Violence in Mexico reached new levels in 2010 with killings totaling 15,273. The dead included innocent bystanders, drug cartels members and police and security forces. Since 2006, according to data released by the Mexican government, 34,612 have been killed. In Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, out of a population of 1 million, 3,100 were killed in 2010. The states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Michoacan and Guerrero have witnessed the brunt of the violence. Despite the thousands killed in Mexico, violence is relatively low compared to its regional neighbors. According to government data, in Mexico there were 18.4 murders per 100,000, in Brazil the number is significantly higher with 25 per 100,000, in Colombia 37 per 100,000 and in El Salvador the number is even higher at 61.
The perception that Mexico is experiencing such high murder rates in comparison to its neighbors is explained by how these victims are killed and disposed of. The deaths tend to be gruesome by Western standards with victims turning up headless and in mass graves. Other methods of execution are hangings from bridges while the victims are alive or after they have been killed. In May of 2010, 55 bodies were found deep inside a silver mine in the town of Taxco and in June of 2010, six bodies were found in a cave in Cancún. Additionally, near the town of Acapulco in the state of Guerrero, over a dozen Mexican tourists were found in a mass grave. Killings in Cancún and Acapulco are putting a severe drain on the Mexican economy which is heavily dependent on tourism.
Despite a GDP growth rate of 5% in 2010, the violence threatens to reverse economic advances. Tourists in Mexico spent $14 billion between January to October of 2008. The violence does not just occur in Mexico. U.S. authorities have included around 230 American cities where Mexican drug cartels have built distribution networks and made connections with American gangs. These cities include Atlanta, Billings, Anchorage and Boston. In 2009 there were a significant number of home invasions in Tucson, Arizona by members of drug cartels.
At the beginning of 2011 two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were gunned down while driving their vehicle on a highway near Mexico City. Agent Jaime Zapata was killed while his colleague Victor Avila was wounded and later released from a hospital. Two theories have been given for the attack. Either they were targeted because they were U.S. federal agents or because the drug cartel wanted their vehicle.
Kidnappings are also an endemic problem in Mexico, where popular targets are the wealthy. To avoid being targeted by kidnappers, a number of families have either relocated entirely to the United States or some have sent their children abroad. In El Paso, in 2007, during the escalating violence across the border, home prices rose 5.5% partly driven by Mexican homebuyers escaping the violence. While past administrations have made accommodations to the DTOs (drug trafficking organizations), President Felipe Calderón made combating these groups a top priority for his administration. As a result of this focus, violence has escalated since he assumed the presidency.
June S. Beittel of the Congressional Research Service makes the point, “Drug-related violence in Mexico has spiked in recent years as drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have competed for control of smuggling routes into the United States…Although previous Mexican governments had accommodated some drug trafficking in the country, when President Felipe Calderón came into office in December 2006 he made battling the Mexican drug trafficking organizations a top priority. He has raised spending on security and sent thousands of troops and federal police to combat the DTOs in states along the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the country. In response to the government’s crackdown, the DTOs have responded with escalating violence.”
The high numbers of executions and random and targeted killings are due to drug cartels battling each other for control of the lucrative drug trade and concurrently battling the government. In the east of Mexico the Los Zetas and Gulf Cartel are fighting each other and in the Chihuahua state the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels are fighting for control of that area.
With the drug trade estimated to generate roughly $13 billion a year from exports in cocaine and heroine to the United States, the corruption within the Mexican police is endemic. Mexican police officers are typically underpaid. For this reason the cartels have used their resources to bribe a significant number of them. To address this development the government of Felipe Calderón has dismissed many police in the border towns and reallocated military units to those areas. While this has made a dent in the profits of some cartels the use of military units and Federal police have increased the numbers of those killed through street battles and raids on cartel safe houses.
However, the strategy has met with some success. A significant amount of drugs have been seized and cartel members have been jailed or killed. Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, known as “The Craziest One,” “El Chayo” and also “The Doctor,” leader of the La Familia cartel, was killed in a shootout with Federal police late last year and Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, also known as “Tony Tormenta” and “Tony the Storm,” leader of the Gulf Cartel was killed in a shootout with the Mexican military last year in the town of Matamoros.
Mexico has strict gun laws and because of this the cartels rely on sources in the to U.S. to secure weapons. The cartels have been aided and abetted by lax gun laws in the United States. In the last four years 60,000 guns purchased directly from the U.S. have been recovered in Mexico. These weapons include AK-47s, AR-15s and high caliber sniper rifles. Because of U.S. gun laws, many of the arms traffickers sending weapons south to Mexico can simply go from gun shop to gun shop and purchase significant numbers of firearms.
The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) has attempted to staunch the flow of guns through programs like Project Gunrunner. Launched in 2006, the program enlists hundreds of ATF agents who attempt to inspect gun dealers to insure that they are compliant with federal law. The program also traces weapons used in Mexico back to the gun shop or dealer who originally sold the weapon.
While Project Gunrunner has proven effective Congress and the significant influence of the gun lobby and in particular the NRA has hampered its effectiveness. The state of Texas alone has 3,800 gun retailers. Violence in Mexico is directly related to the demand for drugs in the United States. Without a coherent national plan to combat addictions in the U.S. the violence will never be dealt with effectively in Mexico. The continued violence has forced the Calderón administration to reconsider its staunch opposition to the legalization of lesser drugs like marijuana. President Calderón suggested last year, “It’s a fundamental debate in which I think, first of all, you must allow a democratic plurality [of opinions].” The president continued, “You have to analyse carefully the pros and cons and the key arguments on both sides.”
Americans also have called into question U.S. laws and what impact they have on the violence in Mexico. The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson suggested, “I’m not exactly for the use of drugs, don’t get me wrong, but I just believe that criminalizing marijuana, criminalizing the possession of a few ounces of pot, that kinda thing it’s just, it’s costing us a fortune and it’s ruining young people…Young people go into prisons, they go in as youths and come out as hardened criminals. That’s not a good thing. ”
In developing a coherent plan to deal with the continuing violence in Mexico, it is important to consider every approach even the legalization of non-lethal drugs like marijuana along with an increased presence on the U.S. and Mexican border. The Obama administration has accomplished the latter.