Mexico's president says he won't fight drug cartels on US orders, calls it a 'Mexico First' policy


MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s president said Friday he won’t fight Mexican drug cartels on U.S. orders, in the clearest explanation yet of his refusal to confront the gangs.

Over the years, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has laid out various justifications for his “hugs, not bullets” policy of avoiding clashes with the cartels. In the past he has said “you cannot fight violence with violence,” and on other occasions he has argued the government has to address “the causes” of drug cartel violence, ascribing them to poverty or a lack of opportunities.

But on Friday, while discussing his refusal to go after the cartels, he made it clear he viewed it as part of what he called a “Mexico First” policy.

“We are not going to act as policemen for any foreign government,” López Obrador said at his daily news briefing. “Mexico First. Our home comes first.”

López Obrador basically argued that drugs were a U.S. problem, not a Mexican one. He offered to help limit the flow of drugs into the United States, but only, he said, on humanitarian grounds.

“Of course we are going to cooperate in fighting drugs, above all because it has become a very sensitive, very sad humanitarian issue, because a lot of young people are dying in the United States because of fentanyl,” the president said. Over 70,000 Americans die annually because of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which are mainly made in Mexico from precursor chemicals smuggled in from China.

López Obrador’s view — like many of his policies — harkens back to the 1970s, a period when many officials believed that Mexican cartels selling drugs to gringos was a U.S. issue, not a Mexican one.

“For decades, past administrations in Mexico have thought the war against drug cartels was basically a U.S. problem,” said security analyst David Saucedo, noting that Mexican domestic drug consumption, while growing — especially methamphetamines — is still at relatively low levels.

“On the other hand, the drug cartels provide jobs in regions where the Mexican government can’t provide economic development, they encourage social mobility, and generate revenue through drug sales to balance trade and investment deficits.”

López Obrador has argued before against “demonizing” the drug cartels, and has encouraged leaders of the Catholic church to try to negotiate peace pacts between warring gangs.

Explaining why he has ordered the army not to attack cartel gunmen, López Obrador said in 2022 “we also take care of the lives of the gang members, they are human beings.”

He has also sometimes appeared not to take the violence issue seriously. In June 2023, he said of one drug gang that had abducted 14 police officers: “I’m going to tell on you to your fathers and grandfathers,” suggesting they should get a good spanking.

Asked about those comments at the time, residents of one town in the western Mexico state of Michoacan who have lived under drug cartel control for years reacted with disgust and disbelief.

“He is making fun of us,” said one restaurant owner, who asked to remain anonymous because he — like almost everyone else in town — has long been forced to pay protection money to the local cartel.

“The president said out loud what we had suspected for a long time, that his administration is not really fighting the drug cartels,” said Saucedo, the security analyst. “He has only decided to administer the conflict, setting up what may have to be a crusade against the cartels in the future that he won’t have to fight.”

López Obrador has also made a point of visiting the township of Badiraguato in Sinaloa state, the home of drug lords like Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, at least a half dozen times, and pledging to do so again before he leaves office in September.

It’s also a stance related to prickly nationalism and independence. Asked in November why he has visited the sparsely populated rural township so many times, López Obrador quoted a line from an old drinking song, “because I want to.”

The president has imposed strict limits on U.S. agents operating in Mexico, and limited how much contact Mexican law enforcement can have with them.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico had no comment on López Obrador’s most recent remarks. But it did note the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions Friday on a Sinaloa Cartel money-laundering network in which the proceeds of fentanyl sales were used to buy shipments of cell phones in the United States, which were then sold in Mexico.

John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, credited “strong partnership with the government of Mexico, with which we coordinated closely and for which, we are grateful,” in investigating that case.

While Mexico has detained a few high-profile gang members, the government’s policy no longer matches what Mexican drug cartels have become: extortion machines that make much of their money, not from trafficking drugs, but extorting protection payments from businessmen, farmers, shop owners and street vendors, killing anyone who doesn’t pay.

They take over legitimate businesses, kill rival street-level drug dealers, and murder bus and taxi drivers who refuse to act as lookouts for them.

The cartels control increasingly large swathes of territory both in northern Mexico — their traditional base — and in southern states like Guerrero, Michoacan, Chiapas and Veracruz.

It is unclear if peaceful coexistence was ever possible with Mexican drug gangs. While some regions have produced marijuana or opium poppies for at least 50 years, the illegal trade always brought violence.

López Obrador claims the “Mexico First” policy is needed to reduce domestic violence. Last year, he claimed Mexico saw a drop of 17% in homicides under his administration. But in fact homicides had already fallen about 7% from their mid-2018 peak when López Obrador took office in December of that year. The president is essentially taking credit for a drop that started under his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto.

The most reliable annual count shows that homicides in Mexico declined by 9.7% in 2022 compared to 2021, the first significant drop during the current administration. Mexico’s National Statistics Institute said there were 32,223 killings in 2022.

The country’s homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants dropped from about 28 in 2021 to 25 in 2022. By comparison, the U.S. homicide rate in 2021 was about 7.8 per 100,000 inhabitants.



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