Recent massacres in three different regions of Mexico have shown the importance of analyzing local power structures to understand the causes of violence.
Mexico has set new records for homicides in the last three years. Most recently, the brazen June 26 military-style attack on Mexico City Public Security Secretary Omar García Harfuch, where two bodyguards and a 26-year-old woman were killed -- as well as the murder of a family of six and the latest discovery of human remains in clandestine graves -- has put a spotlight on the escalating violence.
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Though such headlines can give the impression that these killings are ubiquitous throughout Mexico, InSight Crime shows in examining three recent massacres that unique dynamics drive the bloodshed, and the government's response is unfortunately the same.
Land Conflict in Oaxaca
A years-long local conflict came to a head on June 21 when 15 members of the Indigenous Ikoots community were brutally murdered in San Mateo del Mar, a coastal town in southern Oaxaca state, prosecutors said in a June 22 press release.
Indigenous community members said they were ambushed by a group loyal to municipal leader Bernardino Ponce Hinojosa, while he, in turn, blamed local residents for instigating the attack, according to Pie de Página. Witnesses said the National Guard and municipal police abandoned the area when the fighting started.
In the wake of armed attacks in May, residents requested that the state and federal governments come to their aid to prevent the situation from escalating. The June assault appears to have been the culmination of long-simmering tensions, which boiled over into victims being stoned, hacked with machetes and even burned, according to a Página 3 report.
San Mateo del Mar is part of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which lies between the Pacific Coast and Gulf of Mexico. As one of the country's windiest regions, it has attracted international investment to build industrial-scale wind farms.
The potential for wind power has created a rift between local Indigenous communities that want to protect their resource-rich lands and those interested in working with foreign investors in renewable energy projects. State-sponsored projects like the Tren Interoceánico, which would create a type of Panama Canal between Mexico’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts, have also led to turmoil.
"Behind these attacks is a broad context involving resources, a bicoastal rail corridor [and] wind farms. We're fighting a monster,” one local community member told Pie de Página.
In response, authorities sent dozens of state police and National Guard forces to the area on June 23 to protect community members and stop the violence. But the root causes of the violence remain unaddressed.
Criminal Infighting in Sinaloa
Sinaloa state Public Security Secretary Cristóbal Castañeda was alerted of fierce gun battles early on June 24. By the day's end, authorities discovered 15 bullet-ridden bodies in Tepuche, a collection of small rural communities just north of the capital Culiacán, according to a June 25 press conference.
Nestled in the heart of Sinaloa Cartel territory, Tepuche has seen infighting break out between the group’s old guard, led by Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias “El Mayo,” and the sons of the now-jailed former kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” known collectively as “Los Chapitos.” Tensions between the two sides have grown in El Chapo’s absence, creating a tinderbox.
Both factions have tried to take over Tepuche in recent months. A hitman known as “El Ruso,” who is allegedly loyal to El Mayo and operating under his direction, apparently succeeded, according to La Silla Rota.
Yet about a week prior to the massacre, hitmen allegedly working for Los Chapitos threatened El Ruso.
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Castañeda, the security secretary, said reinforcements from the National Guard are needed, asking that troops operate from 15 bases, instead of just the five they have now, according to Milenio.
The Sinaloa Cartel showed its ability to outnumber, outgun and overpower security forces in its home turf last October. After authorities briefly detained Ovidio Guzmán López, teams of armed gunmen stormed the capital city of Culiacán, blocking off entry and exit points with burning vehicles and patrolling the streets with high-powered weaponry like .50 caliber rifles mounted on trucks. The government capitulated and released Ovidio.
Any effective security response to the ongoing violence in Sinaloa has to take into account an array of variables, including the roles played by natural resources, local politics and economic dynamics, as well as the state’s historical criminal landscape. Past plans have been defined by ineffective hard-line strategies like repressive drug crop eradication programs, the targeting of criminal leaders and outright militarization, all of which has done little to improve security.
Battle for Drug Control in Guanajuato
Before night fell on July 1, gunmen raided an unregistered drug rehabilitation center in the mid-sized city of Irapuato in central Guanajuato state and opened fire, killing 27 and injuring several others, according to a July 6 press release from the state Attorney General’s Office.
At the heart of the assault is an ongoing battle between the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación -- CJNG) and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, which has helped transform Guanajuato into Mexico’s most violent state.
The violence is extreme by any measure: police officers here are killed at a higher rate than in any other Mexican state, while there were more than 200 murder victims in just the first two weeks of the year, with dozens more killed seemingly every weekend since.
The central Mexican state, also a key industrial manufacturing center, acts as a thoroughfare for precursor chemicals and other drugs entering via ports on the southern Pacific coast, after which they travel north to the US-Mexico border.
At the same time, Guanajuato’s local drug market has expanded greatly in recent years. Between 2004 and 2018, the number of methamphetamine users treated by a local rehabilitation center jumped almost 55 percent, according to data from state health officials. In 2018, more than 60 percent of drug users at one rehabilitation center said they used the synthetic drug, second only to marijuana, markets the CJNG and Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel are both trying to control.
Drugs traversing Guanajuato also serve border cities like Tijuana that have large local drug markets. Workers at Tijuana's massive manufacturing plants are increasingly exposed to cheap stimulants, such as methamphetamines, that are easily bought for only a few dollars per dose.
In Tijuana, drug gangs also often battle it out for local drug sales while serving as proxies for larger criminal groups, like the CJNG and Sinaloa Cartel, which are vying to control drug routes in Baja California.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack in the rehabilitation center, authorities responded again by deploying state security forces and members of the National Guard. But this is only a band-aid short-term solution to insecurity, which warrants a long-term plan alongside careful consideration of local dynamics.
The Path Forward?
All three massacres have very different contexts and motives, yet the national government's response was the same: a reactive, top-down militarized security force deployment.
"Dynamics of violence are based on complex local configurations, that evolve within political constraints and respond to fluctuations of legal and illegal markets. Accounting for this complexity is key,” Romain Le Cour, the president of Noria Research, said in a July 6 interview with Forbes.
Indeed, the violence used in each massacre was distinct: a potential political tool to stamp out resistance to controversial development projects in Oaxaca; a forceful tool to try and restore internal order within the Sinaloa Cartel; and a criminal tool to sow fear, secure drug markets and control trafficking routes in Guanajuato.
(Top photo: Rebecca Blackwell, AP)