As Mexico's Dominant Cartel Gains Power, The President Vows 'Hugs, Not Bullets'
At first glance, a video circulating on Mexican social media this month appears to show a boisterous unit of security forces. For more than two minutes, the camera pans across a line of masked men in combat fatigues, stretching down a rural road. Some stand beside armored vehicles painted in camouflage colors, firing military-grade weapons into the air. Others peer out of makeshift turrets atop the vehicles.
Turn up the volume on the video, though, and it's clear this is no regular force.
The troops are yelling, "We are Mencho's people." Mencho is the nickname of Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, the leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, Mexico's most powerful drug trafficking organization, notorious for its murders of public officials, police and ordinary citizens.
"The imagery is pretty impressive," says security analyst and newspaper columnist Alejandro Hope. He estimates the cartel, based in the central Mexican state of Jalisco, had more than $1 million worth of armaments and vehicles on display in the video. "It's an impressive piece of propaganda."
On Monday, Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval said the group in the video appeared to be an elite force of the cartel. The video's authenticity would be analyzed, he said, but he was quick to add that no criminal group in Mexico has the firepower to take on the country's federal forces. In recent weeks, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promoted a new National Guard force to fight the gangs, though analysts question whether it will make a difference.
The Jalisco cartel — known by its initials in Spanish, CJNG — has been tied to murders including those of a federal judge and his wife in Colima state, and to an assassination attempt last month on Mexico City's police chief.
That attack took place early in the morning of June 26, in one of the capital's richest neighborhoods. Nearly three dozen heavily armed men cut off Omar García Harfuch's convoy as he made his way to work. They fired more than 400 rounds into his armored car, killing three people. García was wounded but survived. From his hospital bed, he tweeted that the Jalisco cartel was to blame.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the CJNG dominates fentanyl and methamphetamine trafficking in Mexico and now eclipses the Sinaloa organization in its reach throughout the country. It's now the principal drug trafficking group operating in three-quarters of Mexico's 32 states.
David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego, says the CJNG has been around for more than a decade but really took off after the capture and extradition to the U.S. of the Sinaloa leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán in 2017. Shirk says after Guzmán left the scene, turf wars between the two groups escalated — and so did the violence and number of homicides in Mexico.
"And they really haven't stopped going up," says Shirk, "and a large part of that violence can be attributed to the CJNG."
Last year, nearly 35,000 Mexicans were murdered — the highest number recorded since the country began keeping such statistics.
That violence is most acute in Guanajuato state, known for its large American expatriate community and as an auto manufacturing hub.
Juan Gutiérrez, who heads a crime victims' group there, says his state used to be one of the safest places in the country to live. "Now we have gone from being a peaceful state to a state filled with terror," he says.
His group had hoped to meet with López Obrador last week, when the president came to tour areas of the country most affected by drug violence. The meeting never happened. López Obrador toured several hospitals and installations of his newly formed National Guard during a three-day swing through central Mexico.
Vidal Romero, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, called the president's tour all show and no substance. He says López Obrador's administration does not have a strategy to combat the drug cartels.
"They are doing the same as previous governments... but they are saying they are not doing the same as other governments," he says.
López Obrador has touted the new National Guard, but Romero says it's still the same Mexican army, doing the same inadequate job.
As he confronts Mexico's rising murder rate, López Obrador has all but conceded he has no intention of mounting a firm response. He's made a mantra of the phrase "Hugs, not bullets."
Speaking to reporters earlier this week, López Obrador seemed unfazed when asked to comment on the show of force in the Jalisco New Generation Cartel video. He said his administration had inherited the drug cartels, but announced no new police offensive against them.
Lopez Obrador has consistently said he's reluctant to engage in the bloody drug wars of past administrations. This week, he said of the cartels: "We will fight them with intelligence and not force. We will not declare war."
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