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Latin America can no longer deny the awful reality of gang-wing government

Investigators gather evidence at the scene of a drug-gang mass murder in San Jose de Gracia, Mexico, in February
Armando Solis
Investigators gather evidence at the scene of a drug-gang mass murder in San Jose de Gracia, Mexico, in February.

COMMENTARY The western hemisphere is saddled with a third category of government: the gang wing, countries controlled by violent criminal mafias.

This week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the recall referendum he’d ordered. That was the official term for the plebiscite, anyway. The honest description would be shameless sham — a federal money-wasting stunt by the leftist López Obrador to make himself look loved.

But what made it especially pointless is the reality that López Obrador isn’t the boss in Mexico.

Gangs are.

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Even as scant referendum ballots were being counted Sunday night — voter turnout was a laughable 17% — gunmen burst into a home in Tultepec outside Mexico City and massacred eight people, including four children. Two weeks ago, the severed heads of six people were found on top of a car in Chilapa de Alvarez in southern Mexico. A month before that, 17 men attending a wake in San José de Gracias in western Mexico were lined up and executed with automatic weapons. I could go on — and on.

Homicides in Mexico, which hit record levels in recent years, dipped about 3% last year. But the country’s proliferating drug gangs are making up for it this year with a ghastly surge that López Obrador, an authoritarian populist, would rather deny. Or blame on media “exaggeration,” as he did recently, even though seven Mexican journalists have already been murdered this year — the total killed in all of 2021.

READ MORE: Right now it's hard to root against — but harder to root for — El Salvador's Bukele

López Obrador can’t stand being reminded that Mexico’s gangs are more powerful than he is — and certainly more powerful than the country’s judicial institutions, which can only solve 2% of all murders. (By comparison, legal experts here are wringing their hands because the U.S. murder solve rate has fallen below 60%.)

López Obrador’s only consolation is that he’s hardly alone in this hemisphere. We’re obsessed in the Americas, especially in Miami, with identifying left-wing and right-wing governments. But New World political science needs to make more space in its textbooks and journals for a third category: gang-wing government, countries that for all intents and purposes are controlled by drug, kidnapping and extortion mafias.

Latin America has to approach this horror show as the Mad Max dystopia it is — not to squash information about these brazen butchers but get more of it out there to bring the butchers down.

Gang-neutralized leaders like López Obrador don’t want us to ponder that dark state of affairs. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele, another dictatorial populist, just rammed through a Putin-esque law making it a crime for the media or anyone else to “transmit messages” about or by the country’s gangs. Their recent nationwide murder spree, including 62 people killed on one Saturday alone, reminded us they’re even more omnipotent than Mexico’s mobsters.

But their violence re-erupted because they suddenly decided they no longer liked a controversial cooperation pact that Bukele, according to well documented media reports that he of course denies, had felt obligated to make with them to help reduce El Salvador’s own medieval murder rate.


So it’s time Latin America’s political players approach this horror show as the Mad Max dystopia it is — and admit that rather than try to squash information about these brazen butchers, they need to get even more of it out there to help the world help them bring the butchers down.

One of the biggest mistakes I ever made as a foreign correspondent was in 1999, after I’d spent weeks visiting a Mexican prison to talk with the convicted assassin of a high-ranking politico — and with the fellow gangbangers he had there with him.

Top Haitian gang leader Jimmy 'Barbecue' Cherizier in a Port-au-Prince slum last month.
Joseph Odelyn
Top Haitian gang leader Jimmy 'Barbecue' Cherizier in a Port-au-Prince slum last fall.

The killer was peddling his claim about being hired by the brother of a former president to pull the trigger. That was the article I wrote. But I stupidly sidelined the more important story I’d gleaned from these diabólicos about who they were, why they committed their crimes, how they rationalized them — and why they believed so much of Mexico’s political and business class indulged them.

I think about them today when I see gangs in Haiti — who Haitians will tell you do run their country now — holding press conferences while holding AK-47s. Haitian gang kidnappingsin the first quarter of this year were up 58% from the same period last year — and U.S. officials say more and more high-powered weapons are being trafficked into Haiti by the gangs’ political and business patrons.

We need to know who those bloodshed benefactors are — because having more information like that will help keep the gang-wing from gaining control of even more of this hemisphere.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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