Houston Chronicle

U.S. military not the answer to Mexico cartels

- By Regina Lankenau Regina Lankenau is the assistant op-ed editor and a member of the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board.

I learned the horrific news from the TV that sits within view of my desk at the Chronicle office. In bold print, the chyron announced: “2 kidnapped Americans found dead in Mexico, 2 others alive.”

Last Friday, the group of four drove across the border from Brownsvill­e to Matamoros for cheaper cosmetic surgery and, in what was likely a case of mistaken identity, got caught up in a drug cartel shootout and kidnapping.

On Tuesday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador used his morning briefing to promise that the people responsibl­e for the killings would be punished, and that “the entire Mexican government is working” on the U.S. citizens’ safe return.

Indeed, U.S. and Mexican cooperatio­n as well as intense media pressure returned two of the Americans safely home, escorted by a convoy of Mexican ambulances, SUVs, Humvees, armored vehicles, state police and National Guard trucks with mounted .50-caliber machine guns. Quite the entourage.

It took reading many reports online to learn that a 33-year-old Mexican woman had also been killed by a stray bullet related to the ordeal. That point was often made several paragraphs into the story.

My immediate reaction, as a native Mexican, was to wonder: Is an American life worth that much more than a Mexican one?

That’s not just an indictment of American media, though. It’s also an indictment of the government in my own country, where only 1.3 percent of crimes are solved. Where mothers walk miles to demand justice for their missing children. Where March 8, Internatio­nal Women’s Day, isn’t a day of celebratio­n but a day of commemorat­ion for the 10 women a day who are slain with impunity. Where tens of thousands of gun homicides are registered every year.

“It would seem,” as one Matamoros resident put it, “that we need to be citizens of another country for our government to care.”

At the very least, this tragedy shines a light on the reality so many Mexicans face every day, particular­ly in the six states for which the U.S. State Department has issued a “do not travel” advisory. But after seeing some American politician­s’ proposed solutions, I fear an overzealou­s, deadly repeat of history. Rep. Dan Crenshaw tweeted:

“2 of the 4 Americans kidnapped by the cartels in Mexico were murdered, and we still haven’t declared the cartels a military target. It’s time we authorize military force against them.

“Are you listening, @lopezobrad­or_? We would love for you to be a partner. Help us help you.”

Military force sounds like the kind of powerful response we need to leave the narcos cowering. But for the average Mexican, that phrase brings up painful memories.

In 2009, I was in my hometown with my family, visiting relatives. My parents, brothers and I were in the car, driving through the tunnel that separates the wealthy municipali­ty of San Pedro Garza García from the city of Monterrey. We were on our way to the movie theater to see “New Moon,” the latest in the Twilight saga.

In that tunnel named after the long hill it traverses, my siblings and I always played the “who can hold their breath the longest” game. We all lost our breath when we heard the shots.

Traffic came to a standstill for what felt like an eternity as we waited for the shootout to subside ahead of us. Rememberin­g that moment now brings back the clench in the pit of my stomach.

Luckily, my family and I were fine. So many in Mexico can’t say the same. As the months went by, Monterrey — once thought impervious to the violence that had roiled the country for years — became the epicenter of a drug cartel turf war that led to hundreds of abductions, deaths, shootouts and extortions. Many I know lost dads or husbands; many were held at gunpoint, forced to leave their cars and jewelry behind. Many sought safety in the United States.

Those years, from 2006 to 2012, were the Felipe Calderón years, a time of intense militariza­tion as the army led the charge against the cartels. Billions of dollars were funneled towards the effort under the Mérida Initiative, began under the Bush administra­tion and maintained throughout Barack Obama’s tenure. In the states where the military was deployed, the homicide rates were nearly double what had previously been the record over the two decades prior. Each time a key cartel leader was extradited to the U.S., a power vacuum led to infighting. Each time, many of the victims were innocent Mexican citizens.

But even before Calderón, homicides had been rising since the early 2000s. 2004 was a pivot point. That was when the U.S. assault weapons ban was repealed. Suddenly, in a country with extremely restrictiv­e gun laws and only one gun store, cartels could smuggle in American-made, military-grade weapons.

While I’m wary of Crenshaw’s emphasis on a military solution, he’s right that Mexico and the U.S. need to be partners. Reducing the violence will take cooperatio­n in addressing root causes, and that includes who has access to weapons. Letter writers such as Page S. Williams have kept up calls for action after “random shootings and mass murders like the slaughter in Uvalde.”

The five people in Matamoros, you could say, had been at the wrong place, at the wrong time. But not unlike the United States — where attending church, school, or a concert can be deadly — it’s hard to say what the “right place at the right time” actually looks like anymore.

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