By MARK STEVENSON and FABIOLA SÁNCHEZ
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Days of widespread drug cartel arson and shootings in four states last week have left Mexicans asking why the drug cartels exploded, and what do they want?
The attacks killed 11 people, including a young boy and four radio station employees who were randomly shot on the streets of the border city of Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas on Thursday.
Two days earlier, more than two dozen convenience stores owned by a well-known national chain were set ablaze in the northern state of Guanajuato. Cars and buses were commandeered and burned in neighboring Jalisco state. And two dozen vehicles were hijacked and set on fire in cities on the California border Friday.
The federal government deployed soldiers and National Guard troops to calm residents’ fears, but the outbursts of violence raised questions about President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s approach of putting all responsibility for security in the hands of the military rather than civilian police forces.
Some were quick to brand the arson and shooting attacks as terrorism. But it is not clear what the goal was.
“I think that the orders that were given to these gunmen was to cause chaos,” said Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope. “Generate chaos, generate uncertainty, generate fear, shoot at anything that moves. That is something that generates terror.”
“Terrorism implies a political goal. I don’t know what the political goal is in this case,” Hope said.
López Obrador suggested Monday the attacks were part of a political conspiracy against him by opponents he describes as “conservatives” and he claimed “there is no big problem” with security.
“I don’t know if there was a connection, a hidden hand, if this had been set up,” he said. “What I do know is that our opponents, the corrupt conservatives, help in the black propaganda.”
Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval said later that the cartels had lashed out because they’ve been weakened. “They want to still feel like they’re strong and they generate violent situations where by way of publicity they send messages that they are still strong, when in reality there has been progress in eliminating the criminal structure,” he said.
Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero sounded very different when she issued a strange public appeal Friday to the cartels to stop targeting innocent civilians.
“Today we are saying to the organized crime groups that are committing these crimes, that Tijuana is going to remain open and take care of its citizens,” Caballero said in a video, “and we also ask them to settle their debts with those who didn’t pay what they owe, not with families and hard-working citizens.”
José Andrés Sumano Rodríguez, a professor and security specialist at the Northern Border College in Matamoros, said the decision of targeting civilians was a considered one. “They (the cartels) have learned that when they pressure on the side of generating terror and attacks on civilians, it gives them good results,” he said. “Often it is much more effective to do this than have direct confrontation with the armed forces, where they are almost always going to lose.”
For security analyst David Saucedo the attacks were “narco terrorism,” and he said the Jalisco New Generation Cartel was behind the violence in Guanajuato and Baja California.
Saucedo said there has been a change in Mexico’s drug policy since last year, when army troops sat at roadside bases and simply watched as cartels battled for control of the western Mexico state of Michoacan with bomb-dropping drones, IEDs and land mines.
Saucedo said the change may have angered the cartels.
Mexico has made more attempts to capture drug lords, something López Obrador previously said he wasn’t interested in. Mexican marines captured fugitive drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero in July after years on the run for the 1985 killing of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.
And Mexico’s seizures of meth labs and the synthetic opioid fentanyl have risen sharply in recent months.
“There has been a change in the strategy in fighting drug cartels. Andrés Manuel (López Obrador) has been very much criticized recently for his ‘hugs, not bullets’ strategy,” Saucedo said. “I think that due to pressure from Joe Biden, he is changing that and agreeing to capture high profile drug traffickers.”
The spark that set off the chaos in Jalisco and Guanajuato last week was apparently a military attempt to capture a boss from the Jalisco cartel.
“The narco terrorism of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is a reaction to the president’s change in strategy,” Saucedo said. “If the Mexican president continues with this strategy of capturing high-ranking members of the Jalisco cartel, the Jalisco cartel is going to respond with acts of narcoterrorism in the states it controls as part of its vast empire.”
Sandoval, the defense secretary, took great pains to assure there was no change in strategy. “It’s not that we’re looking for the leader … it’s not that operations are centered on certain levels of the organization.”
There have been such terrorist acts before. In June of last year, a faction of the Gulf cartel entered the border city of Reynosa and killed 14 people authorities identified as “innocent citizens,” as part of a bid to unseat a rival faction that controlled Reynosa.
The only good news, if there is any, is that Saucedo says Jalisco usually tries to cause property damage rather than civilian deaths; he blamed the random killings in Ciudad Juarez on the Mexicles, a gang that works for Sinaloa cartel.
“There are differences between the two types of narco-terrorism,” he said.
Ana Vanessa Cardenas, coordinator of the international relations program at Anahuac Mayab University in Merida, said with any other president half the security cabinet would have been ousted, there would be consultations with international experts and work would be underway on new security strategy, but she expects no change from López Obrador who is in denial.
“We’ve seen a total militarization of security and of the country, which is the last rung,” she said. “If having already reached the last rung in security we have an increase in violence, in murders, in narco control, then where do we go?”
AP reporter Christopher Sherman contributed to this report.
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