‘US creates monsters’: Trump talk of war on Mexico cartels echoes past failures – The Guardian

After nine members of a Mormon family with US/Mexican citizenship were slaughtered by gunmen, Donald Trump reacted by urging his Mexican counterpart to let him sort out the drug cartels.

“If Mexico needs or requests help cleaning out these monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively,” the US president tweeted on Tuesday, after news broke of the massacre – the latest in a series of extremely violent events across the country.

“This is the time to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”

Trump’s proposal was never going to enthuse Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftwing nationalist with pacifist tendencies, who firmly – if politely – turned it down.

But it was echoed in a Wall Street Journal editorial, and in a New York Times opinion piece that called for an “Iraq-style ‘surge’ to save Mexico”.

Previous US efforts to help Mexico fight crime have often been developed without serious diagnosis of the situation on the ground. And even when crime-fighting aid has been designed with care and good intentions, success has been limited.

“You can’t understand US collaboration with a Mexican filter, you have to read it with a Washington filter,” says Javier Oliva, a national security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Mexico just isn’t important [to the US] in its own right.”

The result has often been US political objectives driving actions in Mexico – with little thought for the consequences on the ground.

When an undercover DEA agent called Kiki Camarena was abducted in Guadalajara and tortured to death in 1985, the Reagan administration came close to shutting down the border, and piled intense pressure on the Mexican authorities to take down the country’s top tier of traffickers.



Members of the Mexican army patrol outside the prison in Jalisco state before the release in 2013 of cartel boss Rafael Caro Quintero – who masterminded the kidnap and murder of the US anti-drug agent Kiki Camarena.

Members of the Mexican army patrol outside the prison in Jalisco state before the release in 2013 of cartel boss Rafael Caro Quintero – who masterminded the kidnap and murder of the US anti-drug agent Kiki Camarena. Photograph: Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

For the US, the crackdown sent a message to the world not to mess with the US.

In Mexico, meanwhile, it sparked a generational power struggle within the cartels and the emergence of regional organizations that took trafficking to new heights – and triggered a round of bitter turf wars.

Quick guide

Mexico’s evolving war on drugs

Calderón sends in the army

Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.

Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.

Kingpin strategy

Simultaneously Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.

That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.

Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.

But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.

“Hugs not bullets”

The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.

“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.

Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong “National Guard”. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.

Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.

When President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006 he launched a military-led offensive to control these escalating conflicts. He sought US backing for this strategy, negotiating an agreement called the Mérida Initiative with George W Bush that was signed in 2007.

That deal opened an unprecedented period of bilateral security collaboration – but it proved no more helpful in bringing cartels to heel than ad hoc US pressure had done before.

Under Bush, the Mérida Initiative channelled military hardware into Calderón’s war, prompting a backlash that sent violence spiralling and encouraged cartels to embed themselves ever more deeply into corrupt political and business networks.

Then, with Barack Obama in the White House, resources were refocused on an overhaul of Mexico’s abusive criminal justice system. This did make miscarriages of justice slightly less routine – but it did nothing to ensure more criminals were charged and convicted.

“The main reason the armed conflict in Mexico has become ever more lethal and difficult to control in the last 15 years is impunity,” says Falko Ernst, Mexico analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It is still more than 95%,” meaning the vast majority of violent crimes go unpunished.

The one aspect of US support that has clearly fulfilled its brief has been the pursuit of top narcos under the “kingpin strategy” that was wholeheartedly embraced by Calderón and his successor President Enrique Peña Nieto, who left office last year.

Their administrations typically took credit for a constant trickle of high-profile arrests, though DEA involvement was often key.

But even the capture and eventual extradition of the man described as the world’s biggest drug dealer – Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán” – barely dented the power of organized crime back in Mexico.

El Chapo’s own Sinaloa cartel proved itself strong enough to besiege the entire northern city of Culiacán last month, forcing soldiers to back down after they briefly detained one of Guzmán’s sons.

Which is why Mónica Serrano, a security expert from the Colmex thinktank, argues that if Trump really wants to help, his priorities should be “more enlightened” drug policies that slash cartel profits, and new gun laws that restrict their ability to build up terrifying arsenals.

“Without in any way understating the policy failures in Mexico that have aggravated and exacerbated the situation, the truth is that it is the US that creates the monsters.” she says. “And monstrous situations.”

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