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Killings in Mexico are at an all-time high, but the government’s not doing much about it

Hundreds of Mexican journalists silently marched in downtown Mexico City in protest of the kidnappings, murder and violence against their peers throughout the country. (Knight Foundation/Flickr)

Official new figures showing that 2019 was the most violent year on record in Mexico — and that homicides are spreading to some tourist areas — corroborated what many of us suspected: that President Andres M. López Obrador’s “hugs-not-bullets” strategy to curb violence is a pipe dream.

According to Interior Ministry figures released Jan. 21, Mexico saw 35,588 homicides last year, many of them related to drug violence. That’s a 2.7 percent increase over 2018, which already was a record year.

Just as troubling, violence is expanding from traditional hot spots, such as the states of Colima, Baja California and Michoacán, to other parts of the country. Even the state of Quintana Roo, part of the Rivera Maya tourism circuit, has been hit by rising homicide rates.

Now, anyone wondering whether it’s safe to go on vacation or send your children on student-exchange programs in Mexico, much of the country is still safer than several other Latin American countries — and even safer than some violence-ridden cities in the United States.

Overall, Mexico’s national homicide rate stands at 27.2 homicides per 100,000 people, lower than those of Brazil (31 homicides per 100,000 people,) Venezuela (56 homicides per 100,000 people) or of several Central American countries that have much higher murder rates, according to World Bank figures.

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Compared to U.S. cities, Mexico City (16 homicides per 100,000 people) and other cities in the country have much lower homicide rates than Baltimore (51 homicides per 100,000 people,) Detroit (39 per 100,000 people) and New Orleans (37 per 100,000 people). I, for one, still visit Mexico quite often.

But Mexicans are increasingly impatient about the government’s inaction to curb violence, and rightly so.

In recent days, thousands of anti-violence protesters marched from Cuernavaca, in the state of Morelos, to Mexico City in a “Caravan for Peace,” demanding greater government action against violent crimes and and the lack of punishment. More than 95 percent of Mexico’s crimes don’t lead to any convictions, experts say.

The march was led by poet and anti-violence leader Javier Sicilia, whose 24-year-old son was killed by drug traffickers in 2011, and Julian LeBarón, a member of the Mormon Mexican-American community that lost nine people — including six children — when they were attacked by gunmen in northern Mexico last year.

Sicilia told me in a telephone interview that the marchers are asking for an internationally supervised truth and justice commission to find out who is behind the killings and who is protecting the killers.

“The state has been captured by organized crime,” Sicilia told me. “We need an agency that is monitored by the United Nations, the International Tribunal of The Hague, Amnesty International and other organizations, to shed light on the truth and to expose the existing complicity networks.”

López Obrador, a left-of-center populist who took office in December, 2018, spent much of last year blaming the violence on his predecessors’ use of military force to fight the drug cartels. He said that the only way to bring down homicide rates will be to “attack the root causes of violence.”

The president has said he wants to offer “hugs, not bullets” to the drug cartels. His strategy would include an amnesty for low-level drug dealers, social programs to offer jobs and training to young people, and measures to legalize marijuana.

In addition, López Obrador has created a National Guard, which he said will be more effective in fighting the drug cartels. But a sizable part of the National Guard has so far been deployed in Mexico’s southern border to help stop Central American migrant caravans.

To be fair, several of López Obrador’s policies to help eradicate violence are still subject to congressional approval, and others may need more time to show their effectiveness.

But, so far, López Obrador’s peace-and-love anti-crime strategy has been a total failure.

Sicilia is right: Corruption and impunity are so entrenched in Mexico’s state apparatus that the country badly needs an internationally supervised Truth and Justice Commission to go after the killers and those who are protecting them. Otherwise, everything will remain the same, and 2020 will mark a new year of record violence in Mexico.

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© 2020 Miami Herald