As much as 40% of Mexican territory is prisoner to chronic insecurity and violence, the future chief of staff of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the incoming president, has claimed.
“Veracruz is paralyzed. Tamaulipas, paralyzed; Michoacán, paralyzed. Guerrero, paralyzed,” Romo said, referring to four of the most notoriously violent states in a country that last year suffered a record 29,000 murders.
“I won’t go on, so I don’t scare you,” Romo added, according to the newspaper Unomásuno which splashed the widely-reported claim onto its front page under the bright red headline: “Paralyzed by Insecurity”.
López Obrador, or Amlo as he is widely known, made cutting violence a key prong of his third presidential bid and his promise to “pacify” Mexico helped him secure more than 30 million votes.
Amlo has vowed to rethink Mexico’s devastating and highly militarized war on drugs – which experts blame for at least 200,000 deaths since 2006 – and be tough on the social causes of crime.
On 10 December 2006, president Felipe Calderón, launched Mexico’s war on drugs by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacán, where rival cartels were engaged in tit-for-tat massacres.
Calderón declared war eight days after taking power – a move widely seen as an attempt to boost his own legitimacy after a bitterly contested election victory. Within two months, around 20,000 troops were involved in operations across the country.
The US has donated at least $1.5bn through the Merida Initiative since 2008, while Mexico has spent at least $54bn on security and defence since 2007. Critics say that this influx of cash has helped create an opaque security industry open to corruption at every level.
But the biggest costs have been human: since 2007, around 230,000 people have been murdered and more than 28,000 reported as disappeared. Human rights groups have also detailed a vast rise in human rights abuses by security forces.
As the cartels have fractured and diversified, other violent crimes such as kidnapping and extortion have also surged. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by violence.
Improved collaboration between the US and Mexico has resulted in numerous high-profile arrests and drug busts. Officials say 25 of the 37 drug traffickers on Calderón’s most-wanted list have been jailed, extradited to the US or killed, although not all of these actions have been independently corroborated.
The biggest victory – and most embarrassing blunder – under Peña Nieto’s leadership was the recapture, escape and another recapture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel.
While the crackdown and capture of kingpins has won praise from the media and US, it has done little to reduce the violence.
Mexico’s decade-long war on drugs would never have been possible without the huge injection of American cash and military cooperation under the Merida Initiative. The funds have continued to flow despite growing evidence of serious human rights violations.
In interviews this week, Amlo’s future public security chief, Alfonso Durazo, said plans to reduce violence included raising police salaries, eradicating corruption, considering the decriminalisation of marijuana and an amnesty for low-level criminals, and placing a greater emphasis on crime prevention.
“The situation in which we find ourselves did not happen overnight … and as a result we aren’t going to resolve it overnight,” Durazo admitted. But by the end of Amlo’s six-year term, in 2024, Mexico would again be “a country of peace and tranquility”, he predicted.
Ioan Grillo, the author of a book on Mexico’s drug crisis called El Narco, said Amlo faced “a herculean task”. “But then again because it’s such a bad starting point, a little bit of improvement will go a long way.”
“Drug trafficking will continue. Kidnapping will continue. Stealing oil, extortion, product piracy, human smuggling … These things will continue. But if there is some reduction in the overall violence, or the most antisocial crimes, it will look OK,” Grillo added.
“If in his first year he has a reduction of murders – by 10% or 20% even – if instead of being 29,000 there are 24,000, then that will look OK.”