Mexico Maelstrom: How the Drug Violence Got So Bad

Eleven years since the government launched a crackdown on cartels, violence continues, rule of law is elusive and charges of human rights abuses abound.

Photo Credit: Borderland Beat/Creative Commons

Sofía, a medical assistant in Reynosa, a scruffy border city in northern Mexico, has a regular morning routine.

She wakes at 6am and readies her son for preschool; then she reviews her social media feeds for news of the latest murders.

Updates come via WhatsApp messages from friends and family: “There was a gun battle on X street”, “They found a body in Y neighbourhood”, “Avoid Z”.

In Mexico today, choosing your route to work can be a matter of life or death, but Sofía compares the daily drill to checking the weather on the way out the door. “It doesn’t rain water here,” she said. “It rains lead.”

It is 11 years since the then president Felipe Calderón launched a militarised crackdown on drug cartels deploying thousands of soldiers and promising an end to the violence and impunity. But the bloodletting continues, the rule of law remains elusive and accusations of human rights abuses by state security forces abound.

All the while, Mexico continues to race past a series a grim milestones: more than 200,000 dead and an estimated 30,000 missing, more than 850 clandestine graves unearthed. This year is set to be the country’s bloodiest since the government started releasing crime figures in 1997, with about 27,000 murders in the past 12 months.

Some of the worst violence in recent years has struck Reynosa and the surrounding state of Tamaulipas, which sits squeezed against the Gulf coast and the US border.

Once in a while, a particularly terrible incident here will make news around the world, such as the murder of Miriam Rodríguez, an activist for families of missing people, who was shot dead in her home on Mother’s Day.

But most crimes are not even reported in the local papers: journalists censor themselves to stay alive and drug cartels dictate press coverage.

“We don’t publish cartel and crime news in order to protect our journalists,” said one local news director, whose media outlet has been attacked by cartel gunmen. Eight journalists were murdered in Mexico in 2017, making it the most dangerous country for the press after Syria.

The information vacuum is filled by social media where bloody photographs of crime scenes and breaking news alerts on cartel shootouts are shared on anonymous accounts.

In Reynosa, violence has become a constant strand in everyday life. Morning commutes are held up by gun battles; movie theatres lock the doors if a shootout erupts during a screening. More than 90% of residents feel unsafe in the city, according to a September survey by the state statistics service.

Signs of the drug war are everywhere: trees and walls along the main boulevard are pockmarked with bullet holes. Drug dealers can be seen loafing on abandoned lots; every so often, rival convoys of gunmen battle on the streets.

Video cameras look down from rooftops; spies are all around. “They have eyes everywhere,” said one woman. “It could be the government or the cartels.”

The violence here first erupted around 2010 when the the Gulf cartel’s armed wing – a group of former soldiers known as Los Zetas – turned on their masters.

Since then, wave after wave of conflict has scorched through the state as rival factions emerge and collapse.

Fighting erupts over trafficking routes and the growing local drug markets, but state forces are also implicated: earlier this month, soldiers killed seven people, including two women, in what was described as a “confrontation”.

Crime hit such alarming levels this year that the local maquiladora industry – which pulls thousands to Reynosa every year to work in its export factories – warned that companies might be forced to relocate.

Amid the mayhem, ordinary life continues: shopping malls fill with families trying to escape the oppressive heat. Cars full of young people cruise the streets at night, banda music blaring from open windows.

“Life can’t stop. We have to get out and enjoy ourselves a little,” said Alonso de León, a local caterer. But he added: “The problem affecting us in Tamaulipas is the shootouts, this violence – in any other country this would be called terrorism.”

The government bristles at any suggestion that the country is at war. When the International Institute for Strategic Studies ranked Mexico as second-deadliest country in the world – ahead of warzones such as Afghanistan and Yemen – the foreign ministry responded angrily, pointing to higher murder rates in Brazil and Venezuela.

War or not, the bodycount keeps climbing.

And the violence is spreading: tourist areas have seen shootouts and decapitations, and even the capital has seen confrontations with armed groups. Earlier this month, the bodies of six men were found hanging from bridges in the resort city of Los Cabos.

All of which has been disastrous for the image of President Enrique Peña Nietowho took office in 2012 with an ambitious agenda to push through structural reforms and promote Mexico as an emerging economy.

Fighting crime seemed an afterthought.

“He thought that security issues in Mexico were a problem of perception so he embraced a policy of silence,” said Viridiana Ríos, scholar at the Wilson Centre in Washington.

Peña Nieto’s government maintained the military focus of the drug war, and continued to target cartel kingpins. But analysts question the strategy, saying that it shatters larger criminal empires but leaves smaller – often more violent – factions fighting for the spoils.

Breaking up the cartels also has the perverse effect of encouraging crime groups to diversify, said Brian J Phillips, professor at the Centre for Teaching and Research in Economics.

“The new groups are more likely to raise money by kidnapping or extortion since that doesn’t require the logistics of drug trafficking,” he said. “And as long as demand exists in the USA, and supply is in or passing through Mexico, new criminal organisations will appear.”

When the country’s most-wanted crime boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was recaptured last year, Peña Nieto tweeted “Mission accomplished” but even that success has not caused any measurable reduction in crime: Guzmán’s extradition to the United States in January triggered a fresh wave of violence in his home state of Sinaloa.

Meanwhile rivals such as the Jalisco New Generation cartel – a fast-growing organisation specialising in methamphetamines and excessive violence – moved in on Sinaloa trafficking territories along the Pacific coast.

And the liberalisation of marijuana laws in some US states has prompted some farmers to switch to opium poppies, prompting fresh conflict around the heroin trade.

But despite the worsening violence, there has been little serious consideration of any fresh approaches. Earlier this month, Andrés Manuel López Obrador – the frontrunner in the 2018 presidential election – was widely condemned for floating a possible amnesty for criminals.

The proposal drew comparisons with the pax mafiosa before more than 70 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) ended in 2000, in which politicians turned a blind eye to drug-dealing in return for peace.

But analysts say even that would not work nowadays as the drug cartels have splintered.

“It’s a useless endeavour, given the broken criminal landscape,” said security analyst Jorge Kawas. “There’s no group of leaders who can be summoned to discuss stopping the violence.”

Politicians are nonetheless still perceived as allying themselves with criminals –especially during costly election campaigns.

“Mexico cannot stop dirty money going into the political system,” said Edgardo Buscaglia, an organised crime expert at Columbia University. “That’s the key to understanding why violence has increased in Mexico.”

Such accusations are all too familiar in Tamaulipas, where two of the past three governors have been indicted in US courts on drug and organised crime charges.

Meanwhile, police departments are dilapidated, dispirited, corrupt and underfunded as state and national politicians pass on security responsibilities on the armed forces.

Earlier this month, congress rammed through a controversial security lawcementing the role of the military in the drug war – despite mounting accusations of human rights abuses committed by troops and marines.

In Tamaulipas, residents express exasperation with the flailing government response. But few ask too many questions about the violence around them: they just want the killing to end.

“I don’t care about organised crime,” said one woman, known online as Loba, or She-wolf. “They can traffic all the drugs they want so long as they don’t mess with ordinary people.”

Loba is one of the social media activists who report on cartel violence via Twitter and Facebook. It’s a perilous undertaking: at least two citizen journalists in Tamaulipas have been killed, and Loba herself was kidnapped by the Zetas in 2011 and held for 12 days before her family paid a £10,000 ($13,500) ransom.

When asked why she runs such risks, Loba answered: “Perhaps this can save someone from being shot.”



David Agren has covered Mexico since 2005 for publications including the Guardian, USA Today and Maclean's magazine. He also works as Mexico correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists.


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