HomeNewsAnalysisMass Grave Discoveries Suggest Little Has Changed in Mexico

Mass Grave Discoveries Suggest Little Has Changed in Mexico


President Enrique Peña Nieto's many critics have accused him of trying to bury the reality of Mexico's ongoing criminal butchery throughout his first year in office. That reality has been become increasingly hard to ignore of late.

Police have been digging scores of bodies from clandestine mass graves across western and southern Mexico, victims of the gangster wars the government routinely downplays and the muzzled press fearfully ignores.

The latest find, in the Guadalajara suburb of Zapopan, has uncovered 17 bodies so far. Police say they belong to victims of the Jalisco Cartel-New Generation (CJNG), a recent criminal incarnation known for its violence. The gang introduced itself to the world in September 2011 when it claimed credit for dumping 35 bodies of alleged rivals in the Zetas criminal gang on a busy highway in the port of Veracruz. It has been battling Zetas and other rivals in the Guadalajara area since.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Jalisco Cartel

Last month another 66 bodies also said to be the work of the CJNG were pulled from riverside tombs near La Barca, a town on the eastern shore of Lake Chapala, a resort area favored by US and Canadian retirees. Officials say the dead were causalities of a new struggle this year with the Knights Templar, a criminal group from the neighboring state of Michoacan. What led to the demise of those buried in Zapopan, which served as the headquarters for the former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel's network of methamphetamine labs, is unknown.

Hundreds of miles to the south, at least 13 bodies were found throughout November in and around the faded resort city of Acapulco, where factions of the Sinaloa Cartel have been targeting one another -- as well as other gangs -- for the past four years. 

Police also blame Sinaloa-linked thugs for the kidnap and murder of 13 young people from Mexico City's crime thriving Tepito neighborhood, who disappeared in late May and resurfaced three months later in a mass grave outside the capital. Most had been decapitated.

InSight Crime Analysis

Clandestine graves have been a gangland mainstay in Mexico for years now. Disposing of the departed has long been a necessary chore for killers as the mayhem claimed an estimated 80,000 victims in seven years. Many have been strung from overpasses or dumped on streets, highways and empty lots for the public to see. But victims have also been dissolved in acid, fed to hogs and dumped down wells, as well as put under the soil.

Some 300 bodies were pulled from graves in and around the city of Durango in early 2011, the results of another internal Sinaloa feud. About 200 others were dug up in northeastern Tamaulipas about the same time, most belonging to people pulled off buses by the Zetas gang on the suspicion they were Sinaloa gunmen dispatched to reinforce the Gulf Cartel.

A year earlier, police dug up 54 bodies in a junkyard outside Monterrey amid the Zetas-Gulf war for control of the city. They brought up 56 from a mine shaft in Taxco, the charming colonial city north of Acapulco that Sinaloa factions had fought over.

SEE ALSO: The Zetas And The Battle For Monterrey

Peña Nieto's people claim his leadership has seen an improvement in Mexico's security situation and that gangland murders have been reduced. But the recent replay of mass grave discoveries tells a different story, and so does a study of this year's murder investigations carried out by Zeta, a respected magazine based out of Tijuana.

The Zeta study, reprinted in Proceso magazine this week, found 19,016 "executions" happened in the first 11 months of Peña Nieto's presidency compared with 18,161 in the last 11 months of Calderon's term.

Defining what a narco murder is can often be more art than science. But Zeta, among others, accuses the government of classifying many murders as either accidents or unrelated to organized crime.

More than 17 months after winning the presidency, the Mexican president and his top aides still lack a viable plan for both taking on the cartels and reducing their carnage. A poll published Monday in the Mexico City newspaper El Universal reports that more than four in 10 respondents see the government's efforts as ineffective, while only 20 percent feel the security situation has improved. 

Peña Nieto administration officials have basically continued the US favored kingpin strategy of former President Felipe Calderon. That strategy can weaken the gangs but also sets off struggles for power among the fallen bosses' lieutenants or cartel rivals. Such reorganization of criminal groups underlies much of the killing today, just as it did in the Calderon years.

Beyond the known dead are the missing. The recently surfacing bodies are but a sliver of the country's vanished. More than 26,000 Mexicans have disappeared through the past seven years, with the collusion of security forces and organized criminals documented in many cases. Vows by Peña Nieto and top aides made earlier this year to find the missing have largely come to naught.

Peña Nieto, like Calderon, has also emphasized the dire need to professionalize local, state and federal police forces. But at least one of the newly discovered graves underscores the continued complicity of security forces with criminals. The arrest by soldiers of local cops from the nearby town of Vista Hermosa for gang involvement led investigators to the La Barca mass grave.    

In the absence of much progress on security, Peña Nieto's folk have gambled on damping news of the mayhem and emphasizing economic possibilities -- itself a questionable choice with the country tumbling towards recession. 

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

They've bet wrong. A recent public opinion poll shows eroding support for Peña Nieto, largely fueled by the poor economy and the continuing violence. Those surveyed suggested the president had been overwhelmed by the problems facing him. 

Still, most of the public irritation over security now seems focused on kidnapping, extortion and other crimes targeting innocent civilians.

The horrifying massacres that punctuated the early years of Mexico's drug wars have diminished in the past year or so, in public at least. Victims' bodies are now far less frequently dumped en masse along highways or strung from bridges. Fewer decapitated heads are turning up in public squares or on street corners. Slaughter is now stealthier, tucked beyond sight of the cameras, buried underground.

That benefits officials and criminals alike. It wouldn't be by design, would it?

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