By Nathaniel Parish Flannery Contributor. I write about Latin American companies and political risk.
In Mexico over the last few months security and crime stories such as the mass kidnapping of several dozen residents by 300 masked criminals in the town of Chilapa Guerrero and the more recent killing of 42 suspected cartel members by Federal Police in Tanhuato Michoacan, have attracted a lot of attention. Although Mexico’s government has decimated the leadership structures of groups such as the Zetas and Caballeros Templarios, over the course of 2014, a new group, the New Generation Cartel of Jalisco, has risen to prominence. The CNGJ is perhaps best known for a recent brazen attack in which the cartel’s gunmen shot down an army helicopter, killing eight soldiers. 2014 saw the capture of Mexican crime kingpin “El Chapo” Guzman, but clearly the fight against violent crime in Mexico is far from over.
While news outlets such as Proceso magazine and the blog borderlandbeat.com have documented each individual incident, a recent report from the University of San Diego aims to provide a wider perspective on the evolving face of organized crime in Mexico.
The town of Iguala in the state of Guerrero is known as the birth-place of the Mexican flag. On October 22 the flag on the side of the mayor’s office burned during a protest over the disappearance of 43 student teachers. Photo by N. Parish Flannery: @nathanielparish on Instagram.
On October 22 the flag on the side of the mayor’s office in Iguala Guerrero burned during a protest over the disappearance of 43 student teachers. Photo by N. Parish Flannery: @nathanielparish on Instagram.
Overall, at least a third of the murders in Mexico in 2014 bore signs of organized-crime related killings, such as the use of high-caliber automatic weapons, torture and the use of narcomensajes. Former Mexican president Felipe Calderon has been widely criticized for his security strategy that saw a 58% increase in organized-crime related murders in 2008, a 41% increase in 2009 and a 30% increase in 2010. Since 2011, however, Mexico’s murder rate has fallen year after year, and according to the report from the University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico Project, that trend continued in 2014. According to the report,
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) has continued the previous administration’s efforts to arrest major organized crime figures. While President Peña Nieto continued the same strategies of the previous administration during his first year in office, he also began to emphasize crime prevention and judicial system reform more strongly than in the past.
Still, despite the capture of “El Chapo” Guzman and the decimation of the Caballero’s Templario cartel, the threat of organized crime is still very much present in Mexico. During the course of 2014, the states with the largest number of organized-crime-style murders were all states where organized crime groups control major smuggling routes. The border state of Chihuahua reported 1,143 murders. Guerrero, the site of the disappearance of 43 student teachers in late 2014 reported 1,075 murders. Sinaloa, the home base of “El Chapo” and his organization reported 747 homicides. While Michoacán, the state once dominated by the Caballeros Templarios reported 594 deaths. Jalisco, the state that recently saw a dramatic confrontation between soldiers and gunmen from the Nueva Generacion Cartel, reported 518 killings.
According to the report, In 2014, SNSP statistics still placed Ciudad Juárez as the municipality with the fourth highest number of homicides, though this number continued to decline by perhaps as much as 14% from the previous year (with the caveat that Ciudad Juárez was one of many cases for which data were incomplete). Meanwhile, the number of homicides also declined again in Acapulco, the city that has registered the most homicides since 2012, from 883 to 590 homicides, a decrease of more than a third.
But, these improvements are a mixed result. They are associated with a broader trend of organized crime related violence shifting away from city centers towards the urban periphery and rural areas. This has proven to be a problem for Pepsi and Coca-Cola who have seen their trucks and facilities targeted by criminals and radical activists in Guerrero and ArcelorMittal, a company who saw one of its executives killed in Michoacan, allegedly by cartel gunmen. Cemex has also seen its employees and operations in Guerrero threatened by criminals. Most recently gunmen in Guerrero kidnapped a Cemex employee while he was driving a company vehicle.
In late 2013 I visited the municipality of Xaltianguis on the outskirts of Acapulco in Guerrero. Angelica Romero, a middle-aged mother of two and a member of the town’s citizen police force told me, her “family was affected by the crime. There were kidnappings. One cousin was freed. Another was killed. We paid the [ransom] money but he never came back. They found him on a lot near here with a bullet in his head.”
Mexico City based security analyst Alejandro Hope told me that in the area around Acapulco, “It’s no longer cartel versus cartel. It’s retail drugs and extortion of all types, especially [of] taxi drivers. Everyone is paying.”
In late 2014 I rode along with a Federal Police patrol through the lower income hillside neighborhoods on the outskirts of Acapulco. Federal Police chief Enrique Galindo Zavalos, told me, that Mexico’s security forces “have taken apart the [major organized crime] groups but at a lower level the structures are still there and they are committing crimes such as robbery, extortion and kidnapping.”
The street gangs who once worked kidnapping and killing on assignment for the cartels haven’t disappeared. “They are freelancing,” Galindo told me.
Samuel, a 34-year-old who owned a bar in Acapulco but closed up after gangsters killed one of waitresses told me, “a few years ago there were shootouts right in the street in front of restaurants. Now it’s better, but it’s a smokescreen. The poorer areas are still bad.”
The old cartel structures in Guerrero have been smashed, but the violence is continuing. Fourteen people were killed in Acapulco during the weekend of May 16. An additional 45 people were killed in Acapulco during the first two weeks of May, a death toll that is helping Acapulco remain on the list of the most violent cities in Latin America. Instead of cartel gunmen battling with machine guns Acapulco is now seeing taxi drivers and small business owners killed by handguns in assassination-style shootings.
Stage one of Mexico’s security strategy has focused on dismantling organized crime groups. Stage two requires the rebuilding of local police forces and serious reforms to the country’s criminal justice system. University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico report shows that the worst days of Mexico’s organized crime fight may be behind it. But, the end of violent crime and the establishment of law and order at the local level in states such as Guerrero, Michoacan, and Jalisco may still be a long way off.
According to Guillermo Valdes Castellanos, the ex-director of Mexico’s intelligence agency CISEN, “rebuilding and strengthening state institutions so they have the capacity to stop [organized crime] is a twenty-five year process.”
See here for an in-depth report I wrote on the fight against organized crime in Mexico.
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