Mexico's crime wars are hottest in the hinterland. In this photo essay, part of a larger project on deadly violence in Latin America, Crisis Group expert Falko Ernst explains that the fronts are ever-shifting and the distinctions among combatants wafer-thin.
High levels of criminal violence persisted, recall referendum confirmed President López Obrador as head of state, and authorities detained thousands of irregular migrants. In Guerrero state (south), prosecutor’s office said two gunmen launched attack in coastal resort of Acapulco, killing two; police later shot dead assailants. In Michoacán state (centre), clashes between security forces and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG) 2 April killed at least nine in Sahuayo municipality, including one police officer; security forces 4 April killed five suspected CJNG members in Chavinda and Jaconda municipalities. In Veracruz state (east), shoot-out between alleged crime group members and police 5 April killed four in Acultzingo. In Mexico state (centre), unidentified attackers 10-11 April shot dead family of eight in Tultepec municipality. In Chihuahua state (north), unidentified criminal group 16 April killed five, including police officer and migration official in Janos municipality. UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances 12 April called for end to “absolute impunity” over disappearances, said organised crime “central perpetrator of disappearance in Mexico, with varying degrees of participation, acquiescence or omission by public servants”; By late Nov 2021, over 95,000 people registered as disappeared, with average of 8,000 new cases each year since 2017. Senate 27 April approved establishment of National Human Identification Centre to facilitate search for missing persons, albeit without allocating resources. On political front, in first recall referendum in country’s history, 92 per cent of 18 per cent registered voters 1o April voted for President López Obrador to remain in office for six-year term, which supporters viewed as proof of his popularity; opposition dismissed vote as propaganda. Ruling party MORENA 17 April failed to obtain two thirds parliamentary majority necessary to change constitution and implement energy reform, tightening govt control over energy sector. MORENA majority 18 April fast-tracked change in mining law to secure national control over lithium; Senate 20 April passed new mining code. National Migration Institute 26 April said authorities detained almost 6,000 migrants in four-day span, pointing at sharp rise in irregular migration; in just one day, authorities 24 April arrested 330 migrants on Puebla-Orizaba highway.
One of Mexican organised crime’s most lucrative businesses involves stealing petrol and selling it on the black market. Violence is rising along with profits. The government has curbed this trade but still needs to address the official collusion and socio-economic grievances that keep it going.
Campaign season in Mexico has seen a rash of murders, as organised crime seeks to cement its influence no matter which parties win. The government needs to keep trying to break bonds between criminals and authorities, beginning with efforts tailored to the country’s hardest-hit areas.
As the coronavirus rages in Mexico and the northerly Central American countries, criminal outfits have adapted, often enlarging their turf. To fight organised crime more effectively, governments should combine policing with programs to aid the vulnerable and create attractive alternatives to illegal economic activity.
Crime rates are climbing across Mexico, as cartels splinter into smaller groups competing ferociously for turf. Just one state, Guerrero, contends with at least 40 such outfits. The government needs a tailored approach for each region, focused on protecting the public and reforming the police.
With hopes for change sky-high, Mexico’s president-elect confronts endemic violent crime and state corruption. To make good on his campaign promises, his team should pursue justice in killings by state personnel, reform the civilian police and give robust mandates to truth commissions with victim participation.
Mexico stops hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing northward to the U.S. Many are deported, and many more are stuck in the country’s south, vulnerable to crime and rising xenophobia. With U.S. and European help, Mexico should work harder to protect migrants and foster economic development.
Every group [in Mexico] I've ever talked to claims that they don't extort, kidnap or kill innocent people... These claims are, from my experience, never free of contradictions.
There is no category in international law for the violence and conflict that’s plaguing Mexico, and especially Michoacán.
There is always an element of negotiation when you use [violence] against the state.
What makes such a wave of journalist killings [in Mexico] possible is that criminal interests … are almost never properly investigated or punished.
The problem in Mexico is still being reduced by most as a turf war between cartels, while it is more of an internal violent conflict.
Cartels’ brand names fade away eventually. [But] all of those [other] networks stay in place.
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Naz Modirzadeh, Richard Atwood and Ivan Briscoe, Crisis Group’s Latin America Director, talk about COVID-19’s devastation, polarisation and populism in the region, as well as the Venezuela crisis and violence in Mexico.
COVID-19’s economic devastation will likely make Mexico and the Northern Triangle an even more fertile ground for drug cartels and gangs. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to discourage iron fist policies and instead help design local security strategies.
The failure of the “war on drugs” – now a welter of spreading conflicts – is a U.S.-Mexican co-production. Washington should stop pushing Mexico City to throw ever more military force at organised crime. Instead, it should help its southern neighbour find solutions tailored to each locale.
The “war on drugs” has not smashed Mexican organised crime but broken it into smaller fragments that fight each other for turf. This has come at the cost of thousands of lives, with last year being the deadliest on record. The sheer difficulty of counting the criminal groups underscores the scale of the government’s challenge in protecting the public.
Panel en línea con la participación de los expertos de Crisis Group Falko Ernst y Jane Esberg, quienes presentan sus últimos informes sobre la violencia en México, comentarios a cargo del destacado investigador y columnista Sergio Aguayo y moderado por la subdirectora del Programa de América Latina y el Caribe, Renata Segura.