The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency of Mexico has signaled a change in policy toward combatting drug cartels. The policy of the last decade has been to approach the problem through the use of military force. President Obrador has called to remove the military from such duties through a gradual reduction of forces from the mission (mexiconewsdaily.com/).
For the last decade, the Mexican government has approached the drug cartels operating in the country as largely a military threat and have attempted to destroy their influence through military force. Statistics show the federal government deployed 52,807 soldiers to fight Mexico’s notorious drug cartels last year ─ the highest number in the 12-year war on drugs. The record deployment was spread across several states in various regions of the country. Former president Felipe Calderón launched the military-based crime-fighting strategy shortly after he took office in December 2006 by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacán. During 2007, his first full year in office, 45,000 soldiers were deployed across the country. The size of the deployment was increased to 48,650 in 2009 as the number of soldiers, Marines, and Federal Police losing their lives in confrontations with organized crime continued to grow.
With more than 29,000 homicides, 2017 was also the most violent year in at least two decades while more than 200,000 people have been murdered in the 12 years since the crackdown on cartels began, leading many observers to conclude that the war on drugs strategy has failed. The violence of the cartels has turned several states within the country into virtual war zones.
One of the main targets of these expeditions has been the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) (mexiconewsdaily.com/).It is known for its aggressive use of violence, and its public relations campaigns. This criminal group moved drug shipments and managed finances for the Sinaloa Cartel operating primarily in the states of Jalisco and Colima and later extending into Michoacán and Mexico City. The group has been associated with the use of extreme violence. In the period following the emergence of the CJNG, homicides spiked in Jalisco. The cartel also made it one of its early missions to battle the Zetas drug trafficking organization in Veracruz state, under the name “Matazetas,” or “Zetas Killers,” which, depending on the source, is described as either another name for the CJNG or a special cell of the group responsible for assassinations. The group claimed responsibility for a 2011 massacre of 35 people in Veracruz and a month later security forces recovered the corpses of another 30-plus apparent victims of the group.
In April 2015, the CJNG killed 15 Mexican police officers during an ambush in Jalisco state, one of the single deadliest attacks on security forces in recent Mexican history. The group was also blamed for an attack in March 2015 that killed five federal police. Additionally, Mexican officials have previously indicated that the group possesses highly sophisticated armaments. Machine guns and grenade launchers were used to conduct the March 2015 attack. In May 2015, the group continued its deadly streak, shooting down a military helicopter on May 1, and launching a wave of violence across Jalisco.
The CJNG has also been known to appeal to the Mexican citizenry with idealistic propaganda, invoking solidarity and promising to rid its areas of operation of other crime syndicates, such as the Zetas and the Knights Templar another sworn enemy. The CJNG operates in at least in 22 states: Aguascalientes, Baja California Sur, Baja California, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Puebla, Querétaro, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosí, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Morelos, Nayarit, Guerrero, and Veracruz, plus Mexico City and the State of Mexico. The cartel also allegedly has contacts in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Central America, and the United States and uses these connections to traffic marijuana, cocaine, and synthetic drugs. Recent arrests suggest that the Cuinis, the alleged money laundering arm of the CJNG, may have established operations in Brazil and Uruguay. The CJNG’s assets are thought to be worth over $20 billion (insightcrime.org/).
In May of this year, the cartel was suspected for an attack on the former attorney general of Jalisco that was followed by gunfire and narco-blockades on the streets of Guadalajara. An estimated 12 armed civilians opened fire on Labor Secretary Luis Carlos Nájera, who was attorney general between 2013 and 2015. No one was killed in the exchange of gunfire but several people were wounded. Among them were two young girls selling candy outside the restaurant, Nájera, who was struck by a bullet in the hand, and three agents from the state prosecutor’s office, one of whom was reported in serious condition (mexiconewsdaily.com/news/).
In March, three film students in Jalisco were tortured and murdered by a drug cartel before their bodies were dissolved in acid. Javier Salomón Aceves Gastélum, Marcos Francisco García Ávalos, and Jesús Daniel Díaz García were kidnapped by armed men in Tonalá, near Guadalajara, on March 19. The three students — all of whom attended the Audiovisual Media University (CAAV) in Guadalajara — were working on a project in the home of one of the student’s aunts on the day they were kidnapped. CJNG members were watching the house because a rival criminal known as El Cholo, the leader of the Nueva Plaza criminal group, was expected to arrive there. Posing as security authorities, the armed men took the students to a ranch where one died from the beating he received while being interrogated. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity (mexiconewsdaily.com/). But, the cartels are not the only violent factions threatening the stability of several Mexican states.
In response to the violence, several self-defense vigilante groups have emerged in the last few years to combat the cartel groups that have dominated the regions. These vigilantes are organized and financed largely by the local businessmen. They are comprised of a wide assortment of people from business leaders, to migrant workers, to family members of victims from cartel violence and mercenaries. Equipped with full tactical attire and armed with state of the art weaponry, these vigilantes have engaged the cartels in open pitched battle on the streets of towns and cities where the government security forces have either been overwhelmed or have actively colluded with the local cartels.
These groups have been successful in uprooting entrenched criminal organizations in many regions of the country where the government security forces have failed. However, in doing so they have created another destabilizing presence. The corruption of the security forces has led the vigilantes to be suspicious of the government and ill-inclined to relinquish control of liberated territory to official authorities. Nor have they complied with a police order to disband or disarm.
In an attempt to bring some control over the vigilantes, the Mexican military has sought to legitimize them as augmentation forces and have given them official capacity. This avenue has met with minimal success as the vigilantes remain skeptical of the police and military, choosing to maintain their independence. In regions they control, vigilante groups have been known to stop even police convoys and prisoner transports to search them for cartel leaders using police cover to escape.
The vigilante movement has elicited other negative results. In the aftermath of removing cartels from their power over their stronghold regions, the vigilantes have taken to rigorous pursuit of escaping cartel members that have often resulted in virtual witch hunts that involve severe beatings administered to suspected cartel members and rounding up people based on little more than hearsay evidence. All of which has led to negative backlashes from the general public (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmnMgDEp_R0).
Nor, does the vigilante movement operate free from its own criminal indulgences. Since 2013, government officials have claimed on various occasions that the CJNG provided arms to the self-defense forces that purportedly emerged to combat the Knights Templar in the southwest, pacific state of Michoacán — a strategic operating point for criminal groups home to a wealth of minerals and a major seaport (insightcrime.org/). The militaries own involvement in the conflict has left it with a tarnished reputation.
There are strong indications that federal security forces were responsible for the disappearance of 23 people, including at least five minors, in Tamaulipas over the past four months. The United Nations (UN) said that people were reportedly detained by uniformed personnel as they walked or drove along public roads adding that several burnt out and bullet-ridden vehicles [have been] found by the roadside. Many of these people are reported to have been arbitrarily detained and disappeared while going about their daily lives. It is particularly horrific that at least five of the victims are minors, with three of them as young as 14. These crimes, perpetrated over four months in a single municipality, are outrageous. Allegations have also been raised regarding the enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions carried out by public officials (mexiconewsdaily.com/). The last decade of violence has led to calls for a new means of combatting the criminal lawlessness.
The new strategy proposed by the Obrador administration known as #SeguridadSinGuerra (Security without War) promises to create a National Guard and to keep the Internal Security Law (LSI) which formally authorizes the use of the military in domestic law enforcement. A key part of the strategy would be to put an end to the vicious circle of corruption that brings about more corruption as well as impunity and insecurity. The strategy further builds on the concepts of training police and improving their socio-economic conditions which will initiate a comprehensive pacification project that will include analyzing the possibility of an amnesty for some criminals (mexiconewsdaily.com/).
It is too early in the new administration. There has not been enough time to implement any parts of the new strategy. So, its effectiveness has yet to be tested. The concern is that with all the lawlessness going on, the measures may be too late to have any serious effect. With entire regions outside of the government's control and held by well-financed cartels or vigilante groups, the government’s main problem will be reasserting control and establishing its legitimacy. The cartels don’t want to relinquish power and through their enterprises have billions of dollars to use and have found ways to circumvent the security forces and the vigilante groups. The vigilante groups don’t trust the government security forces or the legal system and retain armies. These two groups, holding their own well equipped and trained armies, present a severe challenge of power for the government. The polices in and of themselves are vaguely defined and focus on pacification strategies in dealing with the criminal organizations of the cartels.
It is too early to know if the new policies will have any real impact. While they might have marginal success at some level, it is unlikely they will have much effect on a larger scale. The cartels are not rebel organizations, they’re businesses that can only be subverted by cutting off their financial resources and revenue base. That means stronger cooperation from neighboring countries, such as the United States and Canada, who are the prime sources of this revenue. If the cartels cannot be subdued, then the vigilante groups will continue to gain in power as citizens start to see them as the only viable response to the criminality. The history of the government trying to clean up corruption in the police and military has proven to be short-lived at best. Inevitably, the criminality in Mexico is going to continue because too much money is involved, and their power too well entrenched. The fear is that the violence will become wider spread in the country diminishing control of the government and giving more to the cartels and vigilantes.