Mexico’s president stood defiant Wednesday amid mounting criticism of his government’s policy of using "hugs, not bullets" when fighting drug cartels after nine Americans – including six children – were gunned down by sicarios on Monday.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador brushed off criticisms against his government’s position and reiterated Wednesday during his daily media briefing that violence was not the answer or appropriate response to the growing deaths at the hands of cartels.
“It was lamentable, painful because children died, but do we want to resolve the problem the same way (as previous administrations)? By declaring war?” he asked. “That, in the case of our country, showed that it does not work. That was a failure. It caused more violence.”
“We are carrying out a different policy because the policy that was applied during 36 years was a resounding failure and it caused a lot of damage, a lot of sadness, a lot of deaths, a lot of losses for Mexicans,” he added. “We will not continue with the same and we will show that our proposal works, despite it not being easy. We are confident that we will achieve good results.”
His comments came two days after nine Americans – three women and six children – were gunned down by cartel members in an ambush in the northern state of Sonora. Officials have said they believe the gunmen may have mistaken the group's large SUVs for those of a rival gang amid a vicious turf war.
Eight young children – including an 8-month-old baby – survived the attack by hiding in the brush and even though they were wounded, some walked miles to get help.
All the victims are believed to be members of the extended LeBaron family, who live in a religious community in La Mora, northern Mexico, a decades-old settlement in Sonora state founded as part of an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around 70 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Mexican officials announced late Tuesday that a suspect was arrested near the Arizona-Mexico border in connection to the deaths. The suspect was holding two hostages who were bound and gagged inside a vehicle, which was bulletproof and contained four assault-type rifles, officials said.
The brazen daytime attack on Monday reignited questions regarding whether Lopez Obrador’s “hugs, not bullets” security policy of not engaging deadly drug cartels with violence was actually working.
Since taking office in December, Mexico is on track to record more than 32,000 murders this year. In the last month alone, the country has been plagued by at least three deadly high-profile attacks - including Monday's - at the hands of cartel members.
The front page of Mexico’s Reforma newspaper led the criticism against Lopez Obrador, saying his government "washed its hands … and rejected help." This was in reference to the Mexican leader rejecting President Trump's offer for help from the U.S. military in engaging drug cartels.
Meanwhile, El Universal ran an editorial saying that the daylight attack between Chihuahua and Sonora "confirms that the (government’s) security strategy requires an urgent revision to correct the errors or to adopt a new direction."
“Almost nothing has changed in respect to what has happened in the last decades in the country,” it said. “Minatitlan, Coatzacoalcos, Uruapan, Aguililla, Teopchica, Culiacan, Bavispe … all of the places are references to the bloody incidents registered this year.”
“Conciliatory messages and calls to criminals do not seem to be enough; because of the events, it should be noted that they do not seem to fear the force of the State. Exploring other options sounds obligatory.”
The president used the catchy phrase “hugs not bullets” – or “abrazos, no balazos” in Spanish – in his promise to clear out violent drug cartels, not by waging war, but instead changing communities by tackling what he said is at the root of the problem: extreme poverty.
On Wednesday, Lopez Obrador said he would not sway from his position, saying that “violence cannot be confronted with violence.”
“The bad cannot be confronted with the bad. The bad needs to be confronted doing the good,” he added. “We believe that the most important (thing) is life, protecting the lives of everyone; the lives of the military, the lives of the presumed delinquents, and the lives of civilians.”
Lopez Obrador also referenced the botched arrest of a son of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman last month, where at least eight people died in Culican while an army antidrug unit captured and then released Ovidio Guzman Lopez, who was wanted by U.S. authorities on drug trafficking.
“If we had acted like they asked, implored us, there would have been more than 200 dead,” he said.
The most visible element of a security strategy under López Obrador was the creation of the National Guard. The new force was supposed to fill the security void created by corrupt, disbanded or outmatched police forces and to reduce the country's dependence on the military for domestic policing.
A large portion of the guard, however, was detoured to immigration enforcement duties under pressure from the United States.
It also remains unclear how the National Guard fits with the social programs that Lopez Obrador says will attack the root causes of crime in Mexico.
Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert at Columbia University with more than two decades of experience on anti-organized crime, told Fox News in a statement Tuesday that organized crime in Mexico has flourished because Lopez Obrador and previous administrators have resisted the application of 29 institutional "anti-mafia" mechanisms that more than 60 countries have already adopted.
"No wonder that Mexico suffers high levels of paramilitary violence that in many cases constitute acts of terrorism, such as the latest Sinaloa Cartel's paramilitary takeover of Sinaloa's capital (Culiacan)," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.