Despite recent high-profile cartel arrests, violence and insecurity are likely to continue in Mexico due to power vacuums and infighting, as well as the continued weakness of the state to assert the rule of law throughout the country.
The administration of Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, scored major victories over the past weeks with the capture of two of the country’s top drug lords.
In spite of these successes, violence and insecurity are likely to continue in certain regions of Mexico due to fragmentation and infighting within drug cartels. Corruption and weak rule of law will further compound the problem of insecurity.
Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, Mexico’s most wanted man, was arrested in the violence-wracked state of Michoacan in south-west Mexico on 28 February. Less than a week later, Omar Trevinio Morales, leader of Los Zetas since the arrest of his brother in July 2013, was apprehended in the northern city of Monterrey.
These arrests as well as previous ones, most notably that of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman of the Sinaloa Cartel, are a great success for the government’s policy of “beheading” the cartels by removing their leaders. However, similar successes in the past have not curbed violence, and in some cases, violence and insecurity have increased in the wake of arrests as the resulting power vacuums created internal struggles within the criminal organizations.
The organization “la Tuta,” the Knights Templar, was itself a by-product of infighting among the members of its mother organization, La Familia Michoacan, after the reported death of its leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez in 2010.
The Knights Templar was notorious for its appropriation of Catholic imagery and its control over much of Michoacan, including the state’s main port, Lazaro Cardenas. Control of the state’s infrastructure allowed the Cartel to expand its activities outside the drug trade, most notably the extraction and sale of iron ore.
The situations in Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero are already showing signs of the proliferation of smaller and more numerous armed groups, such as “Los Viagras” who have benefitted from the decline of the Knights Templar.
On the other hand, the semi-legalization of the rural militia – the so-called “auto-defensas” – bears some worrying similarities to the rise of the paramilitary AUC in Colombia. They have already been implicated in colluding with a rival cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion, and different local militias have been fighting amongst one another.
Likewise, following the killing of Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano in 2012, the organization descended into infighting between rival “Zetitas.” The loose federal structure of the organization and its franchise model meant it was more vulnerable to power vacuums after the removal of its leaders.
In fact, despite the presence of some 9,000 marines and federal troops in both Michoacan and Tamaulipas, figures released by the Secretariat of Public Security show that between 2013 and 2014, violence and criminal acts increased by 6% and 21%, respectively, in these two states.
The disappearance of 43 students in late 2014 as a result of state-level corruption in collusion with another small cartel, Guerreros Unidos, demonstrates that weak rule of law, combined with ever-smaller criminal organizations, will continue to undermine security in Mexico.
The recent arrest of 14 members of the federal police for their role in the kidnapping of a businessman in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, demonstrates the ongoing inability of the state to assert the rule of law.
The administration of Peña Nieto will continue to face pressure both at home and abroad to deal with corruption, impunity, and weak rule of law and the resulting violence and human rights abuses that follow.
Until the government asserts greater control at municipal, state, and federal levels, the strategy of “beheading” cartels, whilst providing for positive PR victories, will do little to ease the insecurity that continues to plague parts of the country.