President Andrés Manuel López Obrador suggested Wednesday without offering evidence that most of those who die in Mexico's cartel- and gang-fueled firefights are high on drugs or intoxicated, prompting criticism and questions about whether the claim was accurate.
Speaking to journalists in his morning news conference, López Obrador said rising drug consumption rates must be reversed if the country is to guarantee peace and security after years of rising, record-setting homicide statistics.
"Just so you have the number, 60% of those who lose their life each day, 60% of those killed in clashes, it is shown that they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but primarily drugs," the president continued. "Because of that, these ruthless crimes that cause such sadness."
The comments revived a debate seen during the 2006-2012 presidency of Felipe Calderón, who first launched Mexico's militarized anti-drug offensive. Calderón used to say that the majority of those killed during the drug war were tied to cartels, also without offering evidence, but eventually backed off such rhetoric after criticism from activists and relatives of some victims.
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A federal government official clarified later Wednesday that the figure came from López Obrador's closed-door morning meetings with his security Cabinet and is based on analyses of those killed in clashes between criminal groups and/or with security forces. That suggests he was referring to presumed criminals and not murder victims more broadly speaking. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said documentation exists but is not publicly available.
But critics questioned whether there was any scientific basis for such an assertion. While it's true that sometimes cartel killers get high before doing their bloody business, they questioned whether it was fair to imply drug consumption is an underlying cause of gangland violence. And perhaps due to the ambiguity of López Obrador's words, many understood them to mean all homicides, leading to accusations of victim-blaming.
Security analyst Alejandro Hope wrote that usually drug consumption is used to characterize perpetrators of murders, not the dead, and that "there is zero evidence" for López Obrador’s assertion.
María Elena Morera, president of the NGO Causa en Comun, called the president’s comment "troubling" and said there is no data to back it up.
"So the president is confused, ill-informed or simply does it to reinforce his posture of revictimizing and not legalizing drugs," Morera said.
López Obrador was asked at the news conference about possible legalization, for example the cultivation of opium poppies or the recreational use of marijuana, and suggested his administration is looking more at legalization for medicinal purposes.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that prohibition of personal use, possession and private cultivation of cannabis was unconstitutional, though lawmakers have not codified decriminalization into law.
Data Civica, a stats-driven NGO working in human rights and citizen empowerment, also said it was concerned by López Obrador’s assertion.
"On the one hand, because drugs and alcohol do not justify a murder, on the other hand because there is no way of knowing that information," Data Civica said via Twitter thread. "In this sense, either the president has access to a database that nobody knows of (and should be public) or he is repeating prejudices."
Mexico recorded 35,588 murders last year, the most since comparable records began to be kept in the 1990s and the latest of multiple consecutive annual highs dating to before he took office in December 2018. The rate of increase in 2019 did slow significantly from that of previous years.
Since Calderón launched the anti-drug offensive in 2006, yearly killings are up more than threefold.
López Obrador espouses a strategy of addressing root causes like poverty and joblessness to try to reduce violence in the country.
“We must make clear that drugs, above all the modern drugs, the chemical drugs, are destructive,” the president said Wednesday.