EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — More than two weeks after the fact, some U.S. observers still find the images shocking: The president of Mexico walking up to a white SUV to shake hands with the mom of the world’s most infamous drug lord.
“Don’t get out. I salute you. Yes, I got your letter. Yes, yes, I got your letter,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tells the elderly woman inside the vehicle, then nods and raises his left hand in a goodbye gesture.
Why, exactly, the president went out of his way to comfort the mother of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera in Badiraguato, Sinaloa — a town known as the birthplace of the Sinaloa drug cartel — remains a mystery to many and an insult to some.
The widely-circulated cellphone video of the act is a slap in the face for counter-narcotics agents in both Mexico and the United States, and it leaves the public wondering whether that country means to fight the drug cartels or be friends with them, said several analysts interviewed by Border Report.
“It has to be a real morale crusher for the Mexican forces that are out there trying to combat these cartels, risking their lives to do so. The optics of that are terrible, from my perspective,” said Scott Stewart, former vice president for tactical analysis of Stratfor, an Austin-based private security group.
It has to be a real morale crusher for the Mexican forces that are out there trying to combat these cartels, risking their lives to do so. The optics of that are terrible, from my perspective.”Scott Stewart, former VP for tactical analysis of Stratfor
“The episode clearly undermines the credibility of Mexico’s war on drugs,” added Adam Isacson, director of Defense Oversight at the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA).
Such credibility was already battered by allegations that top officials in previous Mexican governments had been working with the Sinaloa cartel, he said. That includes the security chief of the Felipe Calderon regime of 2006-2012. Genaro Garcia Luna is jailed and awaiting trial in the United States in connection to such collusion.
Lopez Obrador brushes off the March 29 encounter with Consuelo Loera by saying he was just being polite.
“The lady lives there and she went to (the meeting) where we had the explanation about the road (under construction) and they told me she was there and wanted to say hello and I got off the (SUV) and said hello,” he told reporters in Mexico City a day later, according to a transcript of the interview.
“[…] (She is) an elderly adult that deserves all my respect, independently who her son is, and I would do it again. Sometimes I have to shake hands because that is my job, including those of white-collar criminals who remain respectable. How am I not going to (give my hand) to a lady? How am I going to leave her hand hanging?”
But things may not be so simple. The video shows Lopez Obrador initiating the contact; Loera’s hand was never “hanging.” And, analysts say this is not the first time Lopez Obrador has been to Badiraguato.
“He’s been there at least twice before,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
“He seems very comfortable in a place you and I would not visit. That place is so guarded by the Sinaloa cartel that if you and I showed up, complete strangers, we’d be detected immediately and so on and so forth.”
The Sinaloa cartel is known for torturing and executing informants or spies.
Yet, Lopez Obrador appears smiling and giddy, treating Loera as if she was a member of the family. “He just came up to her and shook hands and then says, ‘Oh, I got your letter, I’ll get back to you on that,’ with the kind of familiarity you would use with your own father,” Payan said.
He just came up to her and shook hands and then says, ‘Oh, I got your letter, I’ll get back to you on that,’ with the kind of familiarity you would use with your own father.”Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy
The president told reporters in Mexico City that “the letter” was a plea from the 92-year-old Loera to put in a good word so she could visit her son in a federal prison in the United States.
“Like every mother — I still don’t know a mother who accepts her son’s guilt — they have a special and sublime love for their children,” Lopez Obrador said. “So she hasn’t seen him in five years and she doesn’t want to die without seeing him and she’s asking me to help with requirements so that the government of the United States allows her to travel to see her son and I will (help).”
However, the Mexico City news portal Milenio says the president has received three letters from Loera. One dated Feb. 14, 2019, petitioned for help with the U.S. visa; one dated July 2019 asked him to bring “El Chapo” back to Mexico because his extradition was “illegal”; and one dated March 20 of this year informs him that the U.S. denied her the visa and urges him to work out a deal with the United States so that her son can serve the rest of his sentence in a Mexican jail.
A separate cellphone photo shows the president, wearing the same clothes, at a food line allegedly in the same town with a man in the background that appears to resemble Guzman’s brother, Aureliano. Even if he’s not, “there is no way you could take political advantage of being seen with the narcos in Sinaloa,” Payan said.
Already, the national president of the main opposition party raised concerns about the President’s relationship with the Guzman Loera family and whether that influenced the release of El Chapo’s son. “President, your salute to Chapo Guzman’s son infuriates everyone, it shows lack of respect for the victims of drug traffickers and to the Armed Forces that risk their lives for our safety. It’s urgent that you explain your ties to that family,” said National Action Party executive committee president Marko Cortes.
And one of the Guzman family’s Mexican lawyers, Jose Luis Gonzalez Meza, told Grupo Formula reporter Azucena Uresti that “El Chapo” has given instructions to make sure Lopez Obrador is not harmed whenever he visits Sinaloa.
“Why would we harm him? He’s the man who came to change this country,” lawyer Jose Luis Gonzalez told Grupo Formula.
Trump will cash in Mexico’s ‘blank check’ by targeting cartels
Prior to the downfall of Guzman, the Sinaloa cartel was the top drug-smuggling organization in the world. The group trafficked Mexican marijuana, meth and heroin and Colombian cocaine in multi-ton quantities to the United States, according to various indictments in the United States that led to his conviction.
It’s bid to control the drug trade in Mexico led to a bloody war with the Juarez cartel in the 2000s. The latter organization was virtually wiped out during that feud. Adding fuel to the fire was a concerted effort by the Calderon administration to wrest control of the country from the drug cartels. According to analysts, the body count shot up but the drugs kept flowing north.
Guzman was arrested in Mexico on several occasions and broke out at least twice. He was finally extradited to the United States in 2017 and was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years on July 17, 2019, in New York City. Since then, other gangs like the Cartel Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) have gained prominence and the Juarez cartel is making a comeback as “La Linea” in Chihuahua state.
However, the Sinaloa cartel remains a foe the Mexican government would rather not face, according to analysts.
An army unit on Oct. 26 arrested one of El Chapo’s sons, Ovidio Guzman, in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacan. The cartel staged a quick and rabid response in which the unit was cornered, cops, soldiers and civilians were shot and dozens of vehicles and structures were set on fire.
The government released El Chapo’s son as the country watched in shock.
“All of a sudden there’s this operation, it appears to be successful, the guy (Ovidio Guzman) is caught, then he is released after the cartel responds with violence,” Payan said. “I don’t think (President Lopez Obrador) was unaware. I think he personally gave the order to release Ovidio Guzman. I have no doubt that they called him, ‘Hey, we have this situation, what do we do?’ And he said, ‘Let him go. We’re not going to engage in this huge fight in Culiacan, its going to be set on fire.’ Let him go. Peace and love. I’m sure that’s what they did.”
The episode may still be fresh on the president’s mind and that’s why he made a gesture of goodwill toward El Chapo’s mom, Payan said.
“The cartels have the ability to make your life miserable or, alternatively, they have ways in which they can contain the most gruesome violence if the government looks the other way and there’s at least an implicit agreement that ‘alright, I’ll look the other way, but you guys keep it down.'” Payan said. “The question is why would the president himself do it himself? Usually, you send somebody down to talk to the cartels to sort of understand what they want. But why would you put your own reputation, your image on the line?”
Isacson of WOLA concurs it’s likely the president may have “felt a need to send the Sinaloa cartel a message of goodwill” to avoid bloodshed, hence the handshake and allowing himself to be photographed and videotaped.
“In past decades, Mexican governments allegedly mediated between organized crime groups, allowing them to have dominion over specific areas. That was a way of keeping violence down because there wouldn’t be bloody competition for territory,” he said. “Violent crime rates went way down in the mid-2010s after Sinaloa gained a monopoly over Tijuana, Juarez and elsewhere. I don’t know if that’s what López Obrador is seeking here. Sinaloa post-Chapo is much weaker, and the Jalisco Cartel is now at least as strong, but it’s a possible explanation.”
The experts say they don’t expect Lopez Obrador to ask the U.S. to return “El Chapo” to Mexico because the Americans wouldn’t allow it, anyway. As for Mexico’s standing with the White House after this episode, Payan said the Trump administration at this point may be ready to get hands-on with the cartels.
“My view is that Trump is going to cash the blank check that he just gave Mexico on the (OPEC) oil deal by demanding that Mexico allow greater presence of American anti-drug personnel and possibly even military in fighting the cartels in Mexico,” said Payan, who is also a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez and former professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso.
He was referring to this month’s oil production cutback demanded by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) from its members and allies. Mexico agreed to some cuts but relied on the Trump administration making cuts of its own on Mexico’s behalf.
“Trump said Mexico will pay at a price to be named later,” Payan said. “That’s leverage Washington was looking for to say, ‘You have to accept the presence of Americans on the ground that are going to do the work for you.’ And I have no doubt that he (Lopez Obrador) will cave in the way he did on trade (accepted more North American content in automobile production in NAFTA 2.0) and on the migrant issue (accepting deportees from third countries). I think that is what’s coming.”
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