In Mexico, crime, problems resist president’s solutions

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s problems of crime and violence are so deeply rooted and seemingly intractable that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s best efforts appear to be falling short, and his programs are barely making a dent in long-established illicit activities.

On Wednesday, prosecutors confirmed that gunmen pulled up to a wake being held for a young man in a city just south of the capital and opened fire on mourners, killing eight and wounding 14. It was the second deadly attack on a funeral service in recent months.

Those problems were underscored in the statistics the president included in his state of the nation report Tuesday. López Obrador promised to bring peace to the country; but in the first seven months of 2020, there have been 21,060 homicides in Mexico, slightly above the 20,713 in the same period of 2019.

The day after his speech, López Obrador was more cautious in speaking of his achievements against crime. He said Wednesday that his administration had stopped the growth of many crimes, but not murders and extortion.

“Why has it been hard to reduce the number of murders?” he said. “Because it has to do with organized crime and there are constantly confrontations between groups.”

A total of about 15,800 people disappeared between Sept. 1, 2019 and June 30, the difference between those reported missing and those found alive in that period. Chillingly, authorities found 1,143 clandestine burial pits and exhumed 1,682 bodies from them during that period; only 712 have been identified and only 431 sets of remains were turned over to families.

The violence was illustrated by the attack late Tuesday in Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City; mourners had gathered at a house to hold a wake for a youth who died in a motorcycle accident. Gunmen in several cars pulled up and opened fire with assault rifles, leaving four young men dead in the street, while four others died after being taken to hospitals.

Prosecutors in Morelos state said the attack “is related to the operation of criminal groups” and the weapons used were linked by ballistics tests to “organized crime,” which in Mexico usually means drug cartels.

In May, gunmen killed a brother and sister in an attack on a funeral home in the northern border city of San Luis Rio Colorado. Other mourners at the funeral for a murder victim returned fire, wounding some of the attackers.

Despite declaring victory in the fight against fuel theft from government pipelines in 2019, authorities found about 2.6 million gallons (10 million liters) of stolen or illicit fuel being transported on highways between Sept. 1, 2019 and June 30. The army alone found 3,780 illegal pipeline taps in that period.

While Mexican farmers appeared to be turning away from opium poppy production as traffickers increasingly turn to the synthetic opioid fentanyl, poppy eradication seems to be going up; the army reported destroying about 24,000 acres (9,783 hectares) of opium poppies in the first seven months of 2020. That is 83% as much as the nearly 30,000 acres (12,140 hectares) they destroyed in all of 2019.

Between Sept. 1, 2019 and June 30, the army seized over ten metric tons of meth, over 6.5 tons of cocaine and almost a million fentanyl pills.

No corner of the country is immune from the drug trade. On Wednesday, the Navy announced it caught three men piloting a fast boat off the Caribbean coast resort of Mahahual, carrying almost three tons of cocaine.

The president, who took office on Dec. 1, 2018, has pledged to end violence against journalists and human rights workers. But at the end of June, there were 1,258 people in a government protection program (396 journalists and 862 rights activists), 57.6% more than were in the program when López Obrador took office.

One of the areas where López Obrador has enjoyed genuine success is tax evasion; there is a long list of Mexican and multinational companies that have ponied up millions of dollars in back taxes after reviews by tax collectors this year.

The government said that in the first half of 2020, reviews by tax collectors managed to claw back the equivalent of about $10 billion in owed taxes, “the highest amount collected in this period in history.”

But the government acknowledged that, because of the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the total amount of taxes collected in the first half rose by only a meager 0.1%, despite the tough audits.

Perhaps the government’s biggest effort this year has been treating coronavirus patients. The country started the pandemic with 3,983 ventilators, and now has 10,805. It has added thousands of hospital beds and hired thousands more medical personnel.

But the country of nearly 130 million inhabitants has carried out only 1.3 million tests, less than one per 100 inhabitants, leading most to believe Mexico is vastly undercounting both infections and deaths.