Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has pushed back against a claim by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that parts of Mexico are controlled by drug cartels, calling the allegation “false”.
“There is no place in the country that does not have the presence of authorities,” Lopez Obrador told reporters during a news conference on Friday.
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The comment represents the president’s latest effort to dispel mounting criticism in the United States around the power of drug cartels in Mexico, which American legislators and officials said have fuelled a US opioid epidemic.
A recent deadly cartel kidnapping of a group of US citizens who had crossed into northern Mexico also has sparked a Republican-led push for the US military to intervene to address drug gang-related violence in Mexico.
During a US congressional hearing on Wednesday, Blinken said it was “fair to say” that parts of Mexico were under the control of powerful drug gangs and not the government.
At Friday’s news conference, Lopez Obrador responded: “That is false.”
Two of the four Americans who were kidnapped in early March in the northern border town of Matamoros as well as a Mexican bystander were killed in the incident.
The Scorpions faction of the Gulf Cartel later turned over people it said were Scorpion members responsible for the violence and issued an apology.
Lopez Obrador, a left-wing leader who ran on a pledge to end the country’s 12-year drug war, has said heightened US scrutiny of his government’s approach has been politically motivated ahead of the 2024 US elections.
In March, he slammed Republican-led calls for the US military to intervene in Mexico, saying Mexico City was “not going to permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a government’s armed forces intervene”.
“In addition to being irresponsible, it is an offence to the people of Mexico,” he said.
Lopez Obrador also has rejected the allegation that Mexico is disproportionately fuelling the fentanyl epidemic in the region, a claim that Blinken repeated during his testimony this week.
“I maintain that more fentanyl reaches the United States and Canada directly than reaches Mexico,” Lopez Obrador said this month, adding that while fentanyl production labs were present in the country, the raw materials used to make the drug were coming from Asia.
“I can tell Mr Blinken, we’re constantly destroying labs,” the Mexican leader said on Friday.
Despite his campaign pledges, Lopez Obrador has been criticised for continuing what opponents call a rebranded but still overly militarised approach to drug cartels. His policies have included the creation of a national guard force to handle public security, which has since been moved under the control of the military.
The murder rate in Mexico has remained high since Lopez Obrador took office in 2018. The country recorded more than 31,000 homicides last year.
This week, Lopez Obrador called US Department of State officials “liars” over an agency report that said there was credible information in Mexico pointing to unlawful or arbitrary killings by police, military and other officials.
The report also detailed forced disappearances by government agents as well as torture and inhumane treatment by security forces.
“Impunity and extremely low rates of prosecution remained a problem for all crimes, including human rights abuses and corruption,” said the report, which also criticised an uptick in violence against journalists in Mexico.
“It’s not worth getting angry about. That’s just how they are,” said Lopez Obrador, referring to state department officials.
A department spokesman responded to the president’s statements by saying the agency stands by its report.