Mexico’s Worsening War without a Name

The “war on drugs” has morphed into a new rash of killings in Mexico. The deadly violence of increasingly well-organised, business-minded criminal groups risks being aggravated by government inaction, corruption and bombastic U.S. rhetoric – exactly what caused the problem in the first place.

Murder rates in Mexico have hit a record high amid criminal carnage not seen since the so-called “war on drugs” a decade ago. Over the first four months of 2017, three murders took place every hour to reach a total of 8,705 killings, about half of which can be attributed to organised crime. This marks the highest toll for this period since Mexican prosecutors began recording systematic crime statistics twenty years ago.

The path to this grisly statistic has advanced through various stages. The first was the militarisation of the “war on drugs” that began in 2006 under former President Felipe Calderón, and which triggered an arms race and clashes between criminal organisations and state security forces, including the Mexican army. Then came strategies aimed at taking down “kingpin” cartel leaders and at splintering criminal organisations, both of which ultimately aggravated the violence and reinforced these groups’ ties with corrupt state institutions.

The new plague of killings has reversed a fall in Mexican homicide rates after the beginning of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency in 2012. Now violence is not only taking its toll on Mexican society, but has also become a part of President Trump’s bombastic rhetoric in his diplomatic offensive toward his southern neighbour, with consequences as yet hard to foretell.

The Sinaloa Cartel Break-up

The internal splintering and internecine warfare among criminal organisations has played a central role in Mexico’s worsening violence. No better example can be found than the repeated captures and escapes of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. These are emblematic of how the assassination or imprisonment of criminal leaders by the armed forces spark races to claim leadership, and present business opportunities for rival criminal groups seeking to take over illegal activities.

After the second capture of El Chapo and his subsequent jailbreak through a purpose-built tunnel on 11 July 2015, a struggle broke out between the Sinaloa Cartel and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel. The latter, a criminal organisation that had been active only in certain localities, sought to extend its reach by taking advantage of the weakened Sinaloa leadership. In the region of Colima alone, the homicide rate rose by as much as 300 per cent.

Then came the third capture of El Chapo, on 8 January 2016 in Sinaloa, a north-western Mexican state not far from the U.S. border, after a picaresque investigation involving the interception of messages between El Chapo and actors Kate del Castillo and Sean Penn regarding a film on El Chapo’s life. The Sinaloa Cartel’s battle against the New Generation Jalisco Cartel intensified. The struggle escalated further following El Chapo’s extradition to the U.S. on 19 January 2017, a day before Donald Trump’s presidency began.

El Chapo’s eclipse triggered internal feuding as well. The succession divided El Chapo’s sons and one of his associates, Dámaso “El Licenciado” López. Dámaso’s career illustrates many connections that so demoralise Mexicans: a former deputy director of the Puente Grande high security prison, he proved himself a loyal associate by assisting in Chapo’s escape in January 2001, and during his career as a prosecution official, prison officer and police commander is alleged to have established corruption pacts with various Mexican government officials.

The conflict between Dámaso and Chapo’s family is partly over the control of drug trafficking routes into the U.S., but quickly spread to other illegal businesses into which the organisation has diversified. “The problem was that [El Chapo’s] organisation was taking over the market in every possibly way: drug dealing, narcotics, oil theft, etc., and that riled Dámaso, who was also moving into those markets”, a federal government official told the late Sinaloa-based reporter Javier Valdez.

The conflict quickly turned deadly. According to the local press, in the first five months of 2017 Sinaloa state suffered more than 700 assassinations linked to criminal organisations in conflict, notably between El Chapo’s sons and Dámaso. The struggle only seemed to abate when Dámaso himself was taken prisoner in a joint operation by the federal police and the Mexican army on 2 May.

At the same time, rising popular fear in Sinaloa state fuelled a wave of protests. The assassination in broad daylight in the state capital Culiacán on 15 May of Javier Valdez, a noted journalist who had written an article discussing Dámaso’s role in the spiral of violence, became a symbol of Mexico’s new climate of violence, was extensively covered by global media outlets and prompted messages of solidarity from the international community. Anger at the additional killings of innocent doctors, photographers and teachers with no apparent link to criminal disputes was aggravated by the government’s inability to provide security and the lack of credibility of its promise to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The Criminal Plaza

Criminal groups embraced an opportunistic new business model known as the plaza (the original Spanish meaning of which is town square). In other words, they tried to expand their turf as their traditional drug-smuggling business stumbled under the effects of gradual legalisation of marijuana in Mexico and the U.S., and a fall in the U.S. price of cocaine. In response, the groups turned to protection rackets, migrant kidnappings, theft and extortion, and focused on a booming trade in heroin to make up for the shortfall in the rest of the drug business. Mexico’s incomplete democratic transition and weak institutional checks and balances have underpinned criminal gangs’ corruption of local authorities and their ability to co-opt communities through the use or threat of violence. An economic model built on abundant, cheap labour helps the crime groups too. The availability of young people prepared to kill for modest payments has played an important part in the recent spike in murders.

Los Zetas, a criminal organisation that sprang up in the 1990s as an armed branch of the Gulf Cartel, created and popularised various plaza strategies. First, it professionalised the use of violence. It organised its main base of Mexican army deserters, some of them U.S.-trained elite forces, into special units able to seize commercial opportunities along drugs and arms smuggling routes. Above all, during President Calderón’s “war” on drugs, it engaged in any illegal activity that provided the revenue necessary to maintain operations in particular territories. Los Zetas ended up fragmenting into dozens of smaller groups, but their strategy was emulated by other criminal groups. Imitators even adopted their name.

One of the most problematic legacies of the Zeta model is fuel theft, or huachicoleo. Communities in the most impoverished parts of the country like the so-called Red Triangle in the state of Puebla have been helping themselves for twenty years and then selling it off at half the national price. But when Felipe Calderón’s “war” on drugs began in 2006, there were just 204 clandestine taps siphoning off fuel products along 57,000km of pipelines belonging to the Mexican state company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex). By 2016, the number of illegal taps had increased to 6,159, a rise of 2,919 per cent. Estimates of annual losses rise to 600 million gallons of fuel, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mexican analysts’ initial reaction to increased oil products theft has been to blame criminal organisations and the impoverished communities that support them, the same accusation they have long used against drug traffickers. They also blame music and other forms of popular culture that have contributed to the exotic, if criminal, reputation of huachicoleo. But composing and dancing huachicoleras is not enough to set up a thriving oil theft business in Mexico. In the main municipalities of the Red Triangle, 80 per cent of the population lives in poverty, and fuel prices rises of more than 20 per cent this year have triggered a wave of social protest. And without the knowledge and technical expertise of Pemex workers and the complicity of authorities supposedly fighting this activity, it would be impossible to set up the clandestine outlets vital for oil theft.

A War of Words over a War Word

On 9 May, Donald Trump retweeted a CNN article citing a report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies claiming that with 23,000 fatalities in 2016, Mexico is the world’s second most deadly conflict after Syria, where it counted 50,000 killed. The Mexican government promptly denied this, challenging the report’s methodology, casualty count and its characterisation of the situation as a “non-international armed conflict”. Mexico argues that its homicide rate is lower than that of its neighbours and that the criminal groups, drug trafficking and violence are overwhelmingly transnational in nature, affecting not just Mexico but the whole region.

The war of words over a way to define Mexico’s soaring criminal homicides has serious implications. Already, President Trump’s anti-immigrant and acerbic anti-Mexican discourse has exacerbated risk perceptions regarding the transfer of goods and passage of people between Mexico and the U.S., both legal and illegal. It has fuelled uncertainty in Mexican state institutions regarding Trump’s possible reactions to any worsening of security conditions in Mexico, above all in the context of his insistence on the construction of a border wall and plan to slash aid to the country. His reported offer in a January phone conversation to Peña Nieto to deploy U.S. soldiers across the border has also reinforced the idea that he will make a more benign renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) dependent on further militarisation of the fight against organised crime, tighter border control and sustained deportation by Mexico of Central American migrants.

On the other hand, the Mexican government’s denial that the country is suffering from an armed conflict is proving hard to sustain. When the foreign and interior ministers published a joint statement rebuffing any suggestion that Mexico is in any way at war, the daily newspaper Cambio simultaneously published a video of a soldier committing an extrajudicial killing of an alleged oil thief. While Mexico celebrated Mother’s Day on 10 May, an unidentified armed commando assassinated leading activist Miriam Elizabeth Rodríguez Martínez in her house in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, one of many mothers looking for her disappeared child.

Trump’s rhetoric and possible preference for a strategy of militarisation and border control to combat transnational crime risks raising the stakes, but the debate over terminology is worth having. Some insist that Mexico is at war, since criminal groups pose an increasingly deadly, organised challenge to the state. Others argue that Mexico is not experiencing a war, and consider the use of such language extremely dangerous as it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, there is good reason to eschew the label of “war” and simplistic use of other wartime language, as it could incite further violence and armed responses, and is ill-suited to this unconventional and complex crisis.

What is certain, Mexico is undergoing a crisis that, as security expert Alejandro Hope says, “may have reached the point of requiring a broader vocabulary to describe the many forms of human conflict” that are taking place in the country. The government should recognise this and end its policy of denial, which has only further widened the gap that separates it from society.

The Risks of Over-simplification

The rise in homicide rates in Mexico reflects in part ill-considered security policies, the competitive fragmentation of criminal organisations and the diversification of these groups’ illegal activities, including extortion, protection rackets and more recently oil theft. All are sustained by corruption and impunity, alliances between criminals and various state officials, and deep political and economic disparity between the majority of the population and the national elite.

In responding to escalating violence, Peña Nieto has failed to make significant changes to legal institutions and the country’s moribund security strategy. On the contrary: the budget for a new crime prevention plan was virtually eliminated last year, implementation of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy has stagnated, and the process of appointing its key officials lacks credibility. Furthermore, the introduction of the accusatory criminal system, established in the wake of a 2008 legal reform bill, has not generated its desired results, while details concerning the creation of a genuinely independent head of the Prosecutor General’s Office (Fiscal General de la República) remain opaque. The role played by the armed forces in providing public security has enabled postponement of much needed reform of the federal and local police, while the push for a new Internal Security Act would provide legal cover to military personnel performing public safety duties that go beyond their mandate and for which they have not been trained.

Crisis Group has stressed the need for international support in the search for justice for victims of violence in situations such as that prevailing in the state of Veracruz. Following Javier Valdez’s recent murder, UN and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights rapporteurs working on freedom of speech have reiterated their offer to visit Mexico to contribute to the search for justice for more than 105 reporters who, according to Article 19, a non-governmental organisation, have been murdered since 2000. It is time that the Mexican government accepts such offers from multilateral organisations and NGOs in order to avoid the prospect of unilateral and more dangerous interference from a less disinterested great power.

Froylán Enciso, Senior Analyst, Mexico .

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