When the French tricolor on Facebook became ubiquitous after mass murder in Paris, thousands of Mexican users responded with a reminder of a lesser-known war in their own country. In the image, the Mexican flag is draped, translucent, over the gruesome portrait of a Mexican mother and her two small children slain execution-style in the southern state of Guerrero.
Their bodies are splayed on a gravel path in a rural setting. The mother’s eyes remain open. The infant boy lies face down on her lap. The girl, a skinny 7-year-old in pink flip-flops, is sprawled at her feet.
“Let’s see how many Mexicans make this flag their profile pic,” reads a comment on one Facebook post that has been shared more than 15,000 times.
To observers of violence in Mexico, the state of Guerrero was supposed to be last year’s news. In 2014, the murder rate was the highest in Mexico and eight times the national average. It was the year that 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college were taken into police custody in the town of Iguala and disappeared. A search expedition did not locate the missing students, but uncovered hundreds of hidden graves of unidentified human remains buried in the gloomy hills outside the town.
But rather than exhaust itself, the violence in Guerrero seems only to have gotten underway. The murder rate so far in 2015 is 29 percent higher compared to the same period a year ago. And what is most shocking about the new wave of violence is how generalized it has become throughout the state. The effects of the turmoil are being felt everywhere from the small towns of the Sierra region to the western port and resort of Acapulco.
Five police commanders from Acapulco were assassinated between April and October of this year. The level of violence directed at the local cops is unprecedented in the city’s history, according to the Mexican investigative journalist and author David Espino. The Guerrero state prosecutor sets the overall number of gangland executions in Acapulco at 754 so far this year—an average of 2.3 per day. The tourist economy is a shambles: The magazine Proceso reports that a thousand businesses and 14 schools have closed due to violence, and cruise ships have all but ceased calling at the port.
Five police commanders from Acapulco were assassinated between April and October of this year.
The authorities in Guerrero tend to attribute most drug-related violence there to “a settling of scores” between rival gangs. This is the explanation that Espino received from an anonymous source in the prosecutor’s office, that the police commanders had done favors for one drug gang only to be murdered by a rival group.
The authorities tend to avoid getting involved in such “settling of scores”; 89 percent of the murders committed in Guerrero go unpunished in the state court system, according to the 2015 Mexico Peace Index. Guerrero has not only the highest murder rate in Mexico, but the highest rate of impunity.
The new governor, Héctor Astudillo, was elected in June on a campaign pledge to bring “peace and order” to the state. But he has not been able to stanch the bloodshed. Not even with the latest infusion of federal troops to the state announced last month by Mexico’s Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong.
Since Astudillo took office on Oct. 27—restoring the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party to power after a 10-year absence—there have been at least 30 murders in Guerrero.
Security analysts doubt that the promised surge of federal troops to troubled areas will have the desired effect. Mexican security forces in Guerrero suffer from deepening public suspicion. A report by the International Crisis Group found that impunity on human- rights abuses and high levels of corruption have caused an erosion of public trust in federal troops.
As InSight Crime notes, “This has created a situation where horrific crimes like the 2014 disappearance of 43 students are no anomaly, but rather part of a pattern of violence that goes unpunished under the gaze of complicit or inept officials.”
The surge of violence in the mountainous interior adheres to the same pattern as Acapulco. That area is prized territory—its inaccessible roads providing a natural barrier to unwanted visitors, its climate and soil supplying 42 percent of the opium poppy used in Mexican heroin—and thus is territory perpetually in dispute between rival traffickers. Even so, the violence in the area this month has been a “settling of scores” on an extraordinary scale.
The gruesome portrait of the mother executed with her two children that turned into a disturbing meme on Facebook came from a massacre on Nov. 4 in Tetitlán de las Limas. The victims are the sister, nephew, and niece of an ex-police chief in Chilapa. The police chief went into hiding last year after Mexican security forces relieved him of his command and disbanded the municipal police force. Six of his relatives were murdered in a span of two days, Nov. 2 and 3, including a son of his, age 27.
On Nov. 4, gunmen murdered another local law-enforcement official, the sheriff of Polixtepec and his secretary. The lawmen were ambushed while driving along a dirt road to the village of Puentecillas. In a separate incident, gunmen massacred 12 people, including two minors, at a clandestine cockfighting event in Cuajinicuilapa, three hours down the coast from Acapulco. The state prosecutor Miguel Angel Godínez Muñoz reported that the gunmen were hunting for a rival capo.
The increase in violence has brought to a head the conflict between the military and the civilian inhabitants of the interior. The civilians have long criticized the Mexican Army’s inaction before the threats of organized crime in the area. The existence of civilian armed self-defense guards is an admission that a security vacuum exists—a vacuum that municipal, state, and federal law-enforcement authorities combined have been unable to fill.
On Nov. 13, the situation came to a head. An Army patrol of 200 men was halted in the village of Carrizal de Bravo by a crowd of about a thousand villagers from the municipalities of Leonardo Bravo and General Heliodoro Castillo. The villagers had sent for the Army nine days prior when the sheriff and his secretary were murdered. In the intervening days, with no sign of the Army, the self-defense guards took matters into their own hands, with a hundred of them engaging local gunmen in a battle in the village of Polixtepec that lasted several hours and left three cartel members dead and six in the self-defense guard wounded.
When a patrol from the Army’s 35th Zona Militar finally did arrive in the area, the soldiers disarmed and arrested members of the self-defense guard and did not pursue the members of the drug gang. Shortly thereafter, when the crowd of a thousand intercepted the Army patrol, the soldiers agreed to release the several dozen men in custody and return the firearms that they had confiscated.
Near the end of the hours-long negotiations with the soldiers, the villagers received word that the drug gang had attacked self-defense members near the village of El Naranjo. The civilian residents pleaded with the soldiers to return and investigate the report, but they did not. The Mexican Marines later sent men into the area; they did not confirm any body count but did find incinerated vehicles amid numerous other signs that an armed confrontation had taken place.
Local reporters interviewed Benito Bello Meneses, a leader in the self-defense guard who was caught in the firefight. Bello said the gunmen attacked after the Army had disarmed the self-defense guards, depleting the strength of the force right as its enemies were staging a counterattack. The actions by the Army, he said, amounted to collusion with the drug gang: “Our compañeros were handed over to the killers by the soldiers, the same thing that happened with the students from Ayotzinapa,” he said.
Members of the self-defense movement in the Sierra region say that Governor Astudillo is being selective about how the state implements his pledge of order and peace. On one hand, the Army has absented itself from the violent clashes in the Sierra, while on the other a strike force of a reported 500 state and federal police officers attacked a caravan of 150 student activists on Nov. 11.
And, yes, the students were from the Aytozinapa rural teachers college. They were traveling in eight intercity buses. Reporters at the scene say the police stopped the buses at a roadblock on the highway, broke out the bus windows and fired tear gas inside.
The police prevented the students from commandeering a diesel fuel truck which they intended to use for a protest caravan destined for the Nov. 26 global day of action for the disappeared 43 students from Ayotzinapa. Thirteen students were arrested and later released; 20 were injured, at least a dozen were hospitalized.
The Ayotzinapa students accused the government of ordering the attacks as part of a strategy to quarantine social activism in the state. Felipe Flores Velázquez, a student spokesman, characterized the attack as an act of persecution and criticized Governor Astudillo for deploying the police against students at a time when drug-related violence is rampant throughout the state.
The area near the town of Tixtla where the students were attacked will host a special election for mayor on Nov. 29. At the regular elections in June, residents of Tixtla set fire to ballot boxes in protest against the government’s inaction in the disappearances of the 43 students.
Jason McGahan reports on Latin America for The Daily Beast. His work has also appeared in VICE, Texas Observer, Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, LA Times, The Guardian, TIME, and in Spanish in Proceso, M-X, and Spleen! Journal. He was awarded a Peter Lisagor Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Chicago Society of Professional Journalists in 2014.