Sarah DeVries
CJNG members In July, Jalisco New Generation Cartel members made headlines when their uncovered faces in Aguililla, Michoacán, made plain their sense of impunity.

Beating the hornets’ nest hasn’t worked, but neither does letting them be

Calderón's war on crime failed, but neither is AMLO's opposite strategy a solution

A couple of weeks ago, the front page of Mexico News Daily was filled with a splattering of stories about organized crime and their offenses against the public, ranging from the inconvenient to the horrifying.

For example, there was the article about the return of those whom President López-Obrador calls “heroes” — Mexicans living in the United States returning for visits home — and their subsequent extortion by customs, immigration, federal and state police forces, the National Guard and organized crime, that last category possibly describing all of the aforementioned.

Who’s who among those demanding money on the side of the road? Who knows?

The same week, there was a story on the front page for several days about entire communities displaced by organized crime, forced to leave behind their homes and flee because terrorists that the state has not been able to control or subdue demanded their land.

In a completely different part of Mexico, two lost bird-watching tourists were stopped and questioned by armed men when they apparently went down a road they didn’t know they shouldn’t have, a mistake that could have very well meant their demise.

There was also the boy in Acapulco who had his index fingers chopped off for refusing to sell drugs.

According to the story, he and his family fled north, where they’re no doubt still waiting in a Tijuana shelter to cross into the U.S., a place where they have more hope of avoiding further punishments at the hands of criminals that the government cannot control or punish.

Meanwhile, we’ve got a national backlog of 52,000 unidentified bodies in morgues all over the country.

Things are not looking promising around here when it comes to the rule of law.

I often think back to the time of Felipe Calderón’s presidency (2006–2012) and wonder where we’d be today if President López Obrador had won that 2006 election after all. If no one had decided to “shake things up” and tried to rid the country of organized crime, at least in the particular way Calderón did, what would this country look like today?

Calderón’s plan for tackling organized crime taught us that the “kingpin strategy,” i.e., going after the heads of criminal groups — a strategy seemingly being embarked upon anew under a different name, the Bicentennial Framework — did not have the intended effect of reducing the power of criminal groups. Cutting off the heads of the monsters didn’t kill the monsters; it ensured that five more heads would grow back on each bleeding neck.

It was equivalent to trying to get rid of hornets in one’s backyard by whacking the nest with a baseball bat, something that doesn’t kill the hornets but does make them really, really mad.

I was living in the city of Querétaro at the time, a place that felt like it was in the eye of the hurricane. Violence was spreading at an alarming rate all over the country during those years while Querétaro was eerily calm.

Quite a few people whispered to me that the reason was because “the big guns” (no pun intended) of organized crime kept their families there. I have no way of knowing if that was actually true, but it seems as plausible an explanation as any.

We’re still living with the effects of Calderón’s experiment: the hornets are still mad and stinging away, and they have figured out that they can pretty much make the whole house their nest since we just don’t know how to fight them.

Since Calderón left office, there have been plenty of ideas about how to get the problem of organized crime under control, none of which seem to have made any dents.

AMLO’s “hugs, not bullets” strategy has been (deservingly) ridiculed, and plenty of his actions during this presidency have raised some good questions about how serious he really is about trying to eradicate organized crime from the country. Any criticism regarding his willingness to simply ignore the problem becomes, in his eyes, a problem of opposition media persecution against him instead. You just can’t talk to the guy.

I do applaud AMLO’s expansion of social services (for the people who were poor pre-pandemic anyway; everyone else is apparently part of the egotistical and Karen-esque middle class). But it obviously hasn’t been enough to affect any of the actions of criminal groups, including recruitment from among the ranks of the poor.

After all, it’s not like the criminals are willing to take “no thanks, I just don’t feel like it” for an answer. You could tell the most honest, educated kid in the world, “Do this or I’ll torture you,” and the reason she’d give in wouldn’t be because of a lack of good moral values, as the president seems to imply.

For a while, I thought the “hugs, not bullets” strategy was laughably naïve, but now I suspect and fear that it’s horrifyingly practical: AMLO is very purposefully ceasing the beating of the hornet’s nest in the hopes that they’ll eventually calm down.

It’s like we’re stuck in that part of a horror movie where the main characters are hiding and trembling in the dark as the bad guys slash everyone they come across, trying not to do anything that would call their attention to us.

Unfortunately for all of us, the entire country is the new hornet’s nest, and the options seem to be to play by their rules, if we’re unlucky enough to occupy space or services that they also want to occupy, or else cease to exist.

The well has been poisoned; they’re baked in; the cancer has spread all over. (I know, I’m getting out of control with these metaphors; I’ll stop).

What this “just don’t move; let’s see if they settle down” strategy looks like on the surface is complete acceptance of the fact that organized crime is essentially in charge of vast swaths of the country — not only physical land but politicians, businesses and government agencies.

Do I have a better plan in mind? Well, no, I don’t. All I can do is hope and pray with the rest of the country that the miracle of dawn comes after this seemingly never-ending dark.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page.

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