Reportage. The Mexican government’s strategy against drug cartels isn’t working, as the number of murders and disappearances soars.

A year of violence in Mexico with no end in sight

A burned body and a man executed with a bullet to the head in Ciudad Juárez, nine dead and four wounded by gunshots in the Sinaloa region, and four corpses featuring “messages” from the narcos in Acapulco, the second most violent city in the world after Caracas.

In Mexico, 2017 has been the worst year of the past two decades. According to the Ministry of the Interior, in the period from January to November, the number of murder victims was 26,573. October broke the record with 2,764 murders, but the average has remained at more than 2,000 per month during the year, which will end with over 28,000 dead. Thirty percent of all cases are concentrated in four Mexican states (Baja California, Guerrero, Estado de México and Veracruz), but no region is immune from the violence that has become a structural feature.

The death toll is worse than in 2011, the most terrible year of the “war on drugs” in the era of President Felipe Calderón, when 27,199 murder victims were recorded—a rate of 24 per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the National Institute of Statistics, in the 11 years of militarized fighting against the drug cartels there have been 240,000 murders and an impressive number of desaparecidos (disappearances)—nearly 35,000 people.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many of these high-impact crimes are actually attributable to this internal conflict and how many are instead related to other factors, but according to the officials of the Calderón and Peña governments, about 70 percent of the violent deaths in the country are attributable to organized crime or to the police and military forces deployed across the territory. All the while, up until 2007—before the “narco war” strategy was fully implemented—murder rates in Mexico were at historic lows, around eight per 100,000 inhabitants, a figure comparable, for instance, with the murder rate in the U.S.

According to Mike Vigil, a former agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and an expert in the fight against organized crime, there are various reasons for the surge in killings, but the main ones are the fragmentation of large cartels into smaller and more violent cells, fighting each other for control of the areas where illicit crops are cultivated, and also the corruption of the law enforcement bodies.

With a tweet sent on Jan. 8, 2016, President Enrique Peña Nieto celebrated the third recapture of the head of the Sinaloa cartel, nicknamed “El Chapo,” who had made the government look like fools six months earlier with his escape from a maximum security prison and with the airing of an interview with him by the actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo. “Mission accomplished: We have him. I want to inform the Mexican people that Joaquín Guzmán has been arrested.”

The cartel boss was extradited to the U.S. in January, but his organization remains active under the leadership of his sons, Iván Archivaldo and Alfredo, his brother Aureliano, and his old partner Ismael El Mayo Zambada.

The case of “El Chapo” is the most famous, but no less than 107 of the 122 most dangerous Mexican criminals have been killed or arrested in recent years. However, the violence and drug trafficking have not seen any decrease. Therefore, is clear that “the leaders are not as important for their operations as the government expects, the criminal organizations are fragmenting but do not disappear, and they enter into deadly conflicts until a new boss, or several, arises to replace the former,” according to a recent report by the American Congress Research Service (CRS).

“The large hierarchical groups, such as the Medellín or Cali cartels in Colombia, are gone. Today, the leaders have realized that in order to survive they need not only to internationalize and associate with other groups, but also to divide themselves into cells,” Ricardo Ravelo, a Mexican journalist and expert in security and narcos, explained to il manifesto.

Peña’s preferred solution, based on the criminalization of drug use and the deployment of the armed forces, legitimized by the recent approval of a law that expands the functions of the military in the area of public safety, has only made the situation worse. “Faced with this situation, in which it is obvious that organized crime is undergoing a boom, the Peña government has done nothing,” Ravelo explains. “Without a clear plan to curb the violence, the country is moving toward becoming a ‘mafiocracy’ where organized crime can do everything it wants: impose candidates, finance election campaigns, do their business undisturbed, and enjoy full security and impunity.”

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!