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Trump Wants To 'Wage WAR' On Mexican Drug Cartels. But Is He A Reason They're Winning?

Christian Chavez
The bullet-pocked windshield of one of the vehicles Mormon women and children were traveling in Tuesday in northern Mexico when they were ambushed by drug cartel gunmen.


I'm profoundly sad to say I’m not surprised – horrified, but hardly surprised – by Tuesday’s brutal massacre of innocent women and childrenby drug cartel gunmen on a road in northern Mexico.

I’ve been watching Mexico’s savage narco-insurgency escalate for three decades. When I wrote a cover story for TIMEabout its horrors eight years ago, I naively assumed it couldn’t get worse. Hombre, I could not have been more wrong.  Even infants were among the nine people murdered in Tuesday's ambush. There is no bottom to the gangland homicide plague south of the border, which keeps reaching record numbers.

In fact, I’ve come to the bleak conclusion neither Mexico nor the U.S. will ever rein it in. That seemed clear enough even before this week’s atrocity, when a humiliated Mexican military was forced to release the son of infamous narco-kingpin “Chapo” Guzmanin Culiacán last month – because his cartel’s warriors threatened to torch the northern city with their monstrous firepower.

I hope I’m wrong; I lived in Mexico for 10 years and it grieves me to see such a rich culture blighted by such a rank cancer. But both governments have squandered any chance of solving the crisis. And President Trump’s loud Tuesday tweet, in which he offered to send U.S. troops to Mexico to “wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth,” only drives home that point.

The impulse to militarize the drug war – a chronic and politically expedient tick neither Mexico City nor Washington ever seems to shake – has always been and will always be a failed strategy. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador rejected Trump’s U.S. military proposal. And wisely so, because if one thing has been proven in Mexico for more than a decade now, it’s that armies are ineffective anti-drug police.

Mexico City and Washington have squandered any chance of solving Mexico's narco-violence plague – and Trump's loud offer to send U.S. troops south of the border only drives home that point.

Who does make good anti-drug police? Answer: good anti-drug police. Professional, well trained, paid and supported cops who know it takes surgically investigative dismantling of cartel structures and resources – RICO laws that seize drug mafias’ riches are arguably the best invention of modern law enforcement – to weaken the kind of narco-power that has terrorized Mexico and Central America and sent so many migrants fleeing to the U.S.

Unfortunately, Mexico has few if any agencies that fit that bill, thanks largely to entrenched judicial corruption and notoriously weak rule-of-law institutions. Previous U.S. administrations had begun to shift anti-drug aid for Mexico toward police reform instead of military hardware. But the Trump Administration, true to form, has pulled it back – and wants to cut it by a third in 2020. At the same time, it has even eased rules on gun exports to Mexico.

READ MORE: Why the Murder of a Top Journalist in Mexico Should Be a Top Concern in Florida

Trump suddenly pivoted his Twitter account to Mexico’s drug war in large part because the innocents slaughtered on Tuesday were dual U.S.-Mexico citizens. (They were part of the American Mormon community that migrated to northern Mexico decades ago – and which has been critical of the drug cartels.) But given his lame commitment to Mexico’s anti-narco efforts, it’s hard to take his outrage seriously.

That’s especially true since he strong-armed Mexico into actually de-prioritizing those efforts.


Last year Trump threatened to slap steep tariffs on imports from Mexico unless López Obrador demonstrated more resolve to keep Central American migrants – most of whom are escaping even more horrific gang violence in countries like El Salvador – from moving through Mexico to the U.S. border. López Obrador agreed. To comply with Trump’s wishes he had to divert a new National Guard force created to combat the cartels. Now the better part of it is apparently interdicting asylum-seeking migrants.

Credit Christian Chavez / AP
Chihuahua state police at the scene of Tuesday's drug cartel massacre in Mexico.

All of which leaves Trump no right to gripe about Mexico’s drug war failures. Granted, López Obrador seems as clueless as his predecessors about how to confront the narco-scourge. He’s right to insist that solving Mexico’s poverty is the only real way to end its lawlessness. But that’s a long-term project that will take a generation or more. Right now, especially after the Culiacán debacle, he looks lost. He still looks like the presidential candidate who rather incredibly suggested an amnesty for the drug cartels as a way to end Mexico’s violence.

That sort of thing might work to disarm guerrillas and end a civil war. But Mexico’s insurgency isn’t about rebels fighting to take over the government. It’s about criminals murdering even infants to keep the government under its blood-soaked thumb. And they seem to have won.

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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