Crime in Mexico
Drug trafficking in Mexico
In 2006, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, in conjunction with the United States, launched a massive crackdown against drug trafficking organizations, escalating a conflict that would contribute to the deaths of tens of thousands of people in drug-related violence. While the United States has supplied funding and intelligence to increase Mexico's institutional capacity to address drug trafficking, its primary focus has been on stanching the flow of drugs into the country and domestic law enforcement. Analysts differ on how to address Mexico's festering internal strife, but a growing number agree that the U.S. war on drugs is a failure and necessitates a new approach. Enrique Peña Nieto, who succeeded Calderón as president in December 2012, has tried to reframe Mexico's image as an investment hotspot while emphasizing a strategy to quell violence against civilians. Meanwhile, gradual moves have been made at the U.S. state level toward legalization and decriminalization of marijuana, one of the primary substances involved in the drug war, raising new questions about overall policy.
Weak judicial and police institutions, as well as proximity to the world's largest consumer economy, have made Mexico the hub of one of the world's most sophisticated drug networks. For decades, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) used Mexico's entrenched political system to create "a system-wide network of corruption that ensured distribution rights, market access, and even official government protection for drug traffickers in exchange for lucrative bribes," writes David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico project at the University of San Diego, in a 2011 CFR report. However, it was not until the late 1980s, in the wake of the successful dismantling of Colombia's drug cartels, that Mexican drug organizations rose to their current prominence. As the Colombian route was disrupted, Mexican gangs shifted from being couriers for Colombia to being wholesalers.
Today, Mexico is a major supplier of heroin to the U.S. market, and the largest foreign supplier of methamphetamine and marijuana. Mexican production of all three of these drugs has increased since 2005, as has the amount of drugs seized at the southwest border, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. More than 90 percent of cocaine now travels through Mexico into the United States, up from 77 percent in 2003. Officials estimate that the drug trade makes up 3 to 4 percent of Mexico's $1.2 trillion annual GDP—totaling as much as $30 billion—and employs at least half a million people.
Mexico's drug cartels have splintered, forged alliances, battled one another for territory, and evolved over the decades. Some of the most prominent organizations today include the Zetas, Sinaloa Cartel, Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Beltran Leyva, and the Knights Templar. Some of these groups, like Sinaloa, are older, more established organizations, while others, like the Knights Templar, have emerged more recently.
Mexico’s War Effort Under Calderón
Corruption and weakness in Mexico's judicial and police sectors have largely allowed the drug trade to flourish. The police are easily bought, in part because of their meager earnings (about $9,000-$10,000 a year), which fall below the average salary for public-sector employees. On the website InSight Crime, Patrick Corcoran says "an underpaid officer could double or triple his salary by simply agreeing to look the other way." Mexico's judicial system—with its autocratic judges and lack of transparency—is also highly susceptible to corruption.
Drug violence was on the rise by the time Calderón took office in 2006 with a pledge to eradicate trafficking organizations, says Shirk. "Moving very aggressively to promote a law-and-order agenda was a deliberate strategy to cope with this chaotic moment," he says of the Calderón administration. Calderón attempted to counter police corruption and combat the cartels by increasing the role of the military in local security efforts, a trend that first began under President Ernesto Zedillo in 1999. Calderón dramatically intensified this effort, deploying tens of thousands of military personnel to supplement, and in many cases replace, local police forces, as well as to lead civilian law enforcement agencies. Under this strategy, the military has made several high-profile arrests and killings of cartel leaders. Through bilateral cooperation with the United States, the military under Calderón killed or captured twenty-five of the top thirty-seven most-wanted drug kingpins in Mexico.
But Calderón's military offensive did little to diminish the cartels' presence. The crackdown on cartel leaders splintered the organizations, creating between sixty and eighty new drug trafficking gangs, according to Mexican secretary of the interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong. Succession battles and territorial rivalries have also intensified. The violence has also branched out beyond the cartels: More than forty mayors and former mayors have been killed, along with dozens of city council members and other municipal leaders. Kidnappings and extortion are commonplace, and massacres of civilians have increased. In February 2014, the government confirmed that 26,000 people remain "disappeared."
The crackdown on cartel leaders splintered the organizations, creating between sixty and eighty new drug trafficking gangs, according to Mexican secretary of the interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong.
Analysts from the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute write that the worst cases of violence are confined to 10 percent of Mexico's municipalities, but observers remain alarmed because of their quick escalation during Calderón's term. According to government figures, total homicides spiked to around 120,000 over Calderón's six-year term—double the figure under the previous president, Vicente Fox.
But because official Mexican government statistics do not differentiate between drug-related deaths and other types of homicides, quantifying the precise toll of the drug war has been a challenge for analysts. The Trans-Border Institute's 2013 report on drug violence in Mexico estimates that during Calderón's term, organized crime–style killingsmade up anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of total homicides in a given year, depending on the sources used to calculate the figures.
The militarization strategy has also resulted in accusations of serious human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch reports that Mexican security officials violated human rights in the offensive against the cartels through killings, torture, and forced disappearances. "Almost none of these abuses are adequately investigated, exacerbating a climate of violence and impunity in many parts of the country," HRW's 2013 report states.
The Committee to Protect Journalists cites Mexico as the seventh-deadliest country for reporters. Traditional media outlets have come to fear reprisals for reporting drug-related crimes, which has led to an increased use of blogs and social-media outlets, although these too have been targeted by the cartels.
Peña Nieto’s Drug War Strategy
Peña Nieto, upon taking office in late 2012, pledged to refocus the government's priorities on curbing kidnappings, extortion, and other forms of violence affecting Mexican civilians on a daily basis. He began his term by centralizing Mexico's security operations under the Interior Ministry, which analysts say improved coordination between intelligence and operations agencies, and calling for judicial reforms. This has resulted in more high-profile captures of drug lords, including Mexico's most wanted kingpin, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán of the Sinaloa Cartel, in February 2014. Shirk writes that one major policy difference between Peña Nieto and Calderón is that Peña Nieto has focused on shifting the government's rhetoric on the drug war: "Whereas the Calderón administration was obsessed with security, President Peña Nieto has been obsessed with not being obsessed with security. An aggressive press campaign has tried to make Mexico the new darling of international investors, as the BRIC countries have begun to lose their luster."
But even while statistics show that the overall homicide rate has dropped during Peña Nieto's first year, InSight Crime notes that extortion and kidnapping have risen, reflecting "increasing diversification of criminal activities in the country."
Rise of the Autodefensas
As drug-related violence and criminal activity have continued in many regions, vigilantes known as autodefensas, or self-defense groups, began to emerge near the end of Calderón's term. Made up largely of farmers in rural areas, the militias have attempted to fight drug traffickers and restore order to towns, filling in where local police have failed. These groups gained momentum and have become a formidable force against the cartels in states like Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacán.
But the autodefensas have presented a dilemma for Mexican officials: While vigilante groups are illegal and undermine state security forces, they have provided an effective short-term means of combating the cartels where police have been unsuccessful. Moreover, concerns have arisen over whether some of these groups are tied to organized crime or whether they may turn on the people they say they are protecting. "The critics are right that the ultimate solution to Mexico's struggle against organized crime lies in the modernization of its security sector," write Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph H. Espach in Foreign Affairs. "But in the near term, the Mexican government may not have the ability or the will to effect dramatic institutional changes, such as creating more police forces. Until it does, policymakers cannot overlook the immediate need to keep the country's communities safe."
Security cooperation between the United States and Mexico expanded significantly with the Mérida Initiative, launched in 2007, which designated nearly $1.4 billion in U.S. funds for Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The bulk of the money went to Mexico, with a mandate to "break the power of organized crime, strengthen the U.S. southern border, improve Mexican institutional capacity, and reduce the demand for drugs," according to CFR's Shannon O'Neil [PDF]. In March 2010, this partnership was renewed with Beyond Mérida, which placed a larger emphasis on addressing the socioeconomic factors underneath the violence.
Over the past few years, the United States has sent unarmed drones to collectintelligence on traffickers, and has also sent CIA operatives and retired military personnel to a Mexican military base, while training Mexican federal police agents to assist in wiretaps, interrogations, and running informants. The United States has alsoramped up security on its own side of the border, spending approximately $3 billion annually on patrolling the border. More than twenty thousand border patrol agents have been deployed, double the number from a decade earlier. U.S.-Mexico cooperation has also been effective in targeting drug kingpins: In a 2013 Congressional testimony, O'Neil said that many of the Mexican government's high-profile arrests or killings of top-level drug lords "resulted from bilateral intelligence and operational cooperation."
However, O'Neil notes, the United States has not made substantial progress combating some of the domestic issues factoring into Mexico's drug war. U.S. drug consumption and demand remain high, and firearms continue to be trafficked into Mexico from the United States. The arms component has been high-profile in recent years due to a controversial U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) gun-trafficking sting known as "Fast and Furious." In 2009, two thousand U.S. weapons were sold to people known to be involved with the drug cartels to track down cartel leaders, but some 1,400 weapons were lost, many of which later turned up at crime scenes, including at the site of a shooting of a U.S. border-patrol agent in December 2010.
Decriminalizing the use and possession of drugs—particularly marijuana—is one of the most argued-for policy options. In 2009, a commission of Latin America experts, including three former presidents from the region, concluded that the drug war required a paradigm shift [PDF] to focus on decriminalization and health services. A 2011 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy [PDF] advocated treatment services instead of arresting users, noting successful decriminalization programs in Portugal and Australia that did not lead to increased drug use in either country.
In November 2012, two U.S. states passed measures to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, signaling growing popular support for decriminalization. Uruguay became the first Latin American country to legalize marijuana use in 2013. Peña Nieto, however, has opposed such measures, calling marijuana a "gateway drug."
While acknowledging that decriminalization would result in fewer U.S. incarcerations, drug policy expert Mark Kleiman questions this strategy in Foreign Affairs, arguing that it would put more drugs into the hands of users and increase the size of Mexico's export market. Instead, he advocates focusing U.S. enforcement efforts on the most violent dealers and dealing organizations while simultaneously working to reduce the drug demand of criminally active heavy users. Frequent drug testing and swift but mild probation and parole for these users has seen remarkable success in programs like Hawaii's HOPE program which has reduced both drug use and days incarcerated.
A major piece of the U.S. and Mexican strategy against cartels has been to target so-called "high-value" individuals or low-level, highly visible "foot soldiers." But Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution advocates aggressively targeting the middle layer, which is integral to the operational capacity of cartels and not as easily replaceable. Their ouster also does not result in the same number of people violently vying for leadership roles. She and other experts support a more hierarchical approach to targeting traffickers, prioritizing those who are most violent rather than "lashing out in an indiscriminate manner whenever any intelligence comes in."
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera
For all the attention the second recapture of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera has received, it would appear that the future of Mexico’s drug war depends on this one man.
It doesn’t. Capturing the leader of Mexico’s largest drug trafficking organization was an important event, but many experts predict it won’t do much to change the fundamental dynamics of a drug war that has left more than 100,000 people deadin Mexico over the last decade.
Here are six things going on in Mexico that show how far the drug war’s impact extends beyond Guzman and his Sinaloa cartel.
#1. The Jan. 2 Assassination Of Gisela Mota
Texmico Mayor Gisela Mota, who had pledged to challenge local drug gangs, was beaten and killed in her home just one day after she took office. The exact reasons behind Mota’s killing remain unclear, but authorities say they suspect the Los Rojosdrug gang ordered the killing and have arrested three men for the crime.
The incident highlights the dangers facing local elected officials in Mexico: Nearly 100 mayors have been assassinated in the decade that has passed since former President Felipe Calderón launched an assault on the country’s drug cartels
#2. High-Profile Corruption Allegations
Humberto Moreira, the former head of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was arrested in Spain this month on money laundering allegations. Moreira has maintained his innocence and was released from jail on Friday, but authorities withheld his passport and barred him from leaving the country while he’s under investigation. News reports say investigators suspect he is tied to the violent Zetas cartel.
The former governor of Coahuila has long faced allegations of embezzling state funds, as public debt in the state skyrocketed more than 100 times in six years under his leadership, to some $35 billion. He has not faced criminal proceedings in Mexico, although members of both major opposition parties have urged the attorney general’s office to investigate the allegation of colluding with the Zetas.
Moreira’s case is not unique. Some 15 Mexican governors have faced corruption allegations since 2000, according to Mexican daily Reforma. Three of them were jailed, although only one remains in prison, the publication reports. Corruption is a widespread problem in Mexico that makes it difficult for policymakers and law enforcement to rein in drug traffickers.
#3. Homicides On The Rise
Mexico registered a 7.6 percent increase in the number of homicide victims last year, reversing a three-year trend in which killings had decreased. While officials had been quick to celebrate the decreasing rate of homicides from 2011 to 2014, the setback in 2015 shows that they officials have a long way to go before containing the country’s drug war violence.
#4. The Forced Disappearance Of Thousands
The U.S.-backed dictatorships of Latin America instituted the brutal practice of abducting suspected political opponents, often killing them and leaving no trace of their bodies. Spanish speakers coined the term “desaparecido” — someone who is “disappeared” — to describe the phenomenon. Mexico has registered some 27,600 such forced disappearances in recent years.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International say Mexico’s security forces have in many instances carried out forced disappearances, including those of 43 teachers college students in the town of Iguala. That case has become the rallying cry of an international protest against President Peña Nieto’s administration, and the impunity Mexican security forces enjoy more generally.
#5. Sweeping Judicial Reform
One way Mexico hopes to confront crime and corruption is by revamping its criminal justice system, a years-long reform effort aimed at professionalizing the police and improving the courts. A central piece of that reform is the implementation of oral trials to replace the current system, which largely relies on written testimony submitted to a judge who decides the case behind closed doors.
The change is moving slowly. As of November, only eight states had implemented the new system for federal proceedings, leading to only two trials “like those in the movies,” according to Reforma. The deadline for the transition has been set for July 18.
“It probably will take a generation to see real results from this system,” Octavio Rodriguez, a legal scholar with the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego, said last week at a panel in Washington, D.C. “The ones who are going to be the key difference, the ones who will really generate this change, are the students, the ones who are now in the law schools in Mexico.”
#6. Guns From The U.S. Pouring Into The Country
Some 70 percent of the firearms authorities in Mexico confiscated between 2009 and 2014 originated in the United States, according to a Government Accountability Office report published this month. Most were purchased legally at shops or gun shows in the U.S. Southwest and trafficked illegally into Mexico, the report says. Nearly half of U.S. gun shops depend on Mexican demand for their survival, according to a 2013 joint study by the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute and Igarapé Institute.
Mexican officials have long pressed the United States to limit gun sales in an effort to stem the flow of illegal weapons. Both the current administration in Mexico and the one that preceded it have fruitlessly appealed to elected officials in the U.S. to reinstitute the country’s assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. The GAO report, however, also cites corruption among some Mexican law enforcement as a major barrier toward cooperation to slow the flow of gun trafficking.
Video 1 - Gangs Drug Cartel War in Mexico
Video 2 "El Chapo: CEO of Crime"
Video 3 Los Zetas The Hardest Drug Cartel
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