through Mexico, surged to about 70,000 annually in recent years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Lopez Obrador, known popularly by the abbreviation AMLO, has managed to maintain his approval at 72%, according to a poll by newspaper El Financiero published earlier this month, voters probably would hold his Morena party responsible for poor security results at mid-term congressional elections in 2021, Romero said.

Two high-profile episodes late last year focused attention on Mexico’s security challenge.

In October, Lopez Obrador’s security cabinet decided to release the captured son of kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to avoid a firefight and bloodshed between authorities and criminals that the government worried would affect civilians.

In November, nine members of a Mormon family with dual American-Mexican citizenship were killed in an attack by cartel gunmen.

President Donald Trump has pushed Mexico to do more to confront drug gangs, calling for the nations together to “wage war” on the cartels.

In November he floated classifying them as terrorist organisations. In December, after a visit to Mexico City by US Attorney General William Barr, Trump said he was holding off “temporarily” on the proposal at the request of Lopez Obrador.

So far, Mexico has resisted a heavy-handed approach, wishing to avoid the level of militarisation that took place when Felipe Calderon was president from 2006 to 2012.

Mexico’s efforts have been focused on deploying tens of thousands of members from its new National Guard, a force that officially began work in July and still isn’t at full strength.

Lopez Obrador’s strategy also includes education and subsidies for young people. But the phrase he has used at times to summarise his philosophy, “hugs, not shots”, has been criticised by many security analysts as naive and Pollyannish.