Potential Hot Spots: Mexico Cartel War Update

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May 9, 2018: According to official figures, in Mexico during 2017 29,168 people were murdered. Some groups that follow the situation contend the figure is a bit higher and they blame the difference on government reporting procedures. In the specific cases the different figures matter, but in the aggregate they tell the same story: the death toll since December 2006 when the (drug) Cartel War began now exceeds 207,000.

According to government figures, 2,729 were murdered during March 2018. If that is accurate, it is a record for the month of March. According to government figures, from January to March 2018, 7,667 were murdered. That is about 85 homicide victims a day and indicates there will be more than 30,000 murders in 2018. It is also the most violent first three months on record. How many of these murders are drug war related? Fair question. But authorities concede most of the victims were slain in organized crime-related incidents.

As a result of all this the national murder rate is moving up again and is now 20.5 per 100,000 people. That change has been very unpopular with Mexican voters. In 2015 the murder rate was 16 per 100,000. The high point was in 2011 (22 per 100,000.) It came down after that, to about 15 per 100,000 but now is on the rise again. Mexico has always been very violent and the murder rate was 17 per 100,000 in the mid-1990s. Mexico does not have the highest murder rate in Latin America. Currently that dubious record belongs to El Salvador (60.8) followed by Venezuela where the rate is 57 and rising. In neighboring Colombia the rate is 27 and falling.

Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa have murder rates of at least 20 per year per 100,000. North Africa is 5.9, the U.S. is 5, Europe is 3.5 and Asia is 3.1. While Americans always fear that the Mexican cartels will bring violence, as well as addictive drugs into the country, the actual distribution of the drugs is handled by local gangs. Some of these are composed of Spanish-speakers and many of them are illegal migrants. But the local distributors know that violence is bad for business, especially in areas that are well policed. In Mexico the dynamics are different and the number of drug related deaths much higher.

In Mexico government figures also tell another compelling story. Since Enrique Pena Nieto became president in December 2012, almost 105,000 people have been murdered. That exceeds the 102,859 murdered when Felipe Calderon was president (December 2006-December 2012). Recall that Pena promised to wind down the Cartel War and end the Mexican military's central role in that conflict. He argued that the military's training was incompatible with policing. Well, it is. But the Cartel War has not wound down and the Mexican military is still deeply involved in fighting it.

Here's a telling fact that shows how wrong Pena was in 2012: Pena's administration wrote and supported the new Internal Security Law, which was approved in December 2017. That law gives the Mexican military a legal framework for conducting public-security operations against organized crime syndicates. The law legalized operations the military had been conducting since 2006 on an ad hoc, look the other way basis; like arresting cartel leaders and gunmen, patrolling highways and setting up roadblocks. The law also gives Mexico's president the right to deploy military units as rapid reaction forces to meet criminal threats.

As of May 2018, government officials say the Sinaloa cartel and Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG) are the most powerful and best organized criminal operations in the country. Several "cartel hotspots" remain where the military is the preeminent security force, and they remain for two reasons. Municipal and state police do not have the ability to confront the criminal organizations. Why? They are either incompetent or too corrupt. The second reason: federal police lack the firepower and logistics sustainability to defeat the more powerful cartels. What's left? The Mexican Army and the Mexican Navy.

Why has the violence continued? Several analysts contend success has a role. American and Mexican law enforcement agencies have captured, jailed, and in many cases convicted numerous key cartel commandantes. That's good. But in the field, that has created "sub-cartels," violent factions fighting turf wars. The intelligence agencies call it "fragmentation." That's a good word.

According to the U.S. officials, Guerrero, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa and Colima are the most dangerous Mexican states. Recent reports support that assessment. In March 2018 the Mexican Army ordered 1,200 troops to launch a surprise attack on the Los Viagras criminal gang in Michaocan's Tierra Caliente region. However, Mexican citizens in Michoacan state say they cannot reply on the military for protection.

The action in Tamaulipas state -- which borders Texas-- has been dramatic. The army conducted a raid in Nuevo Laredo at the end of April 2018 that demonstrates why the Cartel War is a military matter. Soldiers uncovered four different weapons caches that they believed belonged to a Los Zetas cartel faction. Raid One: 11 AR-15 rifles, 33 AK-47 rifles. Raid Two: 24 rifles, several grenade launchers and "many" Mexican marine uniforms. Raids Three and four: 14-rifles (most of the automatic), 13 rocket launchers and over 100,000 rounds of ammo.

In Reynosa, another city in Tamaulipas, around 460 people have been killed in drug gang related violence since February 2017. Why? Two rival groups that once belonged to the Gulf cartel are fighting for control of the city. Violence occurs elsewhere. In December 2017 Veracruz state officials claimed they had "ended the activities" of the armed Sombra (Shadow) criminal organization. In January and February 2018 a new round of violence erupted.

Jalisco state continues to experience cartel violence to the point that federal authorities quietly concede Operation Jalisco has failed. That operation began in May 2015. It was supposed to eliminate the CJNG.

In February 2018 the Mexican Army sent a rapid response force of some 400 soldiers to Tijuana (Baja California state) to help local security forced quell an outbreak of cartel violence. The mayor of Tijuana conceded that his city had trouble recruiting qualified police officers and he did not want to lower the qualifications.

The Cartel War continues. (Austin Bay)

 

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