Mexican Standoff

Mexico’s War is Hell. It’s Next Door. It’s Getting Worse. Why?

With violence at “historic levels,” and no end in sight, it’s time to ask: What’s gone wrong in Mexico?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Wars are not won by targeting the enemy’s generals and leaving their ground forces intact. That’s not a military campaign; it’s not even a serious strategy.

As Tolstoy notes in War and Peace, the French would still have gone on to invade Russia, even if someone had bumped off Napoleon.

And the same rule applies to fighting organized crime groups. You can’t defeat them by just busting top-dog mobsters, while allowing their armies of henchmen to grow and take over the countryside. Somebody always moves up, and from an historical perspective (here’s looking at you, Prohibition), such trickle-down tactics appear futile.

The powers that be in Mexico, however, would have you believe otherwise.

Our southern neighbor is now home to the second deadliest conflict zone in the world after Syria, according to a recent survey. Although there is some debate about the metrics used in that study, there’s no question that, as of now, the Mexican government is losing the fight against the cartels.

And there’s a good reason for it: The so-called “Kingpin Strategy” employed by military and police in their fight against the cartels has proven itself almost as effective as holding a pocket magnifier over a termite den under a hot sun. You might focus on and fry a few that way, to be sure, but the rest will go right on happily devouring your house.

A Lack of “Pax”

So far, 2017 has been a very rough year for Mexican crime fighters. The regional security plan established by President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013—which divided the country into five zones and included large-scale military deployments—seems to have backfired. Violence is up by as much as 60 percent in the region that includes Sinaloa, where the crime syndicate formerly run by Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán is based. And homicides have increased sharply in each of the other four security zones as well.

As opposed to previous spikes in violence, which tended to be localized, the first five months of this year have seen a nationwide rise in murders—putting it on track to be the worst year for drug war mayhem since such records started to be kept in 1997.

So what’s behind the surging death tolls?  

“Throughout the drug war the Kingpin Strategy has been the primary tool of the Mexican government in counter narcotics operations,” David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico program, tells The Daily Beast.

“The effect of that strategy has been to cause internecine conflicts among criminal organizations that are vying to fill the leadership vacuum,” Shirk says.

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As cartels fragment, they actually become more violent. And Sinaloa State, part of the region that has seen the sharpest rise in violence this year, is a prime example.

“The arrest of Chapo Guzmán was a major contributing factor to the unraveling of the Sinaloa cartel,” Shirk explains, referring to the erstwhile “Pax Sinaloa,” which kept other groups in line. The takedown of Chapo “has allowed for other organizations to rise,” he adds.

“If this is what we get when we take out Chapo Guzmán, I think the average Mexican citizen might question whether it’s worthwhile going after kingpins.”

The splintering of major cartels into small and fractious rival gangs also has accelerated of late, leading to a dog-eat-dog mentality that pits well-armed cartel units against each other in vicious turf wars. Once the gloves come off nobody is safe, and civilians—and especially journalists—have become popular targets.

“If you continue to go after the top guy, [like] Chapo Guzmán, you should expect to see another Chapo with a different name, but the same MO, in a very short period of time,” says Shirk, who is also a professor at the University of San Diego. “Now that we’ve taken out Chapo the question is who’s the next kingpin we’ll have to take out?”

“Hell on Earth”

The fight over plazas—or individual zones dominated by a certain cartel—involves much higher stakes than just narcotics production or shipping routes. Syndicates within a given plaza often control most of the illicit activity that goes on in the territory, including extortion of business owners, prostitution, and even black market organ trafficking.

“The narco trafficking world is changing,” says Emmanuel Gallardo, a Mexico City-based journalist who specializes in frontline coverage of the drug war conflict. Gallardo describes the new, diverse and multi-faceted business models that have emerged as being “like a franchise” with different subsidiaries.

“It’s like a tree and they have branches” for each money-making interest, says Gallardo, in a phone interview with The Daily Beast. Another alteration he points to in the cartel landscape is the increased use of teenaged males as foot soldiers.

So many of these new sicarios (hitmen) are very young, and they have no education. They have it in their minds that to be a sicario is much better than to be working in a factory. They want a truck to show off, or a new cell phone—it’s part of the culture.”

Mexico “has new generations of kids that are growing up in the middle of an armed conflict,” he says.

One of Gallardo’s regular beats is the Tierra Caliente (Hot Lands) region, in western Mexico. The Hot Lands have been wracked by “open warfare” in recent months, Gallardo says, as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) has pushed into the region, displacing older groups like the Knights Templar.

The population of Tierra Caliente “is tired of the cartels treating them like serfs. They kidnap women and use them as sexual slaves, and when they are tired of them they kill them and throw the bodies in the sierra,” Gallardo says.

In places like Tierra Caliente, individual warlords with names like “The Fat One” or “The Fish” rule entire communities like their own personal fiefdoms.

“They use little towns as headquarters, and from there they dispatch units to take over more territory,” Gallardo says. “It really is hell on earth.”

Failure of Democracy

Mexico is a wealthy nation, boasting major reserves of valuable minerals and oil, a booming tourist trade, and dozens of lucrative—and taxable—global companies.

And yet “40 percent of Mexicans live in poverty,” according to Duncan Wood, a security analyst with the Wilson Center. And those squalid conditions create a perfect recruiting ground for the cartels—especially in remote areas of the country.

“The Mexican government has been unwilling or unable to dedicate the resources required to solve the [security] problem in rural areas and smaller towns,” says Wood. While the Peña Nieto administration has had marginal success in going after figureheads like Chapo Guzmán, it’s done little or nothing about “the underlying conditions that facilitate crime and violence in the country.”

Wood also blames the “weakness of local and state-level institutions” for the rising tide of violence engulfing vast swaths of Mexico, and suggests that a whopping “70 percent of Mexico’s mayors are directly or indirectly involved with organized crime.”

Crime groups operating in the hinterlands like Tierra Caliente, “can operate with impunity at the local level because they know there is very little authorities are going to do to stop them,” Wood says.

Police in such regions are “completely outgunned.”

“A local organized crime group will come in and say to local authorities: ‘Either you take the bribe or we come in and kill you and your families.’ There’s no one who’s going to back them up.”

The failure of accountability isn’t limited to remote towns and villages, Wood adds. It starts at the top:

The [Peña Nieto] administration ran out of steam about a year ago,” thanks to a combination of “allegations of corruption at the highest level, [and] a damaged reputation due to Ayotzinapa,” Wood says, referring to the disappearance of 43 student teachers in troubled Guerrero state.

“The political capital of this government is very rapidly dissipating,” he says.

Journalist Gallardo puts it more bluntly:

“Corruption is the cancer that affects everything,” he says. “Law in Mexico is like a fucking circus. Nobody respects the law here.”

David Shirk, of the Justice for Mexico program, agrees that a lapsed regard for due process is at the root of the problem: “In a functional democracy, you’ve got to have an expectation that the laws will be enforced, especially when a person in government violates the law.”

Shirk goes on to mention that Mexico’s current, one-term limit for politicians allows many to get off scot-free for their crimes. “You can win the governorship, steal as much money as you possibly can, and go live in Italy,” Shirk says, since re-election opportunities provide no incentive for good conduct.

The Wilson Center’s Wood, who travels regularly to Mexico for work, says the current security crisis it’s facing will be difficult to resolve without first tackling widespread inequality.

“The heart of the problem [in Mexico] is this: Wealth is concentrated in too few hands.”

Wood describes a “wealthy country with an extraordinarily high concentration of billionaires” that has nevertheless “failed over generations to empower the poorer classes and make them feel like they’re part of the system.”

That failure also works to the advantage of los narcos.

“You combine inequality with ineffective government,” says Wood, “and you have a very toxic situation where organized crime is an alternative for young men—but it’s also a force that very few governmental actors are willing to confront.”

Until Mexico runs out of poor and desperate campesinos (the word literally means “peasant” in Spanish), the cartels will never be short of troops to use as cannon fodder in their battles over plazas.

Top leaders may be hunted down and arrested—but others will instantly rise up to take their place at the top of the pecking order. The names of the groups might change—as with the upstart CJNG, which broke away from Chapo Guzmán’s old outfit, and is now one of the fastest-growing and most powerful crime syndicates in the country—but toes by any other name still smell like feet.

“Poverty, impunity, corruption, lack of education and human rights”: drug war correspondent Gallardo runs down the list of reasons the cartels now have Mexico on the ropes. “As a country, we’re now paying the price for forgetting communities in the middle of nowhere.”

And he doesn’t see the cartels weakening their death grip on Mexico’s heartland any time soon.

“It’s not going to change in 10 or 20 years,” he says, “unless there is a revolution.”