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Gruesome attacks challenge López Obrador's softer approach to Mexico's cartels

The scene of the attack on the LeBaron family. Photo: Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared an end to Mexico’s war on the drug cartels when he took office nearly a year ago, but the gangs are only growing more aggressive.

Driving the news: Nine dual U.S-Mexican citizens — six children and three women — from a Mormon community were slaughtered on Tuesday near the U.S.-Mexico border.

  • That massacre comes three weeks after the Sinaloa cartel violently took control of Culiacán, holding the city of 800,000 hostage until authorities agreed to release the drug kingpin son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
  • While those high-profile incidents ratcheted up the pressure both in Mexico and from the U.S, cartel violence is a daily occurrence.
  • The country is on pace for a record 37,000 homicides this year, and organized crime has been seeping into areas that had previously been spared.

The cycle of violence is driven by American demand — Mexican cartels are the top suppliers of heroin, fentanyl, meth and cocaine to the U.S.

  • Those drug profits allow the gangs to pay off judges and politicians. Fewer than 1 in 20 homicides in Mexico are solved, per the WSJ.

Flashback: Mexico’s war on the cartels began in 2006 under then President Felipe Calderón, whose strategy of taking out gang leaders spawned smaller warring groups.

  • Homicides fell in the early years under his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, but began to climb once again in 2014. By 2018 they'd reached historic highs.

When López Obrador swept to office last year in a landslide, crime ranked behind only corruption in terms of voters’ concerns.

  • He took a softer line, urging cartel members to think of their mothers and proposing anti-poverty programs, while also building a new national guard.
  • “He wants to take a new approach to security, and power to him,” says Earl Anthony Wayne, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico (2011-2015). “Addressing the root causes is a wonderful thing to do. But in the short term, he still faces this day-to-day violence fueled by these criminal groups.”

Zoom out: Despite the continued rise in violence and a sluggish economy, a recent poll puts López Obrador’s approval rating at a remarkable 67%.

  • Most Mexicans believe their president — a supremely talented politician — is “one of them,” says Wayne, adding that López Obrador recently asked for “one year to show results.”
  • “We’ll see if they give him that year, but clearly people like him, they like the promises, and they’re desirous of change.”

The bottom line: López Obrador has massive ambitions to lift up the poor and remake Mexico from the ground up. The cartels are standing in his way.