Mexico is currently in the middle of a blood bath. The country has a murder rate of roughly 2,300 homicide victims a month, which translates to a murder every 19 minutes, according to a recent study. If current trends keep up, Mexico is set to end the year with approximately 28,000 murders — its highest number ever — surpassing the morbid 2011 record, when the drug war was thought to have reached its apex.
As levels of violence have surged, they have also spread beyond traditional drug smuggling corridors. Cartels have also evolved from vast, drug-trafficking organizations, led by a handful of kingpins, into smaller networks are more violent, less stable, and aren’t just content with just dealing drugs. What’s more, Trump’s policies are likely to make things in Mexico even worse.
When former President Felipe Calderón first deployed the military against the cartels in 2006, there were roughly half-a-dozen major drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico. Since then, the landscape has changed dramatically. The Gulf cartel, which is one of the country’s oldest trafficking organizations, has lost much of its territory, while the notoriously brutal Zetas have now split into rival warring factions.
New groups have risen up to replace them. Chief among them is the Cartel Nueva Generación Jalisco (CNGJ). Originally formed after splintering from the Sinaloa Cartel in 2010, the CNGJ is now “one of the most powerful and fastest growing cartels in Mexico and the United States”, according to the DEA’s recent National Drug Assessment. The DEA added that CNGJ’s expansion “is characterized by the organizations willingness to engage in violent confrontations.”
“I think the best metaphor for what’s going is the southeastern state of Guerrero,” said Nathan Jones, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University and an expert on drug violence in Mexico. “There are 12 cartels operating there and all fighting…at that point you can’t even call them cartels.” He explained that the dispersal and fragmentation of cartels means that groups are now willing to look to new criminal ventures for profits, including fuel theft, extortion, and even frozen octopus theft.
“As these groups gets disrupted they get profit starved,” he said. “Then they look for even more violent and predatory activities.”
Jones added that U.S. strategies to combat the cartel problem in Colombia during the 1990s didn’t translate to the current situation in Mexico. In Colombia, the killing or arrest of major cartel leaders — including Pablo Escobar in 1993 and six leaders of the Cali cartel in 1995 — generally coincided with a steady drop in violence. However, that U.S.-supported “kingpin strategy” hasn’t had the same effect in Mexico. For example, after Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán was extradited to the United States in January, violence in his home-state of Sinaloa surged.
There’s also the problem of massive inequality and an inefficient governing body, which has aided corruption and driven recruits to the cartels. The country has both an extremely low tax rate (18.4 percent) and extremely low minimum wage (80 pesos, or $4.17, a day). That means the state cannot invest in paying police better, which would help combat corruption, or provide social mobility for the millions struggling on minimum wage.
This, in turn, creates an ideal ground for cartel recruitment and corruption. “The Mexican government hasn’t got it together,” Jones said. “They’re not bringing in taxes to pay officers or to have an effective penal system. And if you’re a poor kid and what upward social mobility what are your options?”
Both Jones and the Mexican security think-tank Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano (ONC) think that the key to stopping the cartels lies in stamping out corruption and instuting respect for the rule of law. But the Trump administration’s policies for combating the cartel scourge are focusing on blunt security measures which are likely to exacerbate the situation further.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions for instance has long advocated against marijuana decriminalization, which helps deprive the cartels of profits. The State Department, which is perhaps best-placed to help Mexico develop anti-corruption measures, is also being gutted. Smugglers say that Trump’s proposed border wall will only make crossing the border more expensive and drive up profits for the cartel. And Trump’s offer to send U.S. troops to combat Mexico’s “bad hombres” would likely have little effect, as cartels make a point of keeping the vast majority of violence on the Mexican side of the border. Short of invading, it’s unclear what the U.S. military would do to stem the violence.
Unless the global community is able to sabotage the cartels’ profits with an international effort to legalize and regulate illegal drugs, and institute a massive clean up of Mexican government corruption, Jones is pessimistic that anything will be able to stop the constant cycle of death and destruction which the cartels have brought to Mexico.
“Instead of the historical left-wing insurgencies, you’re now dealing with a criminal cancer that’s eroding everything,” he explained. “Any military man knows you have to be able to provide [basic stability] for people to eliminate their underlying grievances.”
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that the Mexican minimum wage was $3.54 an hour. It has been updated to reflect the correct number.