By Antônio Sampaio, Research Associate for Security and Development
This year’s IISS Armed Conflict Survey sheds light on one of Latin America’s crucial policy issues: violence sparked by organised-crime groups reaching the levels of an armed conflict. This assessment of violence in the region is based on more than numbers, although the 39,000 people killed in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in 2016 indicate a security crisis much more complex and serious than most other countries in the region. Mexico’s 2016 intentional homicide total, 23,000, is second only to Syria.
It is very rare for criminal violence to reach a level akin to armed conflict. But this has happened in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) and, especially, Mexico. In all four countries, armed forces have been deployed for many years specifically to fight criminal gangs and, in the case of Mexico, transnational drug-trafficking cartels, with military-grade weapons and vast financial resources. In all four countries, criminal groups have ambitious territorial claims: they fight amongst themselves and use arms to challenge the state directly for local control. Unlike traditional political conflicts, these criminal conflicts are fought to establish autonomous territories, not to pursue national politico-ideological goals.
All four countries have suffered the impact of violent criminal groups for many years. This is not a one-off wave of banditry but a truly strategic challenge, threatening the fundamental components of the state: business activity, socio-economic development, the functioning of institutions and the rule of law.
Whereas the Northern Triangle has seen modest improvements in homicide numbers over the past year, Mexico has not. It is here that organised crime is most visible, and most politically and socially disruptive. And the problem is getting worse.
Huge rise in murder total
As the Armed Conflict Survey shows, intentional homicides jumped by 22.8% from 2015 to 2016. Violence continues to increase. The first two months of 2017 were the most violent January and February on record, with 3,779 homicide cases registered by the authorities. The following month was even worse: March 2017 saw 2,020 murders. This was the highest monthly tally since June 2011, a bloody moment in the midst of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’. In December 2006, President Felipe Calderon deployed the armed forces to the streets with the mission of crushing the cartels. But the resulting conflict brought misery to Mexico: 105,000 people lost their lives in intentional homicides between that month and November 2012.
The recent return to 2011 murder rates is a symbolic moment – President Enrique Pena Nieto started his administration promising a less militarised approach to the fight against drug cartels, a step away from the ‘war on drugs’ strategy. But Pena Nieto is nowhere near fulfilling his original plan of reducing the military presence on the streets. On the contrary, the go-to solution to the recurrent security crisis has been the dispatch of federal forces, frequently military ones, in place of inefficient, badly equipped and often corrupt local police forces.
Numerous examples illustrate how Mexico’s violence has reached a level akin to armed conflicts. On 1 May criminals opened fire on a patrol of the Mexican Navy, one of the most capable combat forces in Mexico, killing one marine. The resulting gunfight also left six suspected criminals dead. Several small criminal groups operate in the area and so far it has been difficult to determine the true instigators of the attack. The groups’ territorial and financial ambitions also leave profound scars on the civilian population: the National Human Rights Commission has revealed that 35,433 people were forcefully displaced between 2007 and early 2016.
Militarisation brings criminal gangs success
Why has organised crime become so aggressive and brutal in Mexico? The roots of the conflict lie deep within Mexico’s weak institutions and insufficient socio-economic development. But the most recent wave of violence can be traced back to a militarisation, an arms race of sorts, by criminal groups seeking the most effective tools of intimidation against rivals and the state. The aim of the gangs was autonomy – over urban territories and illicit economies such as cocaine smuggling, heroin production and, increasingly, synthetic drugs laboratories.
The first truly sustained strategy of militarised criminality in Mexico took place under Los Zetas, a criminal group founded by a group of deserters from the Mexican armed forces. The group conducted an aggressive recruitment drive in neighbouring Guatemala to attract members of the Kaibilies – a Guatemalan special force that gained a reputation for brutality during the country’s civil war in the 1980s. In the Calderon years, Los Zetas went from a small gang to a nationwide criminal organisation, leaving a trail of decapitated bodies and grim massacres in its wake.
Following arrests and the killings of several top leaders the cartel declined rapidly. But what came afterwards has shown the enduring effectiveness of this militarised criminality. Another organisation, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, adopted a similar strategy with similar results: in 2013 it was a small criminal group with only a local impact but is now one of the main criminal empires in today’s Mexico, rivalling the mighty Sinaloa Cartel in terms of resources and territorial presence. It also adopts an aggressive strategy of frontal assaults on the police and armed forces.
As I warned in April 2015, the cartel is pursuing a sustained strategy of hyper-violent criminality, designed to scare local people, deter rivals (including the state) from attempting territorial grabs and maximise the incentives for businesses to pay extortion taxes. The Jalisco Cartel is currently fighting for important criminal markets in the three Mexican states that experienced the sharpest increases in homicide numbers last year: Colima (which saw a three-fold rise), Veracruz and Zacatecas.
Underlying these criminal dynamics is the institutional weakness and pervasive corruption that have plagued the Mexican state. The police has been a particularly problematic institution in Pena Nieto’s administration. This is highlighted by the most high-profile crime of his time in office – the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from a teachers’ college in Guerrero state, following a protest against a local political family with links to the United Warriors criminal group. Investigators believe that local police officers abducted the students and handed them over to the United Warriors, who tortured and murdered them – although so far the case remains unsolved.
Reform of the police system is crucial if the Mexican government is to react to this explosion in criminal violence. But Pena Nieto has not been as pro-active on security as on other issues, such as the opening up of the energy sector to foreign investment and reform of the education system. Following the students’ disappearance, he resurrected an old proposal to abolish municipal police agencies and place officers directly under state governments’ oversight. This proposal has a real chance of improving police performance – but so far has been stalled in Congress.
Mexico needs speed and policy innovation if it is to change its security strategy. Latin America has seen some success in reducing criminal violence: cities such as Medellín in Colombia and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil have been able to reduce crime rates significantly over the past decade, through multidimensional policies involving military, law enforcement, urban planning, infrastructure and technology. These lessons have been well studied, but they are expensive and complicated to implement. Nevertheless, given current trends Mexico will need to invest in significant policy discussions, followed by decisive political action, in order to change its security landscape.
For more on the methodology behind our study, read Is Mexico really in a state of conflict?
Read more in the Armed Conflict Survey 2017, which provides in-depth analysis of the key political, military and humanitarian developments and trends in all active armed conflicts, as well as data on fatalities, refugees and internally displaced persons.