The state of Guerrero in southern Mexico doesn’t have the “capacity to confront organized crime,” according to its attorney general, Xavier Olea. His comments highlight a perennial problem in the region: inefficient justice systems riddled with corruption, unable to handle the criminal challenges they face.
Guerrero is one of Mexico’s most violent states and a major heroin production and trafficking hub. The arteries of the state’s justice system are “congested,” its heart is “clogged with fat,” and attempts to try to rid it of corruption are like trying to perform “open heart surgery,” according to comments made by Olea in a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El País.
With just 400 investigative state police across the whole state, Olea says he simply doesn’t have the means to bring down the organized crime cells that are now the de facto law in some parts of the region.
Mexican authorities have for years struggled to gain control of Guerrero, and both the Mexican Army and the Federal Police have a significant presence in the region alongside local law enforcement.
Homicide rates, which grew from 2,016 in 2015 to 2,213 in 2016, are amongst the highest in the country. Criminal impunity and corruption is widespread, and despite the creation of numerous security plans, the authorities have been unable to reverse the deteriorating security situation.
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The most recent comments by Guerrero’s attorney general confirm the limited impact of security strategies in the region so far, and also speak to the lack of resources at the disposal of officials charged with making improvements. Olea’s comments also have a political element to them, and could be part of an appeal for more funds from federal coffers for his security tasks.
Over the last few years, Guerrero has become an embarrassment for both the local and federal governments, and it is in the interests of both that matters in the southern Mexican state improve.
Last year, Olea stated that some 50 different criminal groups were operating in Guerrero. That is likely due in part to a process of criminal splintering that took hold following the weakening since 2009 of the Beltrán Leyva Organization, which was once the dominant group on that part of the Pacific Coast. But the weak justice system also encourages criminality by ensuring impunity for many of the perpetrators of the sorts of crimes that plague Guerrero, including kidnappings, murder and extortion.
Many incidents that are emblematic of the power of organized crime in Mexico and the problematic nature of the current militarized government crackdown have unfolded in this impoverished, rural state.
In 2014, 43 teaching students were abducted in the city of Iguala and presumably murdered in a case that implicated the federal police and the army, alongside municipal security forces, who worked directly with the Guerreros Unidos criminal gang. The federal investigation into the incident has been discredited both at home and abroad, and has been one of the biggest headaches for President Enrique Peña Nieto and his administration.
Acapulco, one of Mexico’s most important tourist attractions, has become a battleground between different criminal gangs, which in March prompted an international cruise operator to take the city off its list of port stops. Self-defense groups in various parts of the state have accused each other of functioning as the armed wing of different criminal entities; others have taken on local kidnapping mafias. Towns have been held hostage for days by criminal gangs, which kidnapped young men en masse.
Civilians comb the mountains and hills of the rural region for clandestine graves or other signs of their missing loved ones — a reaction to indifference and inaction from law enforcement. Disappearances, kidnappings and “levantones” (people being “lifted” by armed groups) happen daily.
Meanwhile, impoverished farmers have increasingly focused on opium poppy cultivation in clandestine plots that dot the mountains across the state, feeding the heroin boom abroad in the Unites States and violence and insecurity in Mexico.
Guerrero Gov. Héctor Astudillo has suggested legalizing opium poppy cultivation for medicinal purposes as an alternative strategy for reducing the violence plaguing the state. But not only is legalization unlikely to happen, it also ignores the need for widespread poverty-alleviation programs and the creation of viable economic alternatives for communities that rely financially on the sale of opium gum to organized crime.
Unless the government changes tack on both a federal and state level, there is little hope that the security situation in Guerrero will improve. If anything, a continuing deterioration seems more likely.
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