Opinion | Terrorism in Ciudad Juárez adds to the wave of violence in AMLO’s Mexico

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In Mexico, the drug cartels begin to exceed a dangerous border. For years, the violence in the country had been associated mainly with disputes between criminal groups, revenge against those who touch their interests, and confrontations with the authorities. On Thursday of last week they crossed that line: they directly attacked the civilian population and killed 11 people in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.

Those are terrorist acts. Amnesty International defines terrorism as “attacks that are deliberately directed against the civilian population, or that do not distinguish between civilians and other targets,” and that happened in Ciudad Juárez. According to the first official investigations, it all started with a confrontation between rival gangs in a local prison: Los Chapos against Los Mexicles. Later, Los Mexicles shot at the civilian population: citizens who were in a pizzeria, in a locksmith shop, in their cars, in a radio station.

The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has not wanted to accept that it was terrorism. He does not accept the term or pronounce the word, despite the fact that the president himself defined the episode in Ciudad Juárez in this way: “The innocent civilian population was attacked as a kind of retaliation; It wasn’t just the confrontation between two groups, but there came a time when they started shooting innocent people.” It is the very definition of terrorism, but the government does not accept it.

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Nor did he accept it in June 2021, when in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, an armed command executed in cold blood 15 people who were on the street going about their daily lives: students, families, bricklayers, taxi drivers, older adults, maquila workers, a nurse, a garbage collector. What did the president of Mexico say?: “Everything indicates that it was not a confrontation, but that it was a commando that shot people who were not in a confrontational plan.” He said it was a cowardly attack. But he did not say what it was also: a terrorist act.

Why not call him by his name? I find two main reasons. The first is that this president governs with his word. With reality getting worse, he spends several hours each day trying to shape perception with well-worn rhetoric. The government works with premises like this: if the president does not say terrorism, there is no terrorism. The second is that, if Mexico accepts that there is terrorism in its territory, it opens the door for the United States to get much more involved in Mexican security matters, especially in the case of a nation with which it shares more than 3,000 kilometers of border. And if AMLO has done anything in his administration, it has been to cut off access and cooperation with the neighboring country on these issues.

But reality cannot erase it. The terrorist act in Ciudad Juárez represents one more escalation in the record levels of insecurity that plague the country in this federal administration. Only the weekend before the Juarez massacre, 254 murders were registered in the country. They happened throughout the national territory: in 28 of the 32 entities.

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In addition, in the days before and after the Ciudad Juárez tragedy, organized crime hijacked and burned buses and private vehicles to block public roads; and burned down pharmacies, convenience stores, gas stations and unleashed terror and chaos in the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato and Baja California.

The day after the events in Ciudad Juárez, in his morning conference that lasted one hour and 36 minutes, AMLO dedicated 82 seconds to the subject. He showed no outrage or empathy. He did not say anything about legitimately using state force to bring those responsible to justice or what his government will do in this situation. Almost as a filler, he lamented the facts and sentenced without emotion: “I hope it doesn’t happen again.”

This desire contrasts with the messages that President AMLO has systematically sent to criminals: he refers to them with deference and respect, insists that his security strategy is “hugs, not bullets,” and his biggest threat is that he will charge them with their mothers and grandmothers to be rebuked.

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The bloody week in Mexico coincides with the debate that the president ignited when he threatened to violate the Constitution and bypass Congress to militarize public security by decree and that the National Guard, which is under civilian command in the Magna Carta, is now charge of the Army. It is another of his erratic security policies that, moreover, contradicts his campaign promises: if AMLO criticized something when he aspired to power, it was that the presidents use the Army in police tasks, and he promised ad nauseam that he would return the soldiers to their barracks. It is not the only blatant contradiction.

The first time that there is a record of a terrorist attack in the recent history of Mexico was in September 2008. In the middle of the national holiday of the Cry of Independence, a criminal group threw grenades at the civilian population that packed the central square of Morelia, Michoacán, and murdered eight people.

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It happened in the government of the politician that AMLO detests the most, Felipe Calderón, who also did not want to qualify the act as terrorism. The current president, who at that time was a seasoned opposition leader, called for the resignations of the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Public Security and the Attorney General, and criticized that Calderón’s erratic policy was aggravating insecurity.

Today the president is in the same situation: without acknowledging acts of terrorism and trying to play with words, which he likes to do so much. He will have to see if having to swallow them will not cause indigestion.

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