Like all Americans, we're sickened by Monday's brutal murder of three women and six children — almost certainly by members of a Mexican drug cartel — as they traveled by car along a highway near Bavispe in the state of Sonora, about 300 miles southwest of El Paso, Texas.
And given the increasing brazenness of drug cartels south of the border, we understand President Donald Trump's offer via Twitter to send U.S. troops to Mexico to help the federal authorities there "wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth."
We believe the president sincerely wants to end the horrible gang violence and organized crime that has led hundreds of thousands of families from Mexico and Central America over the past several decades to seek asylum in the United States.
But we also believe that many of the policies that his administration has pursued have likely fueled the violence and put more people — including lawful residents of Mexico and other Central American countries, like the nine murdered members of the LeBaron family — at greater risk.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has made it clear that Mexico will not accept Trump's offer of troops, saying Tuesday that the Mexican authorities "have to act independently and according to our constitution, and in line with our tradition of independence and sovereignty."
That is understandable. But all this raises the question of what can be done to finally end the drug cartels' and other organized gangs' reign of terror in Mexico and Central America's northern triangle nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador?
As our Alfredo Corchado reported Tuesday, while Mexican authorities are calling the killing of the nine LeBaron family members "a case of mistaken identity," it's possible that the women and children were targeted because members of their family "have over the years been outspoken in their condemnation of criminal groups that hold sway over a wide swath of northern Mexico." Corchado's reporting uncovered that the family has taken "unorthodox measures to shield themselves from extortion attempts and kidnapping," including taking up arms to "defend their community in the outskirts of Janos, Chihuahua."
So how can the U.S. help Mexican authorities stem the rising tide of violence and terror?
First, it's clear that President Lopez Obrador's campaign promise of using "hugs not guns" to address the break down of Mexico's social fabric and the rule of law was considered a sign of weakness by the cartels. Last month's decision by the Mexican government to release Ovidio Guzman Lopez, the son of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, to prevent further bloodshed after eight people were killed in a botched raid in Culiacan has also emboldened the cartels.
But do the high-profile arrests and extradition to the U.S. of kingpins like El Chapo actually weaken the cartels? Jake Dizard, a fellow with the Mexico Security Initiative at The University of Texas, is skeptical. "The U.S. should continue to provide intelligence on criminal groups to Mexico," he us, but "U.S. law enforcement should recognize the counterproductive nature of playing whack-a-mole with cartel leaders and help Mexico develop a more comprehensive, civilian-led security strategy."
What would such a strategy look like? All the experts we spoke with agree that a joint effort to crack down on illegal U.S. gun sales to Mexico should be a high priority. Patrick McNamara, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and an expert witness on more than 100 asylum cases, says the U.S. should also "stop obsessing about Central American refugees and allow Mexico's new National Guard to be deployed to protect Mexican civilians in northern Mexico" instead of stopping peaceful migrants from heading north.
Dizard agreed with McNamara that U.S. pressure on Mexico to stifle migration from Central America has contributed to the spike in criminal activity. The recent crackdown, he said, "leads to maldistribution of troops (in terms of both geography and tasks) that could otherwise be engaged in tasks related to public security."
Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, said "Drug-related violence is spiking throughout Mexico." By the end of October, he explained "there were nearly 1,300 homicides in the border city of Juarez alone, just a stone's throw from El Paso. But narco-related violence is entrenched in Mexico and has claimed over 200,000 lives in the last decade alone."
One of many deep-seated problems, according to Corbett, is that "major elements" within local law enforcement and the Mexican military are "heavily invested in drug trafficking." The predictable result is "fears about family safety because of corrupt local police, economic productivity lost to rampant extortion, the erosion of honest journalism due to threats, and the inability to access basic social services because of widespread graft."
We agree with Corbett that the deployment of troops will not solve these problems because it does not address their root causes. "Mexico still has a long way to go in building transparent, democratic institutions which guarantee safety and justice and root out corruption at the local level."
Meanwhile, the lack of economic opportunities further fuels the cartels. "What (economic) growth there has been has largely come about without equality. Until the deep inequality in Mexico is addressed and young people are given real economic opportunity, it will be impossible to eliminate violence."
President Lopez Obrador was elected last year largely due to his pledge to address the economic inequities, systemic corruption and crumbling rule of law that last year resulted in a record 33,000 homicide investigations with roughly four out of five cases unsolved.
Building a wall at America's southern border or denying asylum for those fleeing the violence in Mexico and Central America won't address the root causes. Nor would it have protected the LeBaron family. After all, they were murdered in Mexico. But rebuilding civil society where the cartels now rule will address the core problem. That is the political — and moral — imperative that has tragically come into focus this week.