By Tank Murdoch
(TNS) Ahead of taking office as Mexico’s newly elected president in December 2018,Â AndrÃ©s Manuel LÃ³pez Obrador, or AMLO, pledged a new approach to battling the country’s powerful drug cartels.
Keenly aware of Mexico’s skyrocketing cartel-related murder rate, AMLO believed a campaign of “hugs, not bullets” was the way to stem the cycle of violence and, if nothing else, coexist with the cartels by at least not drawing their ire.
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By even the most generous assessment, the strategy has been an abject failure, as most analysts predicted it would be. Cartel violence remains virtually unchecked. Drug manufacturing and smuggling has continued nearly uninterrupted. And of course, the destination for most of this contraband is the United States.
The violence and smuggling had gotten so bad again that, in March 2019, as we reported, two GOP lawmakers introduced legislation that would require the State Department to name certain Mexico-based cartels as terrorist organizations after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked for the designation.
â€œCartels are the problem and it is time we started acting like it,â€ said Rep. Chip Roy of Texas in a written statement. â€œMy colleague Mark Green (R-Tenn.) and I are asking [Pompeo] to conduct a review in order to designate these specific Mexican drug cartels Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).â€
U.S. officials including Pompeo and Attorney General have met with their Mexican counterparts and President LÃ³pez Obrador to discuss the escalating violence and the threat the cartels pose to the stability not only of the Mexican state but also to the U.S.
Now, as The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday, AMLO is moving to step up enforcement action against the cartels once more by utilizing the country’s elite Marine force, the one military organization U.S. officials trust the most:
Mexican President AndrÃ©s Manuel LÃ³pez Obrador, under pressure from the Trump administration, has beefed up his strategy to fight drug cartels, including bringing the marines, Mexicoâ€™s elite security force, back to the front lines of the drug war.
The moves mark a shift by Mexico from a counternarcotics strategy that largely ended the pursuit of high-profile arrests and focused almost exclusively on poverty alleviation.
â€œWe are operating again,â€ said a senior Mexican navy officer. â€œThe targets we need to go after have been defined.â€
The change in strategy comes amid growing alarm in Washington at Mexicoâ€™s failure to crack down on drug gangs, particularly afterÂ the November massacreÂ of nine U.S. citizens by suspected cartel hit men. Preliminary Mexican government figures indicate an increase in the number of murders in Mexico last year, after a record 36,685 in 2018.
It should be noted that the Mexican marines have been active in this role for some time already. As we reported, the Mexican navy, under which the marines fall, was responsible for a major fentanyl bust in August. But that seizure had a twist — the shipment originated in China:
The Mexican navy has managed to intercept tens of thousands of pounds of deadly fentanyl that was mislabeled aboard a Danish-flagged cargo ship from Shanghai, China.
According to reports, the cargo manifest for the 40-foot ocean container claimed that powder content within was 23,368 kilograms of inorganic calcium chloride, which is used most often as an electrolyte in sports drinks, bottled water, beverages, and as a non-sodium pickle flavoring.
The Mexican navy managed to intercept the unloaded cargo container August 24 as it was enroute to the Sinaloa Cartel base of Culiacan, about 300 miles from the port.
Sources told the WSJ that Barr has taken the lead in pressuring the Mexican government to step up its counternarcotics enforcement actions, such as using the marines again. Other measures include faster extradition of suspects from Mexico to the U.S. for prosecution.
In response, the Trump administration has stepped up enforcement at the border and beyond to prevent gun smuggling into Mexico, a marked shift from when the Obama administration, via “Fast and Furious,” made it policy to smuggle guns into the hands of cartels so it could push for new U.S. gun control laws.
Last year, the marines took part in few counternarcotics operations. But in recent weeks, marine units have been involved in a flurry of high-profile arrests, including of the head of a Mexico City cartel and close relatives of two major drug lords.
The â€œhugs, not bulletsâ€ approach appears to be changing, said Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexico-city based security consultant. â€œI expect the Americans to take a very proactive role in pushing Mexico to confront the most powerful groups, especially the Sinaloa and the Jalisco New Generation cartels,â€ he said.
The murder of the American citizens living in Mexico in a Mormon fundamentalist community appears to have been the last straw for President Trump. Already under pressure from some members of Congress do declare the cartels terrorist organizations — a decision that would have freed up additional U.S. resources and put them under a different set of more stringent national security laws — he publicly threatened to make the designation in the aftermath.
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That deeply concerned the Mexican government, and rightfully so, given that it probably would have meant U.S. counterterrorism forces would have either covertly inserted into Mexico or cartel figures would instantly become subject to Hellfire missile strikes from circling U.S. drones.
After meeting with Barr in December, AMLO made the decision to reintroduce the marines and ramp up their counternarcotics role, the WSJ said, adding:
Mr. Barr, who made a return visit to Mexico in January, has also urged Mexicoâ€™s government to increase efforts to take down fentanyl labs, and tighten controls on its seaports to curtail the entry of precursor chemicals used in the labs, to slow the opioid epidemic in the U.S., people familiar with the meetings said.
The U.S. is also pushing Mexico to accelerate deportations and extraditions of alleged criminals wanted for crimes in the U.S., these people said.
Since Mr. Barrâ€™s visits, Mexico has stepped up the pace of extraditions. In the two months since Mr. Barrâ€™s December visit there have been 37 extraditions, an acceleration from the 58 extraditions in all of 2019, according to data from the Mexican Attorney Generalâ€™s Office. …
The Mexican government, which describes its drug industry as a binational problem, said Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard has pressed the U.S. to increase its efforts to control the smuggling of guns, especially heavy weaponry used by drug cartels, which frequently are able toÂ outgun security forces.
Both governments estimate that as much as 70% of heavy weapons used by the cartels come from the U.S.
â€œIn different meetings, Mexico has shown U.S. officials empirical evidence of the strong relationship between weapons trafficking from the U.S. and the increase in Mexicoâ€™s murder rate in recent years,â€ the Foreign Ministry said in response to a question from the newspaper.
AMLO’s reversal in strategy from “hugs not bullets” to the reintroduction of the marines was inevitable. As he pulled forces out of the fight against the cartels, they gained in strength and in some cases rivaled the power of Mexican states.
In October, hundreds of gunmen from the Sinaloa cartel besieged the Sinaloa state capital of CuliacÃ¡n for hours, overpowering Mexican security forces and eventually successfully freeing a captured cartel leader, Ovidio GuzmÃ¡n, a son of â€œEl Chapo.â€
At the time, AMLO said he authorized GuzmÃ¡n’s release in order to prevent a bloodbath, but U.S. officials saw through that.
â€œThe state is surrendering,” said a U.S. official at the time, according to the WSJ — in what other cartel leaders would see as precedent-setting.
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