Brazen strikes by organised crime leaders have left bystanders killed as many question the president’s security policies
For Carlos Holguín it was supposed to be just another day of toil.
After leaving the factory where he works morning shifts in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, the 24-year-old began his nightly routine last Thursday as a food app delivery driver.
Holguín was collecting a pizza when something hot pierced his left foot. Seconds later he saw people running for their lives. Still unsure what was happening, the delivery driver – who has a hearing impairment – threw himself to the ground as two more bullets struck his legs.
“When my mother got to the pizzeria he was lying there … groaning, covered in blood, and had been shot three times,” said his brother, César Holguín, 27.
“Unfortunately, we live in a city and a country under assault from organised crime,” Holguín said – as Mexico came to terms with the latest explosion of bloodshed in its traumatic modern history.
The shooting in Ciudad Juárez came during a headline-grabbing week of violence that paralysed some of Mexico’s most important cities, left more than a dozen people dead and raised fresh questions over the security policies of Mexico’s nationalist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The mayhem began on 9 August, when security forces reportedly tried to arrest a senior leader from the country’s most notorious organised crime group, the Jalisco New Generation cartel. The response from Jalisco hatchet men was fast and furious: in a series of brazen strikes they torched buses, cars and dozens of convenience stores as they rampaged across central cities such as Guadalajara, Guanajuato and León.
Forty-eight hours later the violence spread north as rival gangsters clashed in a prison in Ciudad Juárez, just over the border from El Paso, Texas.
The violence, seemingly unrelated to the havoc in Jalisco and Guanajuato, soon spilled beyond the prison’s walls as cartel gunmen hit a series of civilian targets, including the Little Caesar’s pizzeria where Holguín was picking up an order.
“Terror,” one Mexican journalist tweeted alongside graphic security footage of the moment police entered the bullet-riddled restaurant to find the floor smeared with blood.
The next day, Tijuana, roughly 20 miles (32km) over the border from San Diego, found itself at the eye of the storm, with its usually bustling streets emptying as bandits erected roadblocks and burned dozens of vehicles.
“They are literally torching the country,” tweeted the newspaper editor Adrián López, who said the direct targeting of civilians was unprecedented.
López Obrador, who was elected in 2018 promising to “pacify” his troubled nation with a controversial policy of “hugs, not bullets”, claimed the attacks suggested those efforts were succeeding. He called the violence desperate cartel “propaganda” designed to project a false sense of power.
Calderón sends in the army
Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.
Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.
Simultaneously Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.
That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.
Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.
But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.
“Hugs not bullets”
The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.
“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.
Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong “National Guard”. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.
Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.
“I want to tell the people of Mexico to remain calm,” said the president, who is known as Amlo, accusing conservative political rivals of “magnifying” the turmoil.
Yet the scale of the violence needed no amplification and offered a terrifying reminder of the muscle of wealthy and heavily armed groups such as the Jalisco cartel and the government’s inability to respond, even in major cities.
While Holguín was being taken to hospital in Ciudad Juárez, another civilian, 22-year-old Jovanni Varo, was gunned down while leaving a bank with his girlfriend.
“They went to withdraw some money for the week and were walking out when Jovanni just shouted at her, ‘Run!’” said the victim’s mother, Candelaria Varo. “When she turned around she saw he was injured and within seconds he was dead,” she added.
The security specialist Óscar Balderas said that far from being an isolated event, the wave of violence was the result of an ill-conceived security strategy still based on catching senior cartel leaders without targeting the finances or assets of their groups.
“Drug cartels are less and less drug cartels and increasingly criminal enterprises,” Balderas said. “Rather than simply arresting criminal operators, these [police] operations need to be closing bank accounts, seizing property, confiscating buildings and weapons, above all high-caliber ones, that only the army is allowed to use.”
Mexico’s defense secretary, Luis Cresencio Sandoval, has defended his government’s tactics, calling the attacks a counteroffensive against growing government pressure, including the deployment of hundreds of members of the national guard and a series of major operations and arrests. The defense chief claimed increasingly frail organised crime groups wanted to show strength, “when in reality these underworld structures are being gradually eroded”.
Yet experts are unconvinced by such claims, with Balderas one of many to question the government’s strategy. “An operation’s success is being gauged by the number of people arrested when this is actually a very poor indicator,” he said.
López Obrador’s government has made some significant arrests in its anti-cartel crusade but such operations have not always gone to plan.
In October 2019, the son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was briefly detained in Culiacán but then freed on the president’s orders after cartel gunmen brought the city to a standstill with a wave of attacks.
The 9 August attacks that sparked Mexico’s recent week of violence came as authorities attempted to seize Ricardo Ruiz Velasco, a Jalisco cartel founder nicknamed Double R who is close to the group’s notorious leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, El Mencho.
Balderas said such outcomes highlighted the lack of operational intelligence and political will when it came to fighting organized crime. Examples of success included the July arrest of the legendary drug boss Rafael Caro Quintero and the 2020 capture of the leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, El Marro.
“But beyond that operations have been sloppy, unconvincing and based on scant criminal intelligence … simply responding to occasions when [criminals] are caught red-handed,” Balderas added. “This prevents intelligence-based operations and leads to the dire results we have seen in the streets [recently].”
Mexico’s political opposition has called the August attacks acts of terrorism and alleged Amlo’s government is losing control of the country.
But Balderas questioned that definition: “Terrorist groups seek to destroy the state in order to establish its own regime, while Mexico’s criminal groups – criminal enterprises such as the Northeast cartel, the Jalisco cartel or the Michoacán Family – seek not to govern but rather … to take advantage and join forces with the state.”
However the violence is defined, the human consequences have proved devastating.
“We didn’t ask for this situation, it isn’t fair,” said César Holguín, who said the long-term extent of his brother’s injuries remained unclear.
“My brother is a decent person who supports his family and two daughters,” he said. “He didn’t deserve this.”