Mexico's militarized drug war hit its ten-year birthday during 2016, but with widespread insecurity, spiking homicides and new criminal battlegrounds, no one was celebrating.
Although President Enrique Peña Nieto inherited the current crackdown from its architect and his predecessor Felipe Calderón, he has more or less stuck to the same song sheet for his security strategy: deploying more soldiers (and a new militarized police force) onto the streets and going after the bosses of criminal networks.
But the (re)capture of Mexico's most wanted drug lord, Joaquín Guzmán, alias "El Chapo," in early 2016 was a pyrrhic victory for Peña Nieto -- it was the second time that the Sinaloan boss had been caught after going on the lam from a high-security Mexican prison. And as often happens when bosses are taken out of play, it resulted in more violence and conflict this year.
"El Chapo's looming extradition to the United States seems to have weakened the Sinaloa Cartel and prompted rival groups to go on the offensive," we wrote in November. "An attack targeting the house of El Chapo's mother in June may have resulted from an alliance between the Beltrán Leyva Organization and the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation. The latter has also reportedly joined with elements of the Tijuana Cartel in an attempt to usurp the Sinaloa Cartel's operations in Tijuana and in Baja California Sur. All of these factors are likely to contribute to the fragmentation of the cartel, a pattern that has been seen in other Mexican crime groups in recent years."
A weakened Sinaloa Cartel is also now fighting it out with the relatively new arrival on the criminal scene, the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG), which initially began life as a breakaway faction of the Sinaloa group. Some, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) now think the CJNG is currently one of Mexico's most powerful criminal organizations.
Increasing infighting this year between Mexico's criminal groups, old and new, could explain why homicides -- which initially dropped when Peña Nieto took power at the end of 2012 -- returned halfway through 2016. Homicide rates are now back to where they were during Calderón's administration, and several months of this year have been the country's most violent in the last two decades.
Not only did homicides increase, but violence also spread to new parts of the country -- proof that territories continue to be disputed between criminal organizations. States such as Guerrero and Michoacán remain battlegrounds, and new states such as Colima, a tiny state on the Pacific Coast, exploded onto the criminal radar in 2016.
"The small western Mexico state of Colima has seen homicides rise by more than 900 percent compared to last year in a surge of violence that likely is linked to organized crime and has the potential to spill over into neighboring states," we noted in May.
Mexican government homicide statistics no longer discriminate between violent killings and drug-related murders, but one analysis suggested that killings by criminal networks rose substantially. As we wrote in October, Semáforo Delictivo and Lantia Consultores noted that, "From January to September 2016, organized crime was responsible for 8,815 homicides, which amounts to 58 percent of all homicides during that period and a 47 percent increase [in OC homicides] in comparison to the same period the previous year."
The fact that organized criminal networks could be committing more murders than they have in recent years reflects a failure of the militarized crackdown, which is supposed to weaken criminal networks and actors and limit their use of violence. Organized crime has proved itself as enterprising and responsive as ever to demand from the United States. The heroin boom north of the border, for example, is being fed and controlled largely by Mexican criminal organizations, a dynamic that has mushroomed since and despite the launch of the drug war in 2006.
"The DEA has previously warned about the increasing involvement of Mexican crime groups in the lucrative US heroin trade," we wrote in September. "In a June 2016 threat assessment (pdf), the agency noted that total heroin seizures in the United States have been steadily increasing for the past five years, and that Mexican heroin has accounted for a growing share of those seizures. According to the document, the agency found that 79 percent of the total weight of heroin that it analyzed in 2014 came from Mexico."
The impact of the heroin boom in the United States made itself felt throughout Mexico in 2016, but perhaps nowhere as hard as in the state of Guerrero, one of the country's most deadly states where violence, lawlessness and impunity reign.
Although criminals are killing each other, Mexicans from other walks of life also continued to be victims of violence and disappearances perpetrated not only by delinquents but also by the very state security forces that are supposed to be combating insecurity.
High Targets, Low Results
The government crackdown against organized crime began in December 2006, when Calderón sent some 6,000 troops to his home state of Michoacán to control violence generated by warring drug gangs. A few months earlier gunmen had dumped five severed heads on a disco dance floor. By the end of Calderón's administration there were 75 military bases around the country dedicated to public security, and that number has more than doubled under Peña Nieto's watch; there are now 162 military bases around the country, according to reports by Mexican online outlet Animal Político.
There have been results. The Mexican government, for instance, has proven itself adept at netting drug bosses. Authorities have captured 100 out of 122 of the country's most dangerous criminals. But as cartel leaders have been eliminated or removed from the criminal landscape, new turf battles have opened up between rival groups, through succession conflicts, or due to the inevitable fragmentation of cartels into more ruthless splinter groups.
Meanwhile, the Mexican military, still the country's most trusted security institution, has been involved in serious human rights abuses, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. An investigation by the New York Times suggested that during the drug war, the Mexican army has displayed an exceptionally high kill rate, and estimates for the drug war dead vary enormously, from 130,000 to as high as 200,000.
"The militarization of public security has pushed Mexico into a seemingly endless spiral of violence," The Times wrote. "The military is about confrontation and controlling physical space, something that intensifies conflict rather than defusing it over the long haul. Add to this a record of serious human rights abuses, and you have a recipe for backlash, especially in the poorer, more marginalized areas where the military is dispatched."
Dissent on the wisdom of militarization in Mexico came from who should arguably its biggest defender -- the head of the armed forces, General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. He said that dispatching soldiers to combat criminal networks was a "mistake," and that "soldiers prepared for war" confronting criminals with no military training has caused "serious problems."
The general also admitted that tactics such as day time raids have left the civilian population at risk.
As insecurity and homicides grew this year, so did the pushback from civil society, faced with an incompetent and indifferent justice system which neither Peña Nieto nor his predecessor have reformed for the better (90 percent of murders still go unsolved). In states like Guerrero and Michoacán, civilian armed groups continued to take up arms to defend their areas in the absence of state protection, often resulting in more conflict.
"Two self-defense groups in Mexico's troubled state of Guerrero have accused each other of involvement in organized crime, illustrating the complexity of the criminal landscape in the country's heroin epicenter," we noted in November. "The conflict between the two armed groups -- former allies supposedly dedicated to the protection of Guerrero's beleaguered communities -- shows how all social actors are impacted by the lawlessness, criminality and impunity that characterizes one of Mexico's most violent states."
Civilian search parties looking for "disappeared" family members emerged in Guerrero in the wake of the mass abduction of 43 students in 2014. These search groups have spread around Mexico to other states this year, showing that the country's crisis of missing people, which has emerged since the drug war and been linked to the police and military as well as criminal groups, is now nation-wide.
"Family members of disappeared persons in east Mexico have discovered 75 mass graves in a month in a stark demonstration of the incapacity -- or unwillingness -- of authorities to determine the fate of thousands of citizens that have gone are missing in the country," we reported. "The Solecito Collective of Veracruz (Colectivo Solecito de Veracruz) found the mass graves in Colinas de Santa Fé, an urban area of Veracruz city that borders the port facility there, the organization's coordinator Lucía de los Ángeles told Radio Fórmula.
Despite the huge weaknesses of Mexico's militarized strategy, a new Interior Security Law proposed by Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) towards the end of the year actually wants to expand the role of the armed forces in the drug war.
Mexico needs some new ideas.
Unless the country improves, in real terms, its corrupt and ineffective justice system, the criminal impunity feeding so much of the insecurity around the country will continue. Peña Nieto's government must find the political will and resources to go after the financial assets of Mexico's criminal groups. The authorities must also take on the socioeconomic factors that make a life of crime an attractive prospect to Mexico's youth.
There are good reasons why the Mexican government chose to turn to its military in 2006 to combat organized crime. It is the country's most trusted and able security force, and at the time Calderón's government was facing down the Zetas and the Beltrán Leyva Organization, which were comprised of highly-trained, well-equipped former soldiers with formidable firepower. One could argue that in present day Mexico the CJNG in Jalisco pose a different but equally mammoth challenge to the Mexican state -- the group leapt to fame when it brought down a military helicopter with an rocket propelled grenade launcher last year.
But year after year, Mexico's government has failed to match its investment in military might with new thinking, social programs and other measures designed to weaken drug trafficking and criminality, and 2017 promises to be the same. With elections due in 2018, it will fall to the Mexican people to decide if they wish for more of the same from the PRI or whether they may have finally reached that elusive tipping point, and will start trying some fresh ideas.