But the Mexican president’s populist economic policies could soon be eclipsed by a more urgent crisis: Violence in the country is flaring up in alarming ways.
Last week, on Friday morning in Mexico City’s affluent Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood, a large group of heavily armed men ambushed Omar García Harfuch, the Mexican capital’s chief of police, in an unprecedented brutal and brazen attack.
As García Harfuch’s armored SUV approached an intersection, a large pick-up truck full of hired assassins blocked its way. Another vehicle advanced from behind, making escape impossible. Then came three minutes of hell. The attackers shot at least 400 rounds at close range. Two of García Harfuch’s bodyguards died in the attack (one took 38 bullets). A woman who was caught in the crossfire along with her family was also killed. García Harfuch survived but was badly wounded. As they fled, the killers left behind a cache of weapons of war, including grenades, a grenade launcher and molotov cocktails. The plan, according to Mexican journalist Héctor de Mauleón, was to kill García Harfuch and then torch his remains inside the vehicle. That they failed is nothing short of a miracle.
But who were the attackers exactly?
A few minutes after he was extracted from the demolished shell of his SUV, García Harfuch himself took to Twitter to identify the group responsible for the unprecedented attempt to assassinate a high-profile figure on the streets of Mexico City. “This morning we were cowardly attacked by the CJNG,” he posted.
Over the past 10 years, the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG, has become Mexico’s most violent drug organization. “It has made extreme violence a kind of business card,” de Mauleón, who has been documenting the rise of CJNG for years, told me recently. “Videos of rivals being dismembered are their favorite method of propaganda.”
This intimidatory savagery has paid off. Under the leadership of Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as “el Mencho,” the cartel has become very ambitious, building a sophisticated trafficking network that has played a crucial role in the U.S. opioid epidemic. Through it all, Oseguera Cervantes’s methods have grown more vicious. In 2015, as a response to a military operation against the cartel in the western state of Jalisco, CJNG operatives burned buses and gas stations, set up road blocks and attacked a Mexican army helicopter with rocket-propelled grenades.
According to security analyst Eduardo Guerrero, the CJNG “has managed to assemble perhaps the most powerful criminal army in Mexican history.” Given its penchant for violence, it is not surprising that Oseguera Cervantes has chosen to escalate his conflict with the Mexican state. The recent extradition of his son and heir apparent Rubén, and the Mexican government’s decision to freeze almost 2,000 bank accounts apparently connected to the cartel’s operations may have pushed the CJNG’s notoriously violent leader over the edge.
Now the CJNG has turned to both retribution and terror. A few weeks ago, the cartel killed Uriel Villegas, a federal judge responsible, in part, for the extradition of the younger Oseguera. Villegas was shot along with his wife, with his children present. The attempt on García Harfuch’s life seems an evident turn for the worse. “They have sent a clear message,” Guerrero told me. “Nobody is safe now.”
If this is the case, López Obrador faces a blunt question: How to respond to a de facto declaration of war? Recent law enforcement operations against the cartel have clearly hit a nerve, especially the move against its finances. According to some versions, Santiago Nieto, head of the Mexican government’s financial investigation unit that froze the CJNG’s accounts, is also a target.
Now many have started to argue that López Obrador should reconsider traveling commercial and reassess the need to have an armored vehicle like the one that saved García Harfuch’s life. The president himself has been careful to avoid even a verbal escalation. “We are not going to give in to the bluster of declaring war on anyone,” he said after the attack.
For journalist de Mauleón, though, last Friday’s violence on the streets of Mexico City should be interpreted as a watershed moment both for the CJNG and the López Obrador administration. “There is no going back, and this is just the beginning of an era,” he told me.
Probably not the best time to celebrate the beginning of a brand new trade deal.
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