It started innocuously enough.
During the Mexican presidential debate on Monday, the independent candidate Jaime Rodriguez, who is trailing in the polls, suggested that thieves should have their hands cut off as a way to combat crime and corruption. “El Bronco” confirmed to the stunned moderator that he was speaking literally, not figuratively, and in the process set off a storm of memes on Mexican Twitter.
US voters will be all-too-familiar with an outsider presidential candidate getting mocked online for outrageous comments. But hours later the brutal reality of Mexico’s current political climate surfaced, when authorities discovered a dismembered body on the outskirts of the resort city of Acapulco, left by drug cartel members.
“El Bronco has already said it,” a sign by the body read. “Cutting off hands of scum who steal is the first thing.”
The grim violence is only the latest example of the way cartels continue to terrorize the people of Mexico, which is set to hold a July 1 general election for president and for the national legislature.
On Tuesday, five teenagers in the northern state of Tamaulipas were wounded when gunmen tried to kidnap a student at their high school. The week before, six police officers and ten gunmen were killed in confrontations in the southern state of Guerrero. Meanwhile, a new report highlighted how Mexico, along with three other Latin American states — Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil — accounted for a quarter of all global homicides.
The report, by the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian thinktank, highlighted the “breathtaking” level of homicidal violence that had gripped not only Mexico but the all of Latin America, and emphasized how “many Latin American countries…are facing a public security crisis.”
Despite having for just eight percent of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for a third of the world’s homicides, and 43 of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities are in the region — including Acapulco, which is number two and the Mexican city of Chilpancingo de los Bravo in Guerrero state, which is number five. Public trust in law enforcement is also incredibly low, with 44 percent believing police were “involved in crime.”
“As a region — including Mexico down to Central America and South America — the rate of homicide is set to continue increasing up until 2030,” said Robert Muggah, one of the report’s authors. “The only other places we are seeing similar kinds of increases are in parts of southern and central Africa and some war zones.”
There are alternative options to combat this deadly epidemic, namely citizens’ security initiatives, which focus less on heavy-handed policing and more on grassroots prevention techniques that focus on the social and economic risks that help drive crime.
One of these was the Todos Somos Juárez (We Are All Juárez) initiative, launched in 2011 by the state government of Chihuahua. The strategy invested $380 million in 2010 and 2011, providing greater economic security and social development to at-risk communities while designing interventions between gangs and cartels to reduce violence. Amid a sea of misery in Mexico, Juárez stands out as a success story: Its homicide rate declined from a staggering 3,622 in 2010 to 269 in 2015.
“Public safety policies must be data-driven, evidence-based and problem-orientated,” Robert Muggah wrote previously in The Guardian. “There is a growing awareness that strategies that are based on reliable and real-time information … are essential to successfully improving safety.”
Despite this, the governments of Mexico and other Latin American countries seem determined to carry on the same tired, heavy-handed techniques that have been in place since former Mexican president Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels in 2006.
Last December, the Mexican government passed a bill which cemented the military’s role in fighting cartels, despite warnings from experts that the measure could lead to increased human rights abuses. In Rio de Janeiro, the army has taken over from police, leading to an increase in shootings and deaths at the hands of of security forces.
Crime and corruption are major issues ahead of Mexico’s election, with the public growing increasingly impatient with the ever-present drug violence. But instead of offering new ideas, it seems that Mexican politicians want to double-down on heavy-handed approaches, even after more than a decade of violence.