The violence in the town of Fresnillo, Mexico has been rampant for at least five years-- at that time, grenades exploded outside a church in broad daylight. Then children in town were being kidnapped, disappearing without a trace. After that, the bodies of the executed were dumped in city streets.
In July, armed men burst into Guadalupe's home, dragged her 15-year-old son and two of his friends outside and shot them to death, leaving her too terrified to leave the house. Guadalupe doesn't want her full name to be published out of fear of reprisals from gangs. “I do not want the night to come,” she said, through tears. “Living with fear is no life at all.”
For most of the population of Fresnillo, a mining city in central Mexico, a fearful existence is the only one they know. 96% of residents say they feel unsafe, the highest percentage of any city in Mexico, according to a recent survey from Mexico’s national statistics agency. The economy can boom and bust, presidents and parties and their promises can come and go, but for the city’s 140,000 people, as for many in Mexico, there is a growing sense that no matter what changes, the violence endures.
Ever since Mexico’s government began its war on the drug cartels nearly 15 years ago, murder statistics have climbed inexorably. In 2018, during his run for president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered a grand vision to remake Mexico — and a radically new way of tackling the violence. He would break with the failed tactics of his predecessors, he said. Instead of arresting and killing traffickers as previous leaders had done, he would focus on the causes of violence: “hugs not bullets,” he called it. He was swept to victory.
But three years after his landslide win, and with his Morena party in control of Congress, the drumbeat of death continues, suggesting that López Obrador’s approach has failed, fueling a paralyzing helplessness. “We’re living in hell,” said Victor Piña, who ran for mayor of Fresnillo in the June elections and watched an aide gunned down beside him during a pre-campaign event.
Zacatecas, the state Fresnillo is in, has the country’s highest murder rate, with 122 deaths in the most recent month. It has become a national horror show, with cadavers found dangling from bridges, stuffed into plastic bags or even tied to a cross. “‘Hugs not bullets’ doesn’t work,” said Javier Torres Rodríguez, whose brother was shot and killed in 2018. “We’re losing the ability to be shocked.”
In addition to funding social programs to improve education and employment for young people, Obrador has also gone after the financing behind organized crime. The government has said is has frozen nearly 1, 500 bank accounts linked to 14 criminal groups, including powerful drug cartels. Obrador has also doubled down on his support for the armed forces, embracing the militarization that also marked previous administrations.
One central pillar of his approach to fighting crime has been the creation of the National Guard, a 100,000-strong federal security force deployed across some 180 regional barracks nationwide. But security experts say the guard, which the president plans to incorporate into the armed forces, has proved ineffective. Without a clear mandate, it has focused more on tackling low-level crime than cartel violence. And as a security force made up of members of the federal police, the military and other security professionals, it has not found cohesion.
In Fresnillo, the National Guard hasn’t done enough, according to the city’s mayor, Saúl Monreal, a member of the president’s Morena party. "They’re here, they’re present, they do patrols, but what we really need right now is to be fighting organized crime,” Monreal said. Monreal was reelected this summer during one of Mexico’s most violent elections on record, with at least 102 people killed during the campaign, yet another sign of the country’s unraveling security.
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 not even the family’s political prominence has managed to rescue the city or the state.
Bordering eight other states, Zacatecas has long been central to the drug trade, a crossroads between the Pacific, where narcotics and drug-making products are shipped in, and northern states along the United States border. Fresnillo, which sits in the center of important roads and highways, is strategically vital.
But for much of its recent history, residents say they were largely left alone. That began changing around 2007 and 2008 as the government’s assault on the cartels led them to splinter, evolve and spread. In the past few years, the region has become embroiled in a battle between two of the country’s most powerful organized crime groups: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Caught in the middle of the fighting are residents like Guadalupe. She can remember sitting on the stoop with neighbors until midnight as a young girl. Now, the city lies desolate after dark.
Guadalupe does not let her children play outside unsupervised, but even that couldn’t stop the violence from tearing her family apart. On the night her son was killed, four armed men stormed into her home, dragging out her son, Henry, and two friends who were sleeping over. There was a burst of gunfire, and then the assailants were gone. It was Guadalupe who found the teenagers’ bodies.
Now she and her family live in terror. Too scared to stay in the same house, they moved in with Guadalupe’s parents in a different part of town. But the fear remained. Her 10-year-old daughter can barely sleep, she said, and Guadalupe keeps dreaming of her son’s killing. The motive, and the identity of the killers, remain unknown.
Guadalupe has thought about leaving town or even taking her own life. But for now, she sits in her parents’ small, cinder-block house, the curtains drawn, the shadows broken by the candles of a little altar to Henry and his fallen friends. “There’s nothing here,” she said. “The fear has overwhelmed us.”