Mexico's Bloodshed Surges in First Months of AMLO Presidency

(Bloomberg) -- Murders in Mexico climbed almost 10 percent in the first three months of the year, confronting President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with perhaps his biggest challenge as he seeks to maintain popularity and make good on a key campaign promise.

Slayings surged to 8,493 from January through March, compared with 7,750 a year earlier and 8,433 in the final three months of 2018, according to data released by the national public security system. Crime rates jumped across the board, with kidnappings rising by a third and extortion climbing by nearly half in the first quarter from a year ago.

Mexico's Bloodshed Surges in First Months of AMLO Presidency

The latest high-profile case of violence came over the Easter holiday weekend when gunmen killed 13 people, including a one-year-old child and five women, at a party in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz. Lopez Obrador, who held his daily news conference from the state’s capital on Monday, said he plans to visit Minatitlan, the city where the shooting occurred, on Friday. He added that violence will fall nationally within six months.

“Definitely he’s facing a major challenge, and it’s one of the most important factors that can hurt his popularity,” said Alejandro Schtulmann, who runs the political-risk consultancy Empra in Mexico City.

Lopez Obrador took office on Dec. 1 on a promise to lower insecurity that stems largely from the fight against organized crime and drug cartels. While a poll last month by agency GEA-ISA showed his public approval rating at 64 percent, higher than those of his two most recent predecessors at the same point in their terms, security on several measures is the biggest concern among voters.

The president, widely known as AMLO, says he will reduce violence by creating employment alternatives for youth while avoiding confrontation with criminal groups. He’s also betting on the creation of a national guard encompassing army, navy and federal police to make up for weak local security forces. But the guard, legally established in the past two months with votes by Congress and state legislatures, will take time to set up.

AMLO has sent the army to fight gasoline theft in an initiative that combines his work on security with his fight against corruption. Guanajuato, one of the biggest focuses of that campaign, was the deadliest state in the first quarter, accounting for more than 1/10 of all homicides nationally.

Beyond the creation of a new security force, the government lacks a strategy to disrupt the operations of existing groups, and confrontation is inevitable for restoring security, Schtulmann said. The federal police have also been hamstrung by spending cuts, he added.

“There’s no way to contain the violence without dismantling the organizations,” Schtulmann said. “There isn’t a broad vision for how to resolve this problem.”

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