Posted on November 7, 2020

Violent Criminal Groups Are Eroding Mexico’s Authority and Claiming More Territory

Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post, October 29, 2020

This time, the assassins came early. It was 8:30 a.m. when they surrounded the police station in this rural town. The pop-pop-pop of bullets echoed for blocks. By the time security forces arrived, Ricardo Barrón Guzmán lay dead, the second police chief gunned down here in 14 months.

This sleepy town of 13,000, set amid the bean and corn fields of Zacatecas state, used to be known for the heroes it offered to the Mexican Revolution and the migrants it sent to the United States. The police chief’s killing in September reflected its new notoriety: Juan Aldama has become another front in an increasingly complex struggle by crime groups in Mexico to control territory.

The arrest this month of Mexico’s former defense minister stunned the nation, with U.S. prosecutors alleging he had helped a cartel send thousands of kilos of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine to the United States. But the crisis confronting Mexico goes far beyond the occasional headline-grabbing bust.

Organized crime here once meant a handful of cartels shipping narcotics up the highways to the United States. In a fundamental shift, the criminals of today are reaching ever deeper into the country, infiltrating communities, police forces and town halls. A dizzying range of armed groups — perhaps more than 200 — have diversified into a broadening array of activities. {snip}


It can be easy to miss how much the nation’s criminal threat has evolved. Mexico is the United States’ No. 1 trading partner, a country of humming factories and tranquil beach resorts. But despite 14 years of military operations — and $3 billion in U.S. anti-narcotics aid — criminal organizations are transforming the Mexican landscape:

In a classified study produced in 2018 but not previously reported, CIA analysts concluded that drug-trafficking groups had gained effective control over about 20 percent of Mexico, according to several current and former U.S. officials.

Homicides in the last two years have surged to their highest levels in six decades; 2020 is on track to set another record. Mexico’s murder rate is more than four times that of the United States.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes to escape violence; the Mexican Congress is poised to pass the country’s first law to help the internally displaced.

More than 77,000 people have disappeared, authorities reported this year, a far larger total than previous governments acknowledged. It is the greatest such crisis in Latin America since the “dirty wars” of the 1970s and 1980s.

The State Department is urging Americans to avoid travel to half of Mexico’s states, tagging five of them as Level 4 for danger — the same as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Mexican government denies it has lost control of any part of the country. But in a little-noticed passage in its security plan last year, it likened crime groups to insurgents, with “a level of organization, firepower and territorial control comparable to what armed political groups have had in other places.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has created a 100,000-member national guard to reclaim areas with little state presence. It’s not clear that will make a significant difference. Years of Mexican and U.S. strategy — arresting drug kingpins, training Mexican police, overhauling the justice system — have failed to curb the violence.

To describe the crisis, politicians have reached for the language of armed conflict. When nine dual U.S.-Mexican citizens were massacred in Sonora last year, President Trump called for the United States to help Mexico “wage WAR on the drug cartels.”


The fight for territorial control looks different in different parts of Mexico.

In the northwestern state of Sinaloa, the former turf of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a single cartel has prevailed for years. Even with the drug lord in a U.S. prison, the group’s grip is tight: When the military tried to arrest Guzmán’s son Ovidio last year, scores of gunmen besieged the state capital and authorities let him go.

In Guerrero, a state roughly the size of West Virginia, at least 40 armed groups skirmish for domination of towns and businesses ranging from heroin to logging, according to Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group. The situation illustrates the extreme fragmentation of organized crime in some areas.

Police patrol the streets. But in many places, they’re outgunned or intimidated. {snip}

It’s not that drug cartels are new to Zacatecas. For years, they hauled marijuana and cocaine along the roads to the U.S. border. Now the fight “isn’t over the control of a route,” said Ismael Camberos, who until recently served as head of the state security forces. “It’s control of a territory, to do all sorts of illicit activities.”

Four cartels battle for control of fentanyl routes through Zacatecas, while smaller groups rob and extort money from ordinary Mexicans. In northern Zacatecas, where Juan Aldama is located, a faction of the Sinaloa cartel led by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada has moved in. Gunmen in pickups have been seen cruising freely through the area, “MZ” emblazoned on their helmets or guns.

Criminals have threatened more than half of the state’s mayors, according to Gov. Alejandro Tello. The thugs often “condition” local officials to cooperate, said Alma Gloria Dávila, a state lawmaker. “They lock them in the car trunk, drive them around, torture them for a while,” she said. “And then they threaten their families.”

But the problem isn’t just armed groups intimidating authorities. In many communities, the cartels have captured the government from the inside.

There’s perhaps no better example than Nayarit. The Pacific coast state is a magnet for Americans, from the elegant five-star resorts of Punta Mita to the surfer-hip village of Sayulita.

But away from the spectacular beaches, the Sinaloa and H-2 cartels battled for years.


Drug corruption in Mexico has a long history, of course. During decades of authoritarian government, senior federal officials quietly refereed between cartels. State and local authorities fell in line, accepting bribes to look the other way as heroin or marijuana flowed through their states. Mexico’s democratization has changed the equation. Now, local governments are more autonomous. Crime groups increasingly are seeking influence at the municipal and state level, through threats or bribery.

The country’s precarious justice system has proved incapable of checking such graft.

Criminals have received the message, said Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, an expert on Mexican security at the University of California at San Diego. “Impunity creates a sense you can do what you want.”


The Mexican government now recognizes 19 “high impact” crime groups, including two with national reach: Jalisco New Generation and the Sinaloa federation. The International Crisis Group has identified 198 cartels, gangs and regional bands, many of them subcontractors to bigger players. Eduardo Guerrero, head of the security firm Lantia Consultores, counts 231.

The smaller groups “no longer have the infrastructure necessary to dedicate themselves to the export of drugs,” Guerrero said. So they target Mexicans. They kidnap, extort, steal fuel, sell contraband cigarettes and peddle methamphetamine to teenagers. The big cartels have also expanded into such predatory activities, to pay their increasingly well-armed paramilitary wings.

“They don’t just want territorial control to move drugs, but to extract resources from the population,” said Ricardo Márquez, a former top Mexican security official.


There are various reasons Mexico has failed to stem the violence. The government and its allies in Washington have at times misidentified the problem, analysts and former officials say.

Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018, said the country’s cartels were far more sophisticated than authorities initially realized — more akin to multinational corporations than crime gangs. Removing the CEOs wasn’t enough to destroy them.


There was a second miscalculation: the belief that decapitating cartels would fracture them into gangs that could be handled by local police. “The problem is, in Mexico, there is no state-level capacity, no municipal capacity” for tackling crime, said Eric Olson, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

And the groups were often well armed and financed by local criminal activities: kidnapping, extortion, prostitution, migrant smuggling. Authorities “can’t wrap their hands around these organizations, that are to a large extent mini-armies,” said Steven Dudley, co-director of the research group InSight Crime.


Shortly before López Obrador took office in December 2018, the CIA concluded that drug groups controlled about 20 percent of Mexican territory, according to several current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a classified document. {snip}


But homicides, already at historic highs, have continued to rise this year, despite the country’s coronavirus outbreak. Extortion is also up. U.S. agents say Mexico’s narcotics business is booming. “We’ve never seen this amount of meth being produced in Mexico,” said the senior DEA official.