Although the media has steadily turned its attention away from the country’s high levels of drug violence, recent developments show the situation has experienced a further deterioration in relation to the already bloody first half of this year, and more so in relation to the previous year.
According to statistics from newspaper Milenio, this October registered 840 drug-related executions (DREs), becoming the second deadliest month in the country’s history of drug violence after a record high of 854 DREs set in July 2009. The total DREs registered this year from January to October (6,714) represents a 55.2% increase over the same period in 2008 with only 4,325 DREs. In fact, the number of DREs counted this year has already surpassed the total DRE’s registered last year by 1053.
The execution of law enforcement has also experienced a notable increase during this year in relation to 2008. Security authorities report 1,221 policemen and 111 soldiers executed during the first 10 months of the year. The majority of these DRE’s have taken place during the second half of the year.
Unusually violent methods
In this new wave of violence, drug cartels and their hired guns are using more violent methods against their rivals, including law enforcement. Although torture is a common experience in many DREs, the number of executions displaying signs of torture has dramatically increased to 1,312 cases registered during 2009. Similarly, cartels have become more violent in their message to authorities and their rivals, leaving severed bodies and their limbs in public sight with increased frequency.
Hotspots and spikes of violence
Despite noticing a slight descent in DREs during this month, Chihuahua registered again the highest number of DREs across country with 388 deaths. The bulk of these executions have taken place in Ciudad Juarez—the country’s most violent city for a long time.
High numbers of DREs continued in the usual hotspots of Baja California, Durango, Guerrero, Michoacan, Nuevo Leon, Sinaloa, and Sonora and Tamaulipas. DREs in these states along with Chihuahua represent 81.2% of the country’s total through 2009. Other states with usually low levels of violence, notably Guanajuato and Morelos have registered important spikes in DREs during the last two months.
These trends have defeated even some of the more pessimistic projections about the levels of violence. According to a number of hypotheses, a steady reduction in DREs was expected as a result of increased military deployments in different states—particularly in Chihuahua, but also because of an underlying belief that drug violence had already reached a peak and therefore would follow a pattern of descent.
The increased presence of the Mexican army in the usual hotspots has rarely been accompanied by a sustained reduction in the levels of violence. In March of this year, the Calderon administration deployed 7,000 additional soldiers and federal police to contain the spiraling violence in this northern state. Subsequently, in June another 2,000 soldiers were sent to reinforce security in Chihuahua, while the Ministry of Defense announced a change in strategy whereby the army would do more intelligence work—to no avail. Needless to say, the military influx has not shown the desired results, but it actually seems to have led to more violence.
On November 12th, a group of business representatives from manufacturing and other industries located near Ciudad Juarez stated their intention to request the presence of the United Nations’ Blue Helmets in the region. According to the businessmen, the high levels of violence have forced many businesses to close down or move to other regions which offer better protection to its citizens. While the UN has already discarded the possibility of sending its peace corps to the region because this is only applicable to war zones, the latter is a fair indication of the gravity of the situation in the border city and the incapacity of the state to guarantee security for the average citizen in this violent region.
Drivers of Violence
The escalation of violence is a common phenomenon associated with growing drug activity and competition among cartels. Yet the main factor behind the dramatic increase of late in the levels of violence is directly linked to the government’s decision to wage a full war on the drug cartels.
By striking the cartels and invading their zones of influence, the Mexican army has forced a large-scale restructuring of the cartels. This strategy launched by the Calderon administration also diminished any existing “understanding” between cartels and state or local governments, and the criminal organizations can no longer rely on local protection.
At the same time, cartels have continuously tried to exploit setbacks of their rivals by venturing into their zones of influence. The weakening of the previously established rules and structures has actually brought more violent groups into the fray that are trying to increase their share of the market, and which rely on increasingly cruel methods as a way to inflict fear among its rivals—including the Mexican state.
Media’s Soft Coverage
Several sources explain the Mexican government has tacitly asked media conglomerates to soften their coverage on the subject of spiraling drug violence, namely to protect the country’s image and tourism-related industries.
The government’s request is not without legitimate reason. Drug violence was indeed being reported in a sensationalist manner by national and international media, particularly earlier this year. On the other hand, the same type of media coverage is not given to dangerous cities in the US with historic levels of gang violence. However, In compliance with this request, it seems like the media has shifted from sounding alarms to relative indifference.
This strategy to underplay drug violence carries a series of implicit risks. First, it reduces pressure on the Mexican government to diminish drug violence and related criminal activity, but also to pursue strategies other than direct confrontation (i.e. seizing financial assets, improving intelligence). Secondly, this strategy might provoke a backlash whereby the sustained escalation of violence suddenly gets more attention and disqualifies the government’s strategy and efforts against the cartels. In this case, international media coverage would resurge to expose the failure of the government to reduce the levels of violence.
Weakening of la Familia?
Since the clash between La Familia and the federal government that left 13 federal policemen and two soldiers dead in Michoacan last August, security elements have intensified their hunt for the leaders of the Michoacan-based cartel and its cells around the country.
This effort has achieved relative success. While the government has successfully disarmed many of the cartel’s cells operating outside of Michoacan and some cartel lieutenants in the state, authorities have not been able to capture the key leaders of the cartel.
In a separate yet interconnected development, on October 22nd the US government announced the arrest of 403 members of La Familia operating in the US, as part of a large-scale operation across 19 states in the US. According to the US government, the recent arrests completed a total of 1,200 arrests against members of La Familia operating in the US territory over the last 4 months. These cartel’s main activity was the distribution of amphetamines across the US.
These recent developments suggest the structure of the Michoacan-based cartel has been substantially weakened after more than three months of consecutive blows. The operation in the US resulted in the confiscation of nearly US$33.0 million in cash as well as drugs, arsenals, and other property.
Lack of Finance Intelligence Persists
At this time, the celebrated arrests in Mexico have not resulted in the major confiscation of financial assets that could inflict deep pain in the Michoacan-based cartel. As discussed in previous reports, the cartel’s power resides in its strong financial resources.
Without inflicting damage on this end, cartels quickly recover from the arrests and confiscations of merchandise. This is the case of the Tijuana Cartel, which after substantial blows during 2007-2008 has undergone an impressive recovery and perhaps strengthened its sway in its territory.
Although the government has no other choice but to wage a war on the cartels, the recent blows to La Familia are likely to bring about increased violence in Michoacan, Guerrero, Morelos, Guanajuato, and Mexico City—the states where the cartel operates. This will happen as a result of other cartels wanting to exploit La Familia’s temporary weakness and invade its zones of influence.
Outlook: Levels of Violence To Escalate Further
Considering the trends observed in recent months, we foresee DREs staying at very high levels, potentially surpassing the 800 mark before the year ends, and certainly surpassing this mark in the first quarter of 2010. Overall, we don’t see violence descending throughout 2010. The latter will be a topic of an upcoming report.
For the Mexican government, the sustained escalation of violence observed during the second half of 2009, along with the increased cruelty of cartels, poses a very serious challenge regarding the effectiveness of its strategy. As we have suggested before, as long as the current strategy of confrontation is not accompanied by the necessary financial intelligence that allows authorities to strip cartels of their financial assets, the ongoing trends of violence are poised to continue.
Finally, just as it happened during the first months of 2009, the persistence of high levels of violence might catapult the Calderon Administration in the coming months into a field of massive criticism—sending waves of alarm around the world about the security situation in the country. Yet, this time around, such criticism would be more justified.
November 17, 2009