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The Mexican military has a long history of obedience to the civilian government. So when a seasoned general delivers a speech to the army and air force hierarchy criticizing the president, something is afoot. Not surprisingly, it had to do with the government’s loss of authority over large parts of the country to organized crime.
Americans are horrified by the recent terrorist attack on dual citizens traveling on a road in northern Mexico, not least because those killed were women and children.
Yet survivors’ accounts make it clear that the ambush was nothing out of the ordinary for assailants working for a drug cartel. The border area is where drugs bound for the U.S. pass a final hurdle and gain immense value. Traffickers fight to dominate that turf.
As news of the murders reverberated in the U.S., Americans reacted as if Mexico had crossed a threshold into greater violence. But for Mexicans it was merely another day living next door to the single largest and wealthiest drug-consuming nation in the world. In some parts of Mexico, mob hits against rivals and their families are routine. So too are murders of innocents. This has been going on for nearly two decades.
For most of the 20th century South American cocaine flowed through the Caribbean. But when the U.S. clamped down on those routes in the 1990s, pathways through Central America and Mexico became the alternative.
Mexico began the transition from one-party rule to democracy around the same time. As power was decentralized, the nation was institutionally unprepared for the onslaught of a sophisticated and well-financed network of underworld entrepreneurs.
In the mid-2000s a high-ranking Mexican official told me his government estimated that some $10 billion in drug revenue was flowing back from the U.S. into the pockets of the capos every year. A Council on Foreign Relations paper reports that in 2016 Americans spent nearly $150 billion on “cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana, 50 percent more than in 2010.”
The upshot for Mexico is that in many parts of the country cartels have become the ruling authority. “They look out for us and let us know when we should not be on the roads. We know them by name. They pretty much run the place here,” one survivor of the northern Mexico massacre told the Journal’s José de Córdoba last week
Center-right President Felipe Calderón (2006-12) sought to re-establish the presence and authority of the state-much as Álvaro Uribe did in Colombia-by confronting organized crime. President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-18) continued the effort. Yet the death toll kept climbing. So did allegations of corruption.
Left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is taking a different tack. He has promised to reduce the bloodshed by ending the confrontation and boosting social outreach to would-be cartel recruits. AMLO, as the president is popularly known, calls his strategy abrazos, no balazos-“hugs, not bullets.” But in the 11 months since he was inaugurated, things have gone from bad to worse.
The federal police have been replaced with a new national guard, and the intelligence bureaucracy has been reinvented. Neither appears up to the job. The broader AMLO solution involves a negotiated peace, “transitional justice” and an array of new social programs.
Traffickers read this as weakness and do what they please. A string of recent law-enforcement defeats, including the murder of 14 policemen in the state of Michoacán, have undermined national confidence. On Oct. 17 in the city of Culiacán, security officials arrested Ovidio Guzmán, son of the notorious El Chapo, who is in prison in the U.S. But the Sinaloa cartel reacted by unleashing its paramilitary army against the city and forcing the release of Mr. Guzmán-a humiliating blow to the Mexican government.
Five days later came the military gathering with its political overtones. Some 500 high-ranking officers convened for breakfast with Secretary of National Defense Luis Cresencio Sandoval. Gen. Carlos Gaytán Ochoa gave a speech. “We are worried about Mexico today,” he declared. “We feel aggrieved as Mexicans and offended as soldiers.” He noted that in the country’s past, when there has been unity there has been progress. But when it has been “absent, territory and sovereignty were lost, the people were injured, the economy went into crisis and the country had to undertake its recovery, almost from scratch.”
Having laid down that historical reminder, the general observed that “we are currently living in a politically polarized society,” suggesting that “leftist currents” are not the will of the majority. He reportedly received a standing ovation.
It is not easy to assess the significance of this event but clearly the military brass, like many Mexicans, are unhappy with the loss of sovereignty to the cartels. Everybody wants fewer gun battles, but surrender is not a path to peace.
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady
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