‘We’re Living in Hell’: Inside Mexico’s Most Terrified City
FRESNILLO, Mexico – The violence was already terrifying, she said, when grenades exploded outside her church in broad daylight about five years ago. Then the city’s children were kidnapped, disappearing without a trace. Then the bodies of those executed were dumped in the streets of the city.
And then came the day last month when gunmen broke into her house, dragged her 15-year-old son and two of his friends outside and shot them, leaving Guadalupe – who didn’t want her. full name be published out of fear of men – too terrified to leave home.
“I don’t want the night to come,” she said, through tears. “Living with fear is not life at all. “
For most of the people of Fresnillo, a mining town in central Mexico, a frightening existence is the only one they know; 96 percent of residents say they don’t feel safe, the highest percentage of any city in Mexico, according to a recent survey by Mexico’s national statistics agency.
The economy can explode and collapse, presidents and parties and their promises can come and go, but for the city’s 140,000 residents, like many in Mexico, there is a growing sense that it doesn’t matter. what changes, the violence continues.
Since the Mexican government began its war on drug cartels almost 15 years ago, murder statistics have increased inexorably.
In 2018, during his presidential bid, Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered a grand vision for remaking Mexico – and a radically new way to fight violence. He would break with the failed tactics of his predecessors, he said. Instead of arresting and killing the traffickers like previous leaders had done, he would focus on the causes of the violence: “hugs, not bullets,” he called. He was swept to victory.
But three years after his landslide victory, and with his Morena party in control of Congress, the drumbeat of death continues, suggesting that Mr. López Obrador’s approach has failed, fueling many crippling powerlessness.
“We live in hell,” said Victor Piña, who ran for mayor of Fresnillo in the June election and saw an aide shot dead next to him during a pre-campaign event.
Zacatecas, the state in which Fresnillo is located, has the highest murder rate in the country, with 122 deaths in June, according to the Mexican government. Lately, it has become a national horror show, with corpses found hanging from bridges, stuffed in plastic bags, or even tied to a cross.
Across Mexico, murders have fallen by less than 1% since Mr. López Obrador took office, according to the country’s statistics agency. That was enough for the president to say, in a speech last month, that there had been an improvement over a problem his administration had inherited. “There is peace and calm,” he said in June.
Many in Fresnillo disagree.
“’Hugs, not bullets’ don’t work,” said Javier Torres Rodríguez, whose brother was shot dead in 2018. “We are losing the ability to be shocked. “
Among other strategies, Mr. López Obrador focused on tackling what he sees as the root causes of violence, by funding social programs to improve education and employment for young people. His government has also attacked the financing of organized crime. In October, authorities said they had frozen 1,352 bank accounts linked to 14 criminal groups, including powerful drug cartels.
But the collection of law enforcement programs and actions never merged into clear public policy, critics said.
There is “an unstoppable situation of violence and a tragic deterioration of public safety in Mexico,” said Angelica Duran-Martinez, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “There is no clear security policy.”
Mr. López Obrador has also doubled his support for the armed forces, embracing the militarization that has also marked previous administrations.
One of the central pillars of its approach to combating crime has been the creation of the National Guard, a 100,000-strong federal security force deployed in some 180 regional barracks nationwide. Last week, Mr. López Obrador announced that the guard would receive additional funding of $ 2.5 billion.
But security experts say the guard, which the president plans to integrate into the armed forces, has proven ineffective. Without a clear mandate, it focused more on tackling low-level crime than cartel violence. And as a security force made up of federal police, military and other security professionals, it has not found cohesion.
“It’s a force that comes from trying to mix oil and water,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst in Mexico City. “There is a lot of internal strife, and it hurt the performance of the Guard. “
In Fresnillo, the National Guard has not done enough, according to city mayor Saúl Monreal, a member of the Morena presidential party.
“They are here, they are present, they are patrolling, but what we really need right now is to fight organized crime,” said Mr. Monreal.
Mr. Monreal was re-elected during the national mid-terms in June. It was one of the most violent elections on record in Mexico, with at least 102 people killed during the campaign, another sign of the country’s security crumbling.
His family is politically powerful. His brother, David, is governor-elect of Zacatecas. Another brother, Ricardo, leads the Morena party in the Senate and has said he intends to run for president in 2024. But even the political importance of the family failed to save the city or the state.
Bordering eight other states, Zacatecas has long been at the heart of the drug trade, a crossroads between the Pacific, where narcotics and pharmaceuticals are shipped, and the northern states along the United States border. Fresnillo, which sits at the center of important roads and highways, is strategically vital.
But for much of its recent history, locals say they have been largely left alone. That started to change around 2007 and 2008, as the government’s assault on the cartels caused them to split up, evolve and spread.
In recent years, the region has found itself embroiled in a battle between two of the country’s most powerful organized crime groups: the Sinaloa Cartel and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel.
Caught in the midst of the fighting, locals like Guadalupe. She remembers sitting on the porch with neighbors until midnight when she was a young girl. Now the city is desolate after dark.
Guadalupe doesn’t let her children play outside unsupervised, but even that hasn’t stopped the violence from tearing her family apart. The night her son was killed, in mid-July, four gunmen stormed into her home, dragging her son, Henry, and two sleeping friends. There was a flurry of gunfire, then the assailants left.
It was Guadalupe who found the bodies of the teenagers.
Now she and her family live in terror. Too afraid to stay in the same house, they moved in with Guadalupe’s parents to another part of town. But the fear remained. Her 10-year-old daughter can barely sleep, she says, and Guadalupe continues to dream of her son’s murder. The motive and identity of the killers remain unknown.
Guadalupe thought about leaving town or even committing suicide. But for now, she’s sitting in her parents’ little cinder-block house, the curtains drawn, the shadows broken by the candles of a small altar dedicated to Henry and his fallen friends.
“There is nothing here,” she said. “Fear overwhelmed us. “
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