Mexico Captures Leader of Fuel-Theft Cartel Targeted by AMLO

Mexican security forces captured Jose Yepez, the cartel leader known as “El Marro” who had threatened President Andes Manuel Lopez Obrador.

One of the most-wanted men in Mexico, Yepez leads the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, which was known for stealing fuel and for helping turn Guanajuato into one of the country’s most violent states with more than 47 police officers killed last year. Security forces had captured members of Yepez’s family in June, leading him to threaten retaliation in a video on social media. His cartel was also involved in a conflict with the Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartel.

Lopez Obrador had sent armed forces into the state to bolster the fight against organized crime after the Salamanca Refinery in Guanajuato was repeatedly targeted. Guanajuato is also home to San Miguel de Allende, a picturesque town popular with travelers and expatriates, but one that has become the latest tourist hot-spot cowed by gang violence.

“This arrest is a big step toward recovering peace” in the state, Guanajuato governor Diego Rodriguez wrote on Twitter. Security forces also freed a kidnapped businessman and arrested five other people, according to a statement on Rodriguez’ account.

Lopez Obrador has come under increasing pressure from the U.S. to adopt a so-called high-value target strategy for fighting the cartels, something he had disavowed. Murders in the country rose to a record last year and groups such as the Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartel have become increasingly brazen. In the first six months of this year, Mexico has recorded 17,494 murders, of which 2,293 were in Guanajuato.

AMLO has been reluctant to return to the strategy of decapitating cartels by arresting their leaders. In the past in Mexico, the approach has been blamed for fragmenting criminal groups and generating more violence as rival bands fight over leadership or territory.

“The high-value target strategy is based on erroneous assumptions which go back to the Gulf War and the war on terrorism,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington. “It assumes that the difficulty of replacing cartel leadership is equivalent to the difficulty of replacing military leadership, or the leadership of a terrorist group, but in reality that’s not the case.”

The intervention of armed forces in Guanajuato may mark a departure for AMLO. He has generally preferred a “hugs, not bullets” approach, refusing to counter violence with violence despite high-profile incidents such as the murders of nine members of a Mormon family, all U.S. citizens, and an attack by the Sinaloa cartel in the town of Culiacan to force the release of the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. In June, the head of public security for Mexico City was shot three times in an ambush by at least two dozen hit men in an upscale neighborhood of the capital.

“The lack of action from AMLO had catastrophic implications for the already disastrous law enforcement in Mexico,” Felbab-Brown said. “But just arresting one guy is not a systematic response to the brazenness. That alone doesn’t create the deterrence that Mexican law enforcement needs.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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