How AMLO Has Fueled Mexico’s Drug War

Soldiers patrol the streets during the funeral of Mayor Cesar Arturo Valencia, in Aguililla, Michoacan state, Mexico, on March 11.

Soldiers patrol the streets during the funeral of Mayor César Arturo Valencia in Aguililla, Mexico, on March 11. ENRIQUE CASTRO/AFP via Getty Images

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico—On March 24, 29-year-old Alfredo Rodríguez Torres was driving with two friends in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in Nuevo Laredo, a border city in the north Mexican state of Tamaulipas, when, turning a corner, they noticed they were being followed by three military trucks.

At first, Rodríguez Torres later recalled, they paid little attention. Then, the military vehicles flicked on their sirens, and one rammed into the back of their Chevy Tahoe. The men panicked, hitting the gas and crashing into another car before skidding to a stop on a bridge. Terrified, they stepped down from the wreckage with their hands raised. But, Rodríguez Torres said, that didn’t stop the soldiers from opening fire.

“We’re gonna kill you sons of bitches!” the Mexican soldiers shouted after shooting Rodríguez Torres and his friends. Rodríguez Torres said the soldiers flipped him and his friends, two of whom had been shot and were bleeding, onto their stomachs and began beating them, saying, “You dogs better die!”

It took several minutes of the soldiers trying and failing to find guns or drugs in the men’s car for them to realize that the men weren’t members of a criminal group. They were just guys with tattoos.

“I got out with my hands up,” Rodríguez Torres, whose lower left leg has now been amputated due to gunshot wounds, told Foreign Policy. The other two men were injured but have recovered. “But no, they received me with bullets. I had nothing to do with organized crime, and they did this to me.”

The details of Rodríguez Torres’s account correspond with a report filed by the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee on March 29. The committee’s president, Raymundo Ramos, also shared with Foreign Policy photos taken by a bystander of soldiers guarding the scene, an ambulance, and the wrecked truck. Two weeks later, skid marks and a twisted guard rail were still visible on the scene.

Foreign Policy reached out to the Mexican military to inquire about the shooting. The military did not comment on the incident and instead sent press releases on the deployment of forces to Nuevo Laredo.

The shooting came a week after a highly publicized deployment of Mexican troops to Nuevo Laredo after the capture of Juan Gerardo Treviño Chávez (alias “El Huevo”), a notorious drug trafficker, provoked a night of cinematic but bloodless standoffs between Treviño Chávez’s gunmen and state security forces in the early hours of March 14.

Speaking at a diplomatic meeting with Alejandro Mayorkas, the U.S. secretary of homeland security, a few hours after the arrest, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard referred to Treviño Chávez’s capture as “the great arrest of the decade.”

In the wake of the March 14 standoff, in which several bullets struck the bulletproof windows of the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican government said it was deploying two new Army units, each with up to 600 soldiers, to patrol the streets of Nuevo Laredo. So far, at least 783 soldiers, 250 special forces, and four helicopter gunships have arrived, reinforcing the nearly 4,000 National Guard members and 5,751 Marines already stationed throughout the state as of mid-2021.

Some Mexican human rights workers and journalists critical of the current administration have argued that the deployment is simply a show of force by the Mexican government. The soldiers, they argue, have done little to dismantle organized criminal networks while simultaneously increasing the risk of further human rights abuses in a city where Mexican armed forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. For some critics, the deployment is the latest example of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s contradictory security strategy that has only continued the drug war he promised to end.

Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during a news conference defending his policy of non-violence to combat the violence generated by organized crime at National Palace on July 5, 2021 in Mexico City, Mexico.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a news conference defending his policy of nonviolence to combat the violence generated by organized crime at the National Palace in Mexico City on July 5, 2021. Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images

When he was elected in a landslide in 2018, López Obrador promised to end the country’s war on drugs, which began 12 years earlier when then-President Felipe Calderón declared war on the country’s drug cartels and deployed troops across the country. Calderón’s offensive—which was bolstered by the Mérida Initiative, a U.S.-Mexico security agreement—precipitated skyrocketing homicides, disappearances, and massacres throughout a country already plagued by violence after various criminal groups had fractured around 2000.

López Obrador, whose campaign slogans included Abrazos, No Balazos (“Hugs, Not Bullets”), has attempted to contrast his security policy with the brutality of Calderón’s strategy. (Calderón once told the Marines that criminals were “cockroaches” who could only be eliminated through social cleansing.) López Obrador promised to demilitarize Mexico and address the problem of organized crime by prioritizing job creation and educational opportunities. Earlier this year, after Calderón said that López Obrador wanted to “send hugs to those murderers,” López Obrador responded that Calderón “thinks you have to fight evil with evil.”

Yet López Obrador’s policies have diverged from his stated security strategy: Since taking office, he has strengthened the armed forces’ power and expanded their role in society. As other branches of government face austerity, his government allocated $10 billion to the armed forces for 2022, with a 22 percent increase for the Army and 17 percent increase for the Marines from the previous year.

Notably, in 2019, López Obrador created the National Guard, an ostensibly civilian-controlled domestic police force that he said would de-escalate the war on drugs by taking soldiers off the streets. He told reporters in July of that year that, although it would be politically unfeasible, he wanted to dissolve the Army entirely into the National Guard and “declare that Mexico is a pacifist country that does not need a military.”

But the National Guard is commanded by a former soldier, its ranks consist almost entirely of former soldiers, and it has already been accused of hundreds of human rights violations. In May 2020, the president signed a decree mandating that the military would continue policing activities, patrolling the streets alongside the National Guard, until around the end of his term in 2024. He has also bolstered the military’s presence on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Based on this expansion, critics have long alleged that López Obrador has reneged on his promise to demilitarize. “The National Guard is the Army with a different uniform,” Mexican writer Esteban Illades wrote in the Washington Post in 2019. “Soldiers being trained by soldiers to do what soldiers do. Indefinitely.”

Meanwhile, violent crime in the country has remained high. Peacefulness improved by 0.2 percent last year, according to a May report from the Mexico Peace Index, but remains significantly lower than it was in 2015. More than 34,000 homicides were recorded last year, nearly double the 2015 figure.

But in the case of Nuevo Laredo, the Army, National Guard, and Marines have been deployed to a place that’s far less dangerous than it was a decade ago. Although extortion, enforced disappearances, and homicide still continue, Tamaulipas is no longer among the 10 most violent states in Mexico. After a rise in homicides in 2017 and 2018, violence dropped dramatically over the following two years, from 1,400 registered homicides in 2018 to 800 by 2020.

“The [recent] arrival of soldiers to Nuevo Laredo is a propagandistic act,” said Ramos, the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee president. He believes the bullets that hit the U.S. Consulate pushed the Mexican government to deploy the troops in an effort to appease Washington and prove that the government is tough on crime.

Mexico City and Washington revamped their security cooperation last year with the Bicentennial Framework, a plan that ostensibly focuses less on militarization and more on improving public health, targeting drug labs, and extraditing cartel leaders such as Treviño Chávez.

But the investigative organization Insight Crime argues that the plan is less of a departure from the Mérida Initiative, declared dead last year by López Obrador’s administration, than the Mexican government makes it out to be. This is largely because it continues to rely on the “kingpin strategy,” which involves the use of multimillion-dollar rewards for information leading to the arrest of criminal leaders, while continuing the process, despite the president’s rhetoric, of militarizing the country in order to target those leaders.

The problem with that strategy, according to security experts, is that it doesn’t account for the mass of people involved in criminal networks. In fact, it often leads to more violence if those groups, left without leadership, subsequently fracture and fight among themselves.

Women and children near armed policemen in Mexico City on June 25, 2020.

Armed police officers walk past onlookers in Mexico City on June 25, 2020. Jair Cabrera Torres/picture alliance via Getty Images

What the arrival of more armed forces does bring to places like Tamaulipas—even under the guise of civilian leadership—is the risk of serious human rights violations.

“[The National Guard] say they’re protecting the population. They’re not. They’re just killing family members,” said Viridiana Promotor, the widow of Jorge Alberto Rivera Cardoza, a mechanic who was driving in downtown Nuevo Laredo on April 8, 2021, when he was shot and killed by National Guardsmen at a checkpoint, as Mexican news magazine Proceso has reported. No drugs or weapons, Promotor said, were found in his vehicle. (According to the official government report that Proceso had access to, the guardsmen said they were alerted to the “erratic driving” of a nearby car and that they heard gunshots from inside the car as it passed, provoking them to open fire.)

Promotor has received no compensation for her husband’s killing and has had to double her work as a domestic worker to care for their two children. “It’s super difficult to get justice, because we’ve been two years without any advances on the case,” she said. She was offered around $50,000 by National Guard representatives, digital news site Animal Político reported, in exchange for agreeing to not pursue the case, which she refused.

According to information obtained by the Mexican outlet Milenio, out of the 988 probes for misconduct launched by the National Guard’s internal affairs unit since the force began operating in July 2019—investigating accusations of extortion, abuse of authority, theft of assets, and more—only 421 have been concluded. Two out of those 421 ultimately established guilt.

There are, however, occasional moments when the armed forces face justice. In the first half of 2018, Nuevo Laredo became the center of a nationwide scandal after the enforced disappearances of at least 47 people, including a U.S. citizen, following the deployment of Marine special forces to the city under the auspices of fighting organized crime. Journalists and family members of the victims, whose bodies were later found in the desert, accused the Marines of being behind the disappearances. Thirty Marines were later arrested, and the Marines issued a rare apology.

But killings by state forces continue, with impunity for those at the top. Since the 2018 disappearances, several other massacres have occurred in Tamaulipas, most allegedly committed by elite state police units trained by the Mexican Marines.

In September 2019, one such unit said it engaged in a shootout where it killed eight gunmen from the Tropa del Infierno, a wing of the Northeast Cartel, while patrolling Nuevo Laredo’s Valles de Anahuác neighborhood along with the Army. The narrative was thrown into question when one of the victim’s daughters, Kassandra Treviño, said the police had, in fact, broken into their home, beaten her father while demanding to know where they were supposedly hiding guns, and then forced him to dress up in a military-style uniform before ordering her to flee with her baby from the house. There, they killed him and seven others. Later, a tow-truck driver told Spanish journalists that his boss had him “help the state [police]” by towing a truck to the scene, which was later construed as a shootout. According to the Spanish newspaper El País, the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee confirmed Treviño’s story. Two years later, only two police and none of the soldiers are in custody.

In early 2021, Tamaulipas state prosecutors accused the same unit of executing 19 Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Mexican migrants in the desert and incinerating their bodies in a truck. Although 12 members of the unit are in government custody for alleged participation in the massacre, the commander, who was not charged, was later awarded commemorative plaques by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for his “outstanding” and “continuous contributions” on border law enforcement efforts. He continues to direct the unit in Tamaulipas.

On April 12, the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances released a report expressing concern over Mexico’s continued “militarized focus on public security for the risk it implies for human rights.” The report continued that “in 2021, SEDENA [the Mexican military] and the National Guard were among the 10 government bodies most frequently named in the disciplinary proceedings for presumed human rights violations by the CNDH [the Mexican government’s National Human Rights Commission].”

López Obrador criticized the report the following day. “They don’t have all the information, they aren’t acting with adherence to the truth,” he said at the National Palace. “We aren’t in the old days when the Army was being used to repress people or finish off the wounded.”

But the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee’s Ramos—speaking to me in the committee’s office where, after facing years of threats from the state security forces, a computer screen runs a nonstop livestream of security cameras outside—said that “when soldiers go out on patrol in Nuevo Laredo, they go out on the defensive. The whole world, all of the civilians, seem suspicious to them.”

For Ramos, the shooting of Rodríguez Torres, a working-class man in his 20s, and his friend is a variation on an old story in the drug war in which those who look poor are criminalized. “The only sin of these young men was to have tattoos when the soldiers were going out on patrol,” he said. “And if there isn’t punishment and recompense for incidents like this, it can create more impunity, where other soldiers take less precautions to avoid lethal interactions. Any person walking on the street would be in danger.”

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