It was always going to be a thankless task. When President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December 2018, Mexico was undergoing the most violent year in its history, which ended with 36,685 murders. The atomization of gangs into smaller factions, scrapping ever more violently for ever-smaller slices of the country’s criminal pies, had driven up the homicide rate under the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto. And with convincing attempts at judicial or police reform nowhere to be seen, the overwhelming majority of crimes went unpunished.
But a year on, López Obrador has made no progress on reining in criminality or cracking down on impunity. Any hope that the new government, which ended decades of two-party rule, would bring a fresh approach was later dashed. The 34,582 murders tallied last year represented a homicide rate of 27 per 100,000 citizens, marking the bloodiest start to a presidential administration in the country’s history.
López Obrador has gone from promising “hugs not bullets” to creating a new National Guard, which is now functioning mainly as a glorified immigration force. He has been ruthless in cracking down on gangs stealing oil but weak in his response to the Sinaloa Cartel. Soldiers were even forced to release Ovidio Guzmán López, son of the legendary Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” -- now jailed in the United States -- after his brief detention in the cartel's headquarters of Culiacán, Sinaloa.
The federal police, despite deep-seated corruption problems, have remained Mexico’s main bulwark against organized crime. But the force has been left rudderless and may soon be swallowed by the National Guard.
Unsurprisingly, criminal groups have taken advantage of this uncertainty, and Mexico is paying the price. As López Obrador changed his campaign stance and promised retribution, the gangs not only mocked him, they were openly defiant. Over the course of 2019, that defiance translated into truly shocking levels of violence. Horrific massacres have taken place, including the slaughter of nine members of a Mormon family in Sonora in November. In April, 14 people, including an infant, were massacred during a party in Minatitlán, Veracruz.
Through it all, López Obrador has not presented either an immediate plan to deal with the rising violence, or a coherent approach to address the root causes of this rise in crime.
These roots go back 15 years when the vast majority of activities linked to organized crime were controlled by a small clique of powerful organizations: the Sinaloa Cartel along the western coast, the Tijuana Cartel around the border with California, the Juárez Cartel near Texas, and the Gulf Cartel and Zetas along the east coast.
But after presidents Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and Peña Nieto (2012-2018) favored the US-backed “kingpin strategy,” of specifically targeting top cartel bosses, many of the largest groups broke apart.
The vacuum generated by the disappearance of so many hegemons created room for upstart gangs, which typically lacked the ambition or capacity to assert anything like the near-total regional control of their predecessors. In many cases, these groups melted away as quickly as they emerged.
Now, new contenders are rising. Across the country, groups with strong local bases have carved toeholds in key regions. Prominent examples include the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel in Guanajuato. Originally formed by a coalition of local gangs to resist the encroaching Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), the group has helped turn the state into the country’s most violent in 2019.
The massacre of the nine Mormons from the LeBarón family has been attributed to La Línea, a lesser-known group that has for years acted as the armed wing of the Juárez Cartel. In Michoacán, the deeply entrenched Cartel del Abuelo has slowed the CJNG’s attempted takeover of the state, while the group has also run into opposition from local criminal actors trying to shore up their share of profits from the lucrative extortion of avocado producers.
These groups have defended their fiefdoms against far larger rivals like the CJNG and Sinaloa Cartel. In sustaining these years-long battles against their larger adversaries, these groups have become some of the chief drivers of violence in Mexico. And collectively, they are generating higher levels of violence than the traditional cartels were at the height of Mexico’s drug war.
Even worse for President López Obrador, extreme violence by these upstarts is becoming the norm, especially as the government abdicates increasing swaths of territory. This was painfully evident in October, when security forces bungled the arrest of Guzmán López.
His feeble response to that crisis suggests he will be no more capable to impose the government’s will on the country’s organized crime groups than his predecessors. In fact, it may get worse yet.
Still, there is reason for optimism. Mexico’s violence remains mostly localized, with five states accounting for around half of all murders. In Tierra Caliente, covering part of the states of Michoacán, Guerrero and the State of Mexico, the breakdown of established groups has led to a crystallization of smaller gangs that have had no fear of carrying out massacres on the scale of their larger peers. In Tijuana, years of dropping murder rates have been abruptly reversed by a bitter new drug war for control of methamphetamine distribution. Meanwhile, the capital, Mexico City, has been forced to stop pretending it was less prone to criminal violence than the rest of the country.
Mexico’s Tierra Caliente region has long been the country’s poppy-growing heartland. But a sharp drop in heroin prices due to a rise in production and demand for synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and the deadly opioid fentanyl has had devastating effects, especially for small farmers but also on levels of violence as rival groups battle for control.
These seismic market shifts have come alongside a long history of state absence and a hyper-fragmented criminal landscape in recent years, which has allowed violence in the region to continue unabated as competing groups battle to seize upon illicit profits.
In the aftermath of the breakdown of the traditional stalwarts, the Knights Templar and Familia Michoacana, other hyper-violent groups have emerged, including the CJNG, Viagras -- both which have formed alliances with remnants of the Knights Templar -- and the Cartel del Abuelo.
In August of 2019, the CJNG scattered 19 bodies across Uruapan -- some dismembered and riddled with bullets while nine others hung from a bridge -- in a macabre message to other groups to boost its chances of seizing control of local drug sales and exploiting the state’s billion-dollar avocado industry.
A variety of smaller criminal actors have also sprung up across the state in hopes of carving out a place for themselves. “It’s a wide ocean of different armed leaders where you have a lot of semi-autonomous armed blocks that tend to switch alliances frequently,” Falko Ernst, senior analyst for Mexico at the International Crisis Group, told InSight Crime.
For years, there has been a cycle to criminal dynamics in Michoacán. One criminal group reigns before being challenged -- and often ousted, such as what happened with the Gulf Cartel and Zetas -- by another that hopes to make its own alliances with local politicians, security forces and industry leaders to reap the benefits of the state’s criminal rackets.
“The alliances they had in the past configuration of powers with autodefensas, El Abuelo, Los Viagras, and other actors to control the area and regulate violence are being violently challenged by other actors,” said Romain Le Cour, the president of Noria Research and an expert on criminal dynamics in Michoacán. “It’s part of using violence as a resource to control land, economic resources and social processes.”
The US-Mexico border town of Tijuana has been a focal point for extreme violence amid intense criminal fragmentation and the proliferation of synthetic drugs, which have a far lower bar of entry for crime groups than traditional drugs like cocaine.
The 2,518 murders in Tijuana in 2018 were a new record for a city that has in the past been defined by grisly displays of violence, especially between 2006 and 2012, when then-President Calderón’s war against Mexico’s organized crime groups reached its height.
At the heart of today’s bloodshed are petty drug dealers that are increasingly resorting to extreme violence in an effort to control local drug sales, especially methamphetamine. Authorities told the Los Angeles Times they estimate 90 percent of the city’s homicides are linked to such battles for the proverbial corner.
Also contributing to the bloodletting are conflicts over control of migrant smuggling routes into the United States. As the US government moves forward with a policy of sending asylum seekers to dangerous border cities like Tijuana to wait out their court proceedings, migrants are easy prey for crime groups.
Alongside this crisis of violence are security forces at the local, state and federal level that have yet to be given the resources or training necessary to safeguard murder scenes and thoroughly investigate such crimes. In 2018, the state of Baja California’s impunity rate was among the highest of Mexico’s 32 states, behind only Tamaulipas and the State of Mexico, according to the Global Impunity Index.
As things stand now, dynamics in Tijuana aren’t showing any signs that the city will relinquish its status as Mexico’s most murderous border town.
Criminal dynamics in Mexico City are a microcosm of how the broader fragmentation of Mexico’s organized crime groups and the inability of the state to establish order have impacted levels of violence.
In recent years, the Unión de Tepito and Tláhuac Cartel were among the major criminal actors in the capital. However, both groups have suffered intense blows after many of their leaders and top members were either captured by authorities or killed.
In the aftermath, violence has reached unprecedented levels. The homicide rate in the capital touched 25.8 per 100,000 citizens in 2018, equal to the record-setting national rate that year. In 2019, between four and five people were murdered every day on average. Traditional criminal rackets like extortion, for example, have developed into an extremely violent enterprise, similar to the way in which it’s conducted in northern and western Mexico, according to security analyst Alejandro Hope.
Others are reacting to the violence, threatening to fill the hole the state has not. In April of 2019, for example, angry street vendors said they would form self-defense groups in the wake of increased extortion, kidnappings and killings at the hands of the Unión de Tepito, which is being challenged by a rival group known as the Fuerza Anti-Unión. The local leader who spoke up was subsequently murdered.
Official corruption, as in other parts of the country, is helping this deadly rise in violence go unchecked. In October 2019, the government announced it had a list of some 120 police officers suspected of collaborating with and providing protection to the Unión de Tepito. One video of this alleged relationship even shows an officer accepting a bribe from a Unión de Tepito leader before driving away. Leaders of the Tláhuac Cartel have also been able to elude capture through connections with corrupt officials that filter key information on security operations.
In October, López Obrador announced an increase in spending on national security and a further 10,000 new recruits for the National Guard but offered no new ideas. For many Mexicans, it was a familiar story. The president’s predecessors also threw more money and more security forces at hotspots, only to see criminal groups fragment and mature.
Any remaining drive to innovate may have been scuttled by demands from Washington DC. US President Donald Trump’s "Remain in Mexico" plan, which López Obrador reluctantly agreed to, has saddled Mexico with the responsibility of caring for thousands of migrants awaiting their chance to enter the United States and diverted vital resources away from fighting deadly criminal structures. What’s more, large parts of the National Guard are likely to remain deployed for much of 2020 along Mexico's southern border with Guatemala, instead of bolstering Mexico’s fight against organized crime.
It is still early. But unless the president forms a coherent, focused strategy to deal with the immediate problems posed by criminal groups, all of his long-term social goals will be lost amid a rising body count.
Top Image: Associated Press photo of Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador