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.
Buddhist fundamentalism and the accompanying nationalistic violence has been fermenting for several years in the Asian South Pacific. Over the past year in parts of Asia, friction between Buddhism and Islam has killed hundreds, mostly Muslims. The violence is being fanned by extremist Buddhist monks who preach a dangerous form of religious chauvinism to their followers (world.time.com). This violence has largely been confined to eruptions of violent riots and political demagoguery. However, many factors point to the notion that this may gradually expand.
Buddhist militancy appears to be the next wave of terrorism in Asia — and it could go global. It’s been recurrently in Sri Lanka since the end of the ethnic civil war in 2009, with Buddhist monks attacking minority Muslims as well as Christians. Similarly, in Myanmar since 2012, Buddhist monks have been openly attacking minority Muslim groups, including the ethnically ostracized Rohingya people. Now, extremist monks in both countries have formally linked up to form a global anti-Islamist pact (fairobserver.com). This presumes the rise of an international network of Buddhist fundamentalist groups developing into a mold similar to present day Islamic terror networks.
In the years leading into the twenty-first century, fear in the Asian world over the real or perceived rising influence of Islam has led to the rise of religious extremism from the Asiatic Buddhist communities. Over the past few years in Buddhist-majority Burma, scores, if not hundreds, have been killed in communal clashes with Muslims suffering the most casualties. Burmese monks were seen goading Buddhist mobs, while some suspect the authorities of having stoked the violence — a charge the country’s new quasi-civilian government denies.
In Sri Lanka, where a conservative, pro-Buddhist government reigns, Buddhist nationalist groups are operating with apparent impunity ─ looting Muslim and Christian establishments and calling for restrictions to be placed on the 9% of the country that is Muslim. Meanwhile in Thailand’s deep south, where a Muslim insurgency has claimed some 5,000 lives since 2004, desperate Buddhist clerics are retreating into their temples with Thai soldiers at their side. Their fear is understandable. But the close relationship between temple and state is further dividing this already anxious region (world.time.com). Various movements, organizations and leaders have emerged from this.
One of the most prominent figures is Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who was credited with inciting angry Buddhists in Myanmar to riot against the Muslim minority, burning mosques and Muslim-owned shops and houses and attacking Muslims who dared to challenge them. He has been featured in newspaper accounts as the Face of Buddhist Terrorism. In 2013 and 2014, scores were killed and thousands were displaced from their homes. In the town of Meiktila, a Buddhist mob surrounded a Muslim man and set him on fire.
The United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights have identified Wirathu as one of the main figures in Myanmar’s pattern of human rights abuse against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, who live in the northern portion of Rakhine province adjacent to Bangladesh. Wirathu justifies his actions under the cover that he is protecting the cultural purity of Buddhism.
His accusations include the suspicion that all Muslims living in Myanmar are sympathetic to extremist groups such as Al Qaeda. That Muslim men who marry Buddhist women force their wives to convert to Islam. He also argues of Islamic conspiracies at a global level. According to Wirathu, rich Muslim countries have bought off the UN, and its human rights accusations were part of a Muslim plot. He expands this conspiracy belief to include the mainstream news media, which he claims is also under control of Islamic extremists (religiondispatches.org).
Such religious movements are not relegated to Myanmar. Recently, in Sri Lanka, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Theron, General Secretary of Body Bali Sena (BBS) and Buddhist monk, (thesundayleader.lk) has been inciting hysteria with his firebrand sermons. His organization, the BBS, is a Buddhist organization many have called Right or Ultra-Right that emerged as a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka in 2013. Since then, this new group has slowly grown in stature and popular support in the country’s Buddhist-dominated areas. The BBS essentially talks about protecting the Buddhist culture of the country from foreign religions. So far, the issues raked up by the BBS are worthy of active and sympathetic consideration. BBS is able to capture the attention of the Buddhist population of Sri Lanka (samvada.org).
In 2016, Gnanasara reignited anti-Muslim sentiments with numerous speeches and public attacks against the country’s Muslims. He stated that Muslims cannot teach monks about reconciliation or co-existence, and if they confront Buddhists, then Buddhists are ready to respond accordingly. The monk later made an even more blasphemous comment on social media where he told the Muslim Council to send the letter they sent to the IGP to Prophet Muhammad.
His rhetoric has gone beyond abusive speech. As pointed out by the Muslim Council. On 15 June 2014, Ven. Gnanasara Theron incited the people of Kalu Tara district to cause violence, death and destruction to the Muslims of Aluthgama and Beruwela. The rioting caused the death of two persons, destroyed houses and property and inflicted damages to businesses worth billions of rupees. The repeated calls by the Muslim community for a commission of inquiry and punishment of the perpetrators have fallen on deaf ears. Two years on, Ven. Gnanasara there is proudly claiming that he will repeat Aluthgama in Marianna (thesundayleader.lk).
On 16 June 2014, addressing the cheering crowd in the tension-stricken town, the monk threatened that if any Muslim set hands on any Sinhalese, let alone Buddhist monks, it would be the end of all the Muslims. The monk has publicly claimed that he was a racist and a religious extremist (colombopage.com). These movements have gained significant momentum among the local Buddhist population and have had severe influence on the local government and its policies.
Wirathu’s movement has worked to the greater detriment of the Muslim minority. The transition to democracy in Myanmar has allowed popular prejudices to influence how the new government rules, and has amplified a dangerous narrative that casts Muslims as an alien presence in a Buddhist-majority. Muslims of all ethnicities have been refused national identification cards, while access to Islamic places of worship has been blocked in some places.
At least 21 villages around Myanmar have declared themselves “no-go zones” for Muslims, backed by the authorities. Some of the places had erected signs saying that Muslims could not stay overnight, buy or rent property, and local people were prohibited from marrying a Muslim. In Rakhine state, the report highlighted growing segregation between Buddhists and Muslim communities and severe travel restrictions for the Muslim Rohingya which limited their access to health care and education (atimes.com).
At the time of this writing, more than 370,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh amid a mass-scale scorched-earth campaign across the border in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State. Myanmar security forces and vigilante mobs are burning down entire Rohingya villages and shooting people at random as they try to flee. According to a report from Amnesty International, Myanmar’s security forces have planted internationally banned antipersonnel landmines along its border with Bangladesh. These have seriously injured at least four civilians, including two children, and reportedly killed one man (amnesty.org).
On Wednesday, Sept. 13, the UN Security Council expressed deep concern over the situation in the Rakhine State of Myanmar and called for an end to violence against the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority group (news.xinhuanet.com). In Sri Lanka the situation is similar.
The Bodu Bala Sena came into prominence due to its public opposition to the Halal mark on all products marketed in Sri Lanka. This was the demand made and achieved by the less than 10% population of the Muslims of the island. The Halal mark has been made mandatory on all products in Sri Lanka due to the pressure of the Muslim leadership, although a large population of the country – Buddhists, Hindus and Christians – who constitute around 90% of the population, don’t need it at all. All producers of food products have been forced to manufacture Halal products and approach a Muslim council for Halal certification.
BBS’s opposition to this issue had led to the Ulema council withdrawing the mandatory demand for Halal certification. Since then, the BBS has turned its attention to, what they perceive as the growing Islamization and Christianization of the Island nation. The BBS essentially talks about protecting the Buddhist culture of the country from foreign religions. By this it also means the Christian missionaries who are trying to convert people. They see their mission is to curtail any such efforts. The BBS has maintained that Hindus and Buddhists of the country should work together on these issues (samvada.org).
The rise of Buddhist fundamentalism has gained series momentum in just a few years, with leadership intent on creating a global movement.
In September 2014, Buddhist monks in Myanmar, including Ashin Wirathu, flew to Sri Lanka to officially launch the global Buddhist alliance against Islamist militants. At the time, they said the goal was to get more Buddhist groups to join their cause against Islamist militants.
While the current wave of religious extremism seems largely relegated to Myanmar and Sri Lanka, historically there are accounts of Buddhist violence in Thailand, Japan and Tibet. Other countries, such as Cambodia, Bhutan, Laos and Vietnam have a significant Buddhist population. Some have speculated that the populations of these countries could be exploited to extend radical networks and look for potential recruitment pools for the extremist Buddhist alliance.
Outside of Asia, there are particular Buddhist centers in Europe or the United States that might be targeted by these militant monks (fairobserver.com). The Buddhist fundamentalist movement is indeed growing; however, the question is to what end?
While radical Buddhism is definitely growing and gaining momentum in the countries of Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where it has reached high popularity amongst the domestic Buddhist population, similar movements in other Buddhist dominated countries have so far failed to materialize. A search for information on Buddhist radical groups or movements outside of the aforementioned countries yielded no results. From this, one could conclude that certain forecasts about a global movement emerging are exaggerated.
The meeting held in 2015 between movement leaders from Myanmar and Sri Lanka has so far not seemed to coalesce into something of great significance. Still, where the movement is popular, it has resulted in extreme violence and persecution of those practicing other religions. Since, radical Buddhism has not received the attention of radical Islam or Hinduism, it is also difficult to be completely sure of this movement’s reach.
Furthermore, the leadership of the radical Buddhist movement has characterized their intentions as existing to fight Islamic extremists threatening their religion. With the possibility of Islamic retaliations for the violence in South East Asia, the concern could be that Buddhists globally could start to define the movement in that context. This could play into the strategy of the extremists as a way to build their movement’s international reach. It also helps to legitimize their actions in the eyes of the western world, who would be more apt to excuse a movement purporting to work against radical Islam.
Even if the movement doesn’t reach beyond its current state, the outcry from the Muslim community has been profound over the persecution of Muslims in this region. It has become a rallying cry for many radical Islamic groups looking to justify their cause and build support among Muslim communities.
In the early stages of this movement, it’s too early to draw any hard conclusions. However, the western governments should not wait until this situation becomes an organized global threat. Intelligence resources should be allocated to collect intelligence on this movement and focus efforts to curtail their growth globally as well as influence within the regional borders where they currently reside.
Actions to combat Buddhist extremist must be public and well publicized to show the Islamic world that the governments of the world are combating religious extremism in general, not simply targeting Islam while ignoring everyone else. Ultimately, the war against terrorism must be more broadly focused. Countries cannot become so preoccupied with one form of religious extremism that they become blind to other growing movements. If they fall into that trap, then by the time the world becomes threatened by this new force, if it does, it will be against a well-organized network hosting global support with vast resources. Intelligence communities of the world will once again be playing catch up.