SITUATION UPDATE 23 August, 2022 Back
Situation Update -cartel-related violence in Mexico
- Various areas of Mexico have witnessed outbreaks of violence in recent weeks, most of which have been attributed to criminal organisations and cartels.
- Whilst cartel-related activity is most prominent in Mexico’s border areas, port cities and states that host lucrative drug trade routes, tourist areas as well as Mexico City are also at risk.
- Most violence typically occurs between rival cartels and with security forces; however, bystanders have sometimes been inadvertently caught in the crossfire.
- Mexico’s current strategies to counter cartel-related activity appear to be largely ineffective in some areas.
- In response to ongoing violence, thousands of National Guard personnel have been deployed to areas of particular risk. However, this has increased the risk of confrontations between criminal groups and security forces.
- Cartel-related activity is expected to continue until more effective reforms are implemented by the government. Protests against ongoing violence in the country are likely.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is urging for calm across the country after a series of violent outbreaks, most of which have been attributed to cartels. He stated during an address on 15 August that “there is governance, there is stability”, yet the situation throughout large parts of the country suggests otherwise. Drug cartels in Mexico are in a state of near-constant conflict with law enforcement agencies, the Mexican armed forces, as well as rival criminal groups, and the authorities appear unable to effectively control the violence.
The country’s northern states have been particularly impacted by a recent spate of arson attacks, clashes, and shootings. Notably, on 12 August, a series of barricades, often referred to locally as “narcobloqueos”, were implemented on roadways in various cities within the northwestern state of Baja California, including in Ensenada, Mexicali, Rosarito, Tecate, and Tijuana. Multiple businesses, schools and recreational spaces closed across Baja California for security reasons, whilst dozens of vehicles were set alight across the state, including in Tijuana, where the US consulate issued a temporary shelter in place instruction to its employees. Mexican officials have blamed the violence in Baja California on members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), who had reportedly called for an “unofficial curfew”. Rumours of the curfew postulated that anyone outside during the night could be subjected to violence, leading some residents to leave Tijuana for a short period. Although the rumours turned out to be false, their plausibility highlights the power which some cartels possess.
Whilst the situation in Baja California appears relatively calmer than earlier this month, tensions remain high. The situation in Baja California is part of a wider trend of violence across Mexico, and while the motive for the 12 August violence remains unclear, it is a possibility that CJNG members carried out the attacks in retaliation against the arrest of a prominent CJNG leader amid in Guanajuato and Jalisco several days prior. On 9 August, a series of gunfights erupted between Mexican security forces and groups of heavily armed individuals at several locations in the central state of Guanajuato and the western state of Jalisco. Suspected CJNG members also erected roadblocks and set fire to dozens of shops in several towns across the two states, allegedly as a response to military-led raids targeting their leaders. Conducting arson attacks and creating roadblocks are thought to be methods with which gang members prevent the authorities from transporting detained cartel leaders.
Violent incidents can also spread from relatively isolated locations to public spaces, such as on 11 August in Ciudad Juárez in the border state of Chihuahua, when two rival cartels clashed in a prison, with the incident sparking a riot in the town. Members of the Los Mexicles reportedly set fire to multiple businesses and shot nine bystanders, though it is unclear if the members of the public were explicitly targeted or caught in the crossfire. Areas frequented by foreign visitors, including hotels and restaurants in resort towns, are also becoming increasingly impacted by cartel-related violence as criminal organisations vie for control of the lucrative drug trade popular resort cities such as Playa del Carmen, Cancún and Tulum in Quintana Roo State demand. For example, in March 2022 one person was killed and three others were injured during a shooting at a nightclub in downtown Cancún. Later, on 14 August, two gunmen opened fire at the Roof Bar along Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen, injuring two people, including a foreign national. While authorities have yet to comment on a potential motive, it is likely that this shooting was due to a drug-related dispute.
Despite the high-volume of security forces, the country’s capital, Mexico City, is also susceptible to cartel-related activity likely due to its status as the country’s financial centre. On 12 July, suspected members of the Sinaloa cartel were involved in an armed exchange with the police in the south of the city, leading to 14 arrests alongside a seizure of drugs and weapons. Although the operation was considered successful, the incident nonetheless raised concerns that the level of violence perpetrated by criminal organisations in other areas of the country may spread to the capital, which is perceived to be more secure.
President López Obrador previously signalled his favourability towards a reorganisation of the country’s counter-cartel strategy, known as his “hugs, not bullets” doctrine. The policy seeks to combat the root causes of cartel activity by reducing poverty and creating social programmes, rather than deploying force to disrupt criminal gangs. Thus-far, the policy appears ineffective, given the level of cartel-related violence perpetrated during 2022. Although this may in-part be due to a lack of proper implementation, the recent surge of attacks and clashes has nevertheless led President López Obrador to deploy the armed forces in increasing numbers to locations where violence is particularly high.
In response to the recent waves of violence across the country, Mexican authorities deployed several thousand troops to the streets in a show of force against the criminal gangs. Approximately 200,000 soldiers are currently deployed across the country, which constitutes the highest number since Mexico began its fight against cartels in 2006. Yet, the armed forces alone appear to be incapable of managing the situation which is continuing to escalate and impacting traveller safety alongside business operations.
Analysis and Implications
Although 2021 statistics suggest there was a slight decrease in violence in Mexico compared to previous years, violent crime persisted at significantly high levels, a trend which has continued into 2022. With many incidents of crime often going unreported, crime rates are likely higher than official records show. Much of the violence across Mexico has been attributed to organised crime groups and cartels, of which Mexico’s Centre for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) estimates there are at least 150 operating in the country. High levels of cartel-related violence in Mexico are driven by several factors, including alleged ineffective government strategies, widespread corruption, the prominence of profitable illicit operations and deepening rivalries between groups.
President López Obrador’s “hugs, not bullets” doctrine is seen by his critics as an ineffective strategy that partly normalises cartel activity; yet his more recent approach of deploying armed forces in large numbers is also not without its complications. The capacity possessed by some criminal groups degrades the armed forces’ efficacy, as highlighted by a recent incident in Michoacán State, in which the cartel-affiliated Pueblos Unidos defence group kidnapped 25 National Guard personnel in an apparent retaliation for a security operation in Uruapan during which the army arrested 167 Pueblos Unidos members and seized a consignment of 200 weapons. After a series of negotiations, Pueblos Unidos released its kidnappees, although the authorities declined to state whether they made any concessions.
Nonetheless, if an effective counter-cartel strategy was implemented, it is unlikely that criminal gangs would possess the capacity to kidnap National Guard personnel.
In some cases, Mexico’s armed forces have elected to act as peacekeepers rather than law enforcers, a strategy that poses challenges in combatting the criminal groups. In Michoacán, the army has constructed checkpoints separating territory between the Viagras and CJNG cartels. Although the method may reduce inter-cartel violence in some locations, it does little to reduce their overall prominence, with the armed forces sometimes neglecting to combat their other illicit activities. This policy speaks to an increasing level of normalcy regarding the cartels in such areas, which could in-part be attributed to the previous “hugs, not bullets” doctrine. Furthermore, on 12 August the mayor of Tijuana, Montserrat Caballero, requested the cartels to only collect bills from those who have not paid for their products and services. The comments have attracted both praise and criticism, whereby some have suggested the mayor is taking a novel approach by facing reality, whereas others have suggested she may expand the normalisation of cartel activity. Indeed, appealing for a criminal group to act responsibly rather than cease all operations suggests that cartel activity is becoming an accepted norm of Mexican society, providing the impact on the safety of the general population is minimal.
Bribery and other forms of corruption are considered widespread in Mexico, with the country ranked at joint 124th out of 180 nations included in the 2021 Corruption Places Index (CPI), with 180 being the most corrupt. The situation is exacerbated by high rates of unemployment and stagnant wages, leading some officials to seek out an alternative source of income, including illicit activities. Police officers and soldiers are often exploited by cartel members seeking additional protection or immunity.
Despite bribery facilitating some cooperation between cartels and law enforcement agencies, corrupt officials are at an increased risk of being targeted by criminal gangs if they are perceived to act against their interests. Though, such incidents appear to have a minimal impact on dissuading law enforcement officers and soldiers from getting involved in cartel activity.
Along with poor economic conditions, the prevalence of profitable illicit operations in Mexico provides cartels with an attractive business model. Increasing levels of fentanyl addiction in the US can provide drug-trafficking groups with a reliable income. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) stated that two Mexican cartels are primarily responsible for the laboratory-made painkiller's influx into the country and the organisation emphasised that the effortlessness with which the drug is produced, contributes to the cartels’ ease of operation, suggesting that the groups could theoretically acquire a near-unlimited amount. Sustainable profit not only serves to motivate existing cartels but supports the creation of new groups looking to take a share of the market which, in turn, could lead to more clashes between rival gangs seeking to guard their business.
People trafficking also serves as a solid income generator for criminal gangs. Incumbent US authorities have pursued a more relaxed policy regarding the deportation of illegal immigrants than the administration of former President Donald Trump. Alongside drug trafficking, cartels are thought to facilitate illegal border crossings into the US for financial gain and with the chances of deportation lower than several years ago, criminal groups in the north of Mexico are making greater profits by attracting more “customers”; thus, allowing them to fuel their other illicit operations and acquire more weapons with which attacks can be conducted.
In response to high levels of criminal activity, motivated by the aforementioned factors, the US State Department recently updated its travel advice with warnings ranging from “Exercise Increased Caution” to “Do Not Travel”, applying to all but two of Mexico’s 32 states. The advisories all cite crime as the reason behind the guidance, underscoring the widespread prevalence of criminal organisations and cartel-related activity. Although violence is usually directed against rival groups and Mexican security forces, incidents often take place in public spaces, meaning bystanders could become inadvertently impacted. Additionally, whilst the presence of soldiers is aimed at quelling hostilities, it could also aggravate criminal groups who seek to operate with impunity to clash with security forces as a method of retaliation for arrests. Past incidents have seen bystander casualties and damage to businesses.
Nonetheless, at least one cartel has taken steps to self-regulate their operations to pose a minimal impact on the general public. In July, a video circulated online purportedly originating from the CJNG during which its members urged that fighting should be limited between rival-groups and not involve bystanders. Yet, recent outbreaks of violence, including in Guadalajara, Playa del Carmen, Juarez and Tijuana has shown that the request has gone largely unheeded.
As well as impacting traveller safety, cartel-related violence has degraded business operations in some parts of Mexico. For example, following a spate of arson attacks on 12 August in Mexicali, multiple shops in the city reported a decline in footfall as customers elected to stay at home. Amidst perceived ineffective counter-cartel strategies, widespread corruption, and a prevalence of illicit profit-making opportunities, it is unlikely that cartel-related violence will decrease in the near term unless the Mexican government introduces reforms and a comprehensive anti-cartel methodology. Instead, the situation may further deteriorate as the global economic situation may drive people further towards criminality for sources of income.
The recent violence across multiple parts of Mexico could also lead to demonstrations, as people seek to voice frustration not only with the country’s high levels of criminal activity but also the authorities' perceived ineffective responses to the situation. Such events can rapidly deteriorate, turning violent and leading to wide array of associated disruptions; thus, all protests should be bypassed to limit the risk to traveller safety.
- Amend travel itineraries if deemed necessary, taking into account the official advice issued by the traveller’s respective government or embassy.
- Exercise good situational awareness and practice a heightened sense of caution, particularly in areas considered a higher risk.
- In the event of cartel-related violence, shelter in place and heed all instructions issued by local officials.
- Keep abreast of reputable national and international news reports for the latest situational updates.