MEXICO CITY -- Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said in June that the 71,000 members of his newly founded national guard would bring peace to a nation terrorized by drug cartels. But when gunmen this week mowed down nine women and children on the border of Chihuahua and Sonora states, guard members took at least three hours to arrive.
Lopez Obrador's signature security innovation, a camouflage-clad civilian police force with many members pulled from the military, has failed to stop a slaughter that has claimed close to 26,000 lives this year. In part that's because a sizable part of the corps has been assigned to stop undocumented migrants targeted by U.S. President Donald Trump.
As of mid-October, 4,100 guard members were assigned to Sonora and Chihuahua, but many of them were sent to the U.S. border, leaving much cartel-dominated territory unprotected. That's about two-thirds the number assigned to the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, where the murder rate is below that of the two northern states and the national average.
Much of the national guard is now working to stop refugees from coming into Mexico from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as part of Lopez Obrador's commitment to the American president.
The number of people caught entering the U.S. has fallen by about two-thirds since then -- though Mexican homicides are on pace for a fresh annual record. Flor Cuevas, a Chihuahua human rights activist, said the focus on migrants rather than on drug traffickers is a "violation of human rights."
"There's an uptick in violence and insecurity," she said Thursday. "Meanwhile, we see a lack of commitment or strategy where these federal troops are watching over migrants when we have this problem."
The National Guard was created this year through a constitutional amendment. It will get 56 billion pesos ($2.92 billion) in the government's budget proposal for 2020, its first full year of operation.
"We've made a little progress," AMLO said in a Thursday news conference. "We now have a national guard that wasn't there before, there's more presence and they're adding more members. We're going to continue moving forward. They're also working, doing something very special and important, in matters of intelligence, because it's better to use intelligence well and not bet everything on force."
The guard answers to the Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection, led by Alfonso Durazo, a politician who has worked for presidents from all three parties that have governed Mexico over the past century. The force itself is led by General Luis Rodriguez Bucio, who declined an interview request.
Mexico had planned to deploy the guard first to hot spots of cartel activity. That was before Trump in May threatened to levy tariffs due to a surge in migrants arriving at the U.S. border. Lopez Obrador's government got Trump to cancel the duties in exchange for Mexico prioritizing the new national guard to help with migration operations. This summer in Juarez, where there are gaps in the border wall, guard troops stood in the brush every 500 meters or so, waiting patiently for migrants to happen by.