By ELLIOT SPAGAT and FABIOLA SÁNCHEZ
TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Days of widespread arson and shootings in four states last week have Mexicans wondering why drug cartels have exploded and what do they want.
The attacks killed 11 people, including a young boy and four radio station workers who were randomly shot on the streets of the border town of Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas on Thursday.
Two days earlier, more than two dozen convenience stores belonging to a well-known national chain were set on fire in the northern state of Guanajuato. Cars and buses were commandeered and set on fire in the neighboring state of Jalisco. And two dozen vehicles were hijacked and set on fire Friday in towns on the California border.
The federal government has deployed soldiers and National Guard troops to allay residents’ fears, but the outbursts of violence have raised questions about President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s approach of handing over all responsibility for security to the military rather than civilian police forces.
Some were quick to label the arson and shooting attacks as terrorism, while the government denied it. Interior Secretary Adán Augusto López said, “These are not terrorist attacks; you don’t have to exaggerate the facts.
But we don’t know what the goal was.
“I think the orders that were given to these gunmen were to sow chaos,” said Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope. “Generate chaos, generate uncertainty, generate fear, shoot everything that moves. It’s something that generates terror.
But, Hope added: “Terrorism involves a political objective. I don’t know what the political objective is in this case.
López Obrador suggested on Monday that the attacks were part of a political plot against him by opponents he calls “conservative” and he argued that “there is no big problem” with security.
“I don’t know if there was a connection, a hidden hand, if it had been put in place,” he said. “What I do know is that our opponents, the corrupt conservatives, are contributing black propaganda.”
Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval later said the cartels ran wild because they were weakened. “They always want to feel strong and they generate violent situations where, through advertising, they send messages that they are always strong,” he said.
Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero sounded very different when she issued a bizarre public plea on Friday to the cartels to stop targeting innocent civilians.
“Today we say to the organized crime groups that commit these crimes that Tijuana is going to stay open and take care of its citizens,” Caballero said in a video. “And we’re also asking them to settle their debts with those who haven’t paid what they owe, not with families and hard-working citizens.”
The streets of central Tijuana were busy Monday after an unusually quiet weekend of canceled medical appointments and closed restaurants.
On Monday morning, pedestrians waited more than three hours to enter the United States at the San Ysidro border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. There was no visible enhanced security presence in central Tijuana.
Omar García, who runs a clothing souvenir stand near the Tijuana border crossing, said tourism evaporated over the weekend. He was encouraged by Monday’s heavy traffic, but said the violence could turn into an economic shake-up for his business.
“These are blows that happen from time to time,” said García, 34, who has been selling souvenirs at the border post since he was young. “We are 100% dependent on tourism. If they’re scared, they don’t come.
José Andrés Sumano Rodríguez, a professor and security specialist at Northern Border College in Matamoros, a border town with Texas, said the decision to target civilians was carefully considered.
The cartels “have learned that when they push to generate terror and attacks on civilians, it gives them good results,” he said. “Often it is much more efficient to do this than to have a direct confrontation with the armed forces, where they will almost always lose.”
Security analyst David Saucedo called the attacks “narco-terrorism”, and he said the Jalisco New Generation Cartel was behind the violence in the states of Guanajuato and Lower Mexico. California.
Saucedo said there had been a shift in Mexican drug policy since last year, when soldiers at road bases simply watched as cartels fought for control of the western state of Michoacan with bomb-dropping drones, IEDs and landmines.
Saucedo said the change may have angered the cartels.
Mexico made more attempts to capture drug lords, which López Obrador had previously said he was not interested in. .
And seizures in Mexico from labs of methamphetamine and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, have risen sharply in recent months.
“There has been a change in the strategy to fight drug cartels. Andrés Manuel (López Obrador) has come under heavy criticism recently for his ‘hugs, not bullets’ strategy, Saucedo said. “I think due to pressure from Joe Biden, he’s changing that and agreeing to capture high profile drug dealers.”
The spark that ignited chaos in Jalisco and Guanajuato last week was apparently the arrival of the military at a meeting involving a Jalisco cartel boss. Sandoval, the defense secretary, said the soldiers were unaware and were simply trying to intercept a cartel convoy.
“The narco-terrorism of the Jalisco Next Generation Cartel is a reaction to the president’s change in strategy,” Saucedo said. “If the Mexican President pursues this strategy of capturing high-ranking members of the Jalisco Cartel, the Jalisco Cartel will respond with acts of narcoterrorism in the states it controls as part of its vast empire.”
Sandoval said 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,” he said.
“We need to know where to employ this force, where to use it, the amount of people we need to send to reinforce, the specific places and know where we need to act in order to be able to guarantee security,” Sandoval said.
He denied that the government was not responsive, noting that in 19 of Mexico’s 32 states the National Guard already outnumbered state authorities. “It is part of a strategy that is already defined and that we will apply accordingly.”
There have already been such terrorist acts. In June last year, a faction of the Gulf Cartel entered Reynosa, on the border with Texas, and killed 14 people identified as ‘innocent citizens’, in an attempt to overthrow a faction. rival that controlled Reynosa.
Ana Vanessa Cardenas, coordinator of the international relations program at Anahuac Mayab University in Mérida, said that with any other president, half of the security cabinet would have been ousted, there would be consultations with international experts and work would be underway on a new security strategy. But she expects no change from López Obrador, whom she considers to be in denial.
“We have seen a total militarization of security and the country, which is the last echelon,” Cardenas said. “If, having already reached the last echelon of security, we have an increase in violence, murder, narcotics control, then where are we going?”
Sánchez reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson and Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.