MADRID — Earlier this month, an Italian businessman was killed while going to pick up his daughters at school in Palenque, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. A month ago, in that same state, armed groups took to the streets of the colonial city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and began firing their weapons in the air, causing panic among citizens and tourists alike. A few days after, almost 1,800 miles north, two priests were killed at a church in the Sierra Tarahumara, in the state of Chihuahua.
These kinds of news stories appear every day in newspapers and newscasts across Mexico, an abnormal reality that continues to grow in every corner of the country, and one that hasn’t stopped for almost 20 years. Three governments have gone by, each one with different promises and strategies to tackle the violence. So far none have worked.
The current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, promised big changes during his campaign, but violence has now flared up again and has brought to the president’s door an enraged institution that hadn’t spoken out before: the Catholic Church. Priests all over Mexico are calling out the ineffectiveness of the government to pacify the country.
A Multifactor Problem
“AMLO,” as the president is known, came to power in 2018 with a promise to place Mexico on the path to peace, good government, and economic prosperity. Many viewed his win as a turn to the left that would bring an end to corruption, impunity, violence, and poverty—Mexico’s century-old structural problems. Although other important changes have been implemented during the last three years, one thing has remained constant: violence.
Back in 2018, AMLO proposed a different approach to tackling attack the roots of the situation, including social exclusion, lack of opportunities, and overall poverty. He implemented a strategy based on a variety of social programs, such as giving money directly to poor families, providing monetary support to students in need, and offering resources to people living in rural areas.
At the same time, he transformed the Federal Police, long-plagued with corruption, and created the National Guard, which would serve as a peace corp. “Abrazos no balazos,” hugs not bullets, was his slogan.
On paper, it sounded great, a big steer from his predecessors’ strategies. In reality, things haven’t been getting much better.
“The expectation was high,” said José Reveles, a writer and journalist who has covered the violence for over two decades. “Everybody thought that the recuperation was going to be fast, but the strategy is really about prevention, education, the recovery of the social tissue, creating jobs and opportunities. And it has been difficult to communicate that to the people. That’s why they think that nothing has been done.”
Numbers tell another story, however. Miguel Garza is the executive director of the Institute for Security and Democracy (INSYDE, in Spanish). He argues that AMLO’s social programs are faulty.
“There are studies that point out that not all the students have received a scholarship,” he explained. “Kids who do not go to school in areas that lack resources are joining organized crime groups.”
The IMCO think tank has highlighted that, prior to the start of the 2021 school year, at least 628,000 students between the ages of 6 and 17 had dropped out, based on data from the Inter-American Development Bank.
Garza also points out that these programs won’t solve an immediate and urgent crisis.
“Although homicides in national numbers seemed to stabilize after the peak that came in 2019, the reduction is not statistically significant, as if to say that it has worked,” he said. “On the contrary, it remains stable, but violence does not decrease. The country is at 27 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, and therefore it is not an acceptable figure.”
Guns are increasing as well. The Citizen Security program from the Iberoamerican University shows that 69 percent of the 33,315 homicides in Mexico last year were committed with a firearm.
“There is already a presence of the Jalisco Cartel in 28 states, and of the Sinaloa Cartel in more than 50 countries,” Garza added.
Impunity contributes as well to the crisis, as almost 95 percent of the criminal cases go unsolved in Mexico. Most of it comes from the lack of work done by states’ district attorneys’ offices, which are largely overwhelmed.
“Even though it is estimated that in Mexico only one in 10 crimes is reported, they have an avalanche of work, and prosecutors and investigative police are not enough to put together the cases properly before a judge,” Garza explained.
Prosecutors at the state level sometimes have to proceed with the most urgent cases, like drug trafficking, homicides, and femicides, while ignorning misdemeanors and thus emboldening criminals to commit crimes.
The National Guard as Peacekeepers
Another big part of AMLO’s strategy has been the creation of the National Guard. The peacekeeping corps has received lots of criticism from the opposition and civil society groups for not intervening in violent conflicts and for having an increasingly military command structure and composition. Reveles said that the National Guard works as a “dissuasive” forces, not by intervening “as a third party in discord, but by trying to calm things down.” However, he still disagrees with the militaristic turn the National Guard is taking.
Similarly, Garza warns about the implications of making a constitutional reform to move the National Guard from the civil command to the military.
“The Secretariat of Citizen Security (a civil department) needs to control them,” he said. “The Federal Police, formed that way, it started with the military and then became a civil police. That’s also how it worked in Spain with the Civil Guard, and now (it) is one of the most reliable forces in the world.
“Militarization affects the way in which the chain of command works,” he added. “It is very customary not to contradict a superior. It is not a democratic system, and there is no career growth like in the police. There is mistreatment of the agents, as it happens with the army.”
For its part, INSYDE and other NGOs in Mexico have advocated for years for police reform to combat crime at a local level. Such calls were part of AMLO’s original strategy. However, the creation of the National Guard was the only step approved by the Mexican Congress.
Another ignored call has been the return of the military to the barracks so that they cease their functions in public security. “They say municipal and state police are outmatched, but they make eight out of 10 arrests in all the country. We need to enhance the local police,” said Garza.
Changing the Security Strategy
Calls for a change in the security strategy have been made by different actors over the past three years, resulting in an accusatory response by the president, who calls out critics, namely the “conservatives,” and hints at a conspiracy against his administration.
Recent complaints from the Catholic Church, and especially by the Jesuits, may be having a different effect on the president. Calling himself a follower of Jesus Christ, AMLO has been more open in his speeches to the ideas thrown out by members of the clergy to open a broader dialogue with every part of society involved.
On Sunday, July 10, Catholic clergy members across Mexico began a “Jornada de Oración por la Paz,” a three-week campaign to promote peace and commemorate the victims of violence.
Diego Estebanez García is a Mexican journalist currently based in Madrid. His work has appeared in El País and El Periódico. Twitter: @DEstebanezG