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Mexican President Defends His Nonconfrontational Approach To Fighting Drug Cartels

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mexico's most powerful criminal gang put its firepower on display this weekend. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel posted a video showing some 100 heavily armed men standing alongside armored vehicles. It was the latest in a series of brazen moves by the cartel challenging the government's authority. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Mexico's president does not seem eager to mount a forceful response.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Spanish).

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: For more than two minutes, the video pans a line of masked men in combat fatigues on a rural road. They shout, we are Mencho's people, the nickname for the leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Some peer out of makeshift gun turrets on the roofs of their vehicles. Others fire off impressive, military-grade weapons.

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KAHN: Mexico's top security officials said the video's authenticity is being analyzed. He defiantly said there is no criminal group that could take on the country's federal forces. That might be true, but it hasn't stopped the Jalisco cartel from trying. Recently, the organization allegedly murdered a federal judge and attempted to assassinate Mexico City's police chief. Early in the morning on June 26, police officers escorting the chief frantically called dispatchers.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Nearly three dozen heavily armed men cut off the chief's convoy, firing more than 400 rounds into his armored car. He survived, but three others died. From his hospital bed, he tweeted the Jalisco cartel was to blame. The cartel, which dominates fentanyl and meth trafficking in the country, now eclipses the Sinaloa organization in its reach throughout Mexico. David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego, says the Jalisco New Generation Cartel took off after the capture and extradition to the U.S. of the Sinaloa leader Chapo Guzman. Shirk says after that, turf wars between the two groups escalated, and so did homicides.

DAVID SHIRK: And they really haven't stopped going up since then. And a large part of that violence, I think, can be attributed to the CJNG.

KAHN: The Jalisco New Generation Cartel. That violence is most acute in Guanajuato state. Juan Gutierrez heads a crime victims group there.

JUAN GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: We have gone from being a peaceful state to a state filled with terror, he said. His group hoped to meet with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador last week when he came to tour the state to promote his security plans. The meeting never happened. Vidal Romero, a political scientist at the ITAM - a Mexico City university - says the president's tour was all show and no substance because, he says, Lopez Obrador doesn't have a strong policy to combat the drug cartels.

VIDAL ROMERO: They are doing the same that previous governments, but they are saying that they are not doing the same that other governments.

KAHN: Lopez Obrador has touted a new National Guard force to fight the gangs, but Romero says it's still the same Mexican army doing the same inadequate job. As he confronts Mexico's rising murder rate, Lopez Obrador has made a mantra of the phrase hugs not bullets. At his morning press conference today, Lopez Obrador seem unfazed by the impressive show of force in the Jalisco cartel video. He said his administration inherited the drug cartels and insisted his policy of non-confrontation is the best policy.

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PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: We will fight them with intelligence and not force. We will not declare war, he said.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.