National Security

Is Mexico a Failing State?

My ranch in Southwest Texas is only 75 miles from the Del Rio/Ciudad Acuña border with Mexico. A border patrol station is located a few miles from our ranch gate. Multiple reports from the border patrol station indicate violence in Mexico is on the rise, stoking alarm both inside and outside the country.

The violence in Mexico raises the issue of potential spillover violence and lawlessness in the US. This would likely lead to a redefinition of the bilateral relationship. The increased violence in Mexico has the potential to fundamentally alter its economy, political systems, international relations, and impact its relations with the US. The geopolitical significance is due to the proximity of the two nations.

In the case of Mexico, reports of increasing violence, particularly organized crime-related violence, merit a closer look because Mexico is an emerging market and harbors ambitions to get out from under the thumb of the United States.

The country, in general, has suffered its deadliest year of murders in 2017 — it was Mexico’s most violent year on record. Clashes between rival drug gangs contributed to a record number of murders in Mexico last year, according to official data, dealing a fresh blow to President Enrique Pena Nieto’s pledge to bring gang violence under control with presidential elections due in July 2018.

In recent months, about a dozen politicians, officials, and candidates for elected office, as well as many journalists reporting on the issues, have been killed in states where there are struggles between criminal groups for the control of drug trafficking routes.

US Travel Advisory

The US State Department issued new travel advisories for five Mexico states. US citizens are being told not to travel to the states of Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, or Tamaulipas due to widespread violent crime and gang activity.

The State Department had previously discouraged travel to all or part of the five states’ territories, but the new warnings are sterner, placing the drug-and crime-plagued states on the same warning level as Somalia, Yemen, Syria, or Afghanistan.

Mexico as a whole has a level-two rating, “exercise increased caution” in the new four-level alert system, because of concerns about crime. But an additional 11 Mexican states got a level-three warning, “reconsider travel.” Mexico has 31 states, half of which are under level 3 or 4 warnings.

“Exercise increased caution in Mexico due to crime… violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, car-jacking, and robbery, is widespread,” it said.

The advisory underscored the limitations that the US government faces in providing emergency services in many areas of Mexico — US government employees are prohibited from traveling to those areas.

Colima – Mexico’s Most Violent State

The Pacific coastal state of Colima has seen a dramatic rise in the number of murders in the last two years. Once considered one of the safest states in the country, Colima’s murder rate jumped three-fold between 2015 and 2016, according to the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

This is by far the largest increase in crime of any state in a country that has seen its overall murder rate more than double since 2007 – the year the government launched an offensive against the drug cartels.

Although Colima is Mexico’s least populous state, with just 700,000 people, in 2016 its murder rate was 71 homicides per 100,000 people. Colima is symptomatic of what has been ailing parts of the country that were once considered free of cartel-linked violence.

Since the Mexican government has teamed up with the United States in their war to defeat the cartels, the security forces have succeeded in killing or imprisoning the leaders of these criminal organizations. The loss of leadership has forced these criminal gangs to splinter off into smaller organizations and branch out into nontraditional areas to expand their turf.

Experts say the uptick in violence in Colima could be traced to Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera’s (El Chapo) escape from prison in 2015, and his subsequent recapture in January 2016. It has been speculated that the demise of El Chapo led to a power struggle within the Sinaloa cartel, factions of which were said to be determined to keep him isolated from the organization’s activities.

Sinaloa – The Drug Capital of Mexico

El Chapo’s downfall triggered a fierce battle for succession among rivals in his notorious cartel. The Sinaloa cartel is considered one of – if not, the most – powerful criminal organization in the country. According to experts, the uptick in violence in Sinaloa can be explained by a three-sided turf war for El Chapo’s criminal empire that has left a trail of dead bodies.

One group is led by El Chapo’s right-hand man, Damaso Lopez Nunez, who knows the cartel’s operations inside-out – he helped his extradited boss escape prison twice. Another faction is led by two of El Chapo’s sons, Jesus Alfredo and Ivan Archivaldo, who say they are the rightful heirs to his drug-running empire.

The third is led by El Chapo’s brother Aureliano ‘El Guano’ Guzman. He controls the area around their hometown, Badiraguato. Since Guzman’s extradition in January 2016, a bloodbath has engulfed Sinaloa, the western state where the cartel is based. Mexican government officials have long maintained that they do not have the resources necessary to curb the violence there.

Michoacan – The Birthplace of Mexico’s Drug War

Michoacan has been one of the bloodiest states in Mexico because of battles between rival gangs involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion of local businesses, as well as mineral theft and illegal logging. Michoacán, sandwiched between Colima and Guerrero states, is disputed cartel territory. In 2016, the New Family cartel announced its arrival in the area; apparently, a successor to the Michoacana Family gang which was wiped out in 2010.

In 2014, the situation had deteriorated to the point that the federal government effectively took control of Michoacan for over a year in a bid to curb violence between drug gangs and community militias that had risen to fight extortion and kidnappings.

Why is this region of western Mexico considered important? Because it is the home of one of the largest producers and exporters of methamphetamine to the United States. The port of Lazaro Cardenas, the country’s most important port, is used by drug traffickers as a strategic transfer point.

In 2006, a drug cartel known as La Familia Michoacana began to make its presence felt with gruesome displays of severed heads — belonging to supposed rivals. In December 2006, then-President Felipe Calderon decided enough was enough and sent 7,000 soldiers into his home state of Michoacan in hopes of crushing cartel-fueled violence.

The government-backed war led to an escalation of violence, with cartels committing acts of murder against civilians. The bloodshed got worse and internal turf wars claimed more lives as the cartel organizations were plagued with in-fighting.

Guerrero – Key to the Heroin Trade

Guerrero, one of the country’s most violent states, is also home to Acapulco, a popular tourist resort on the Pacific coast. US government employees are prohibited from travel to the entire state of Guerrero, including Acapulco.

This past November, it was reported in The Guardian that workers at the government-run morgues in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero walked off the job. Working conditions were atrocious — there was simply no more room to store the dead bodies.

The violence in Guerrero, an impoverished state that boasts of the tourist-friendly beach resort Acapulco and a mountainous hinterland that is considered one of the country’s poorest areas, led to entire towns being abandoned.

Schools have also been shut down and the violence has even led bus companies to no longer provide service in the area.

By the end of 2017, the number of homicides in Guerrero approached 2,000, an increase of over 100 compared to 2016. Guerrero’s surge in violent crime can be traced to its significance in the heroin trade.

The state produces more than half of Mexico’s opium poppies, which is the base ingredient for heroin. Drug cartels have taken advantage of the growing demand for heroin in the US.

According to The Washington Post, more than 90 percent of the heroin consumed by Americans originates in Mexico. Poppy production has been ramped up by 800 percent in less than a decade in order to meet growing demand.

In years past, there was one cartel in charge. It maintained its grip on the lucrative heroin trade by paying off police and state officials. In recent years, splinter groups of criminal gangs have upended the traditional hierarchy.

Citizen Militias

The inability of the Mexican government to deal with the problem has led to the rise of civilian-led militias. These turf wars have led to increased violence and bloodshed while the government struggles to exert control.

“Armed groups operate independently of the government in many areas of Guerrero. Members of these groups frequently maintain roadblocks and may use violence towards travelers,” said the State Department.

Tamaulipas – A Battleground for the Cartels

Tamaulipas, the northeastern Mexican state that borders Texas, was once known as a quaint region that offered delicious beef and exportable vegetables. In recent years, that reputation has changed. It is known today as a region that has become part of a turf war between powerful cartels seeking control of the key trade routes where drugs are transported to the US. Tamaulipas’ importance to the drug trade has only grown since American demand for narcotics has surged exponentially.

Drugs that are shipped from Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela make their way to the Yucatan Peninsula. From there, they are transported to Tamaulipas before they reach their destination across the border.

Tamaulipas is the birthplace of the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s oldest and most notorious crime syndicates. During Prohibition, the Gulf Cartel engaged in the lucrative business of smuggling whiskey into the US.

The cartel’s business continued to flourish – in recent decades its product of choice has become cocaine. But a factional split between the cartel and former Mexican military soldiers who worked as enforcers for the organization, but then broke off and formed their own syndicate, plunged the region into bloodshed. Massacres and kidnappings have become all too commonplace since violence escalated dramatically beginning in 2010.

The Mexican army, once trusted more than local law enforcement, is known to confiscate large quantities of drugs in Tamaulipas every day, though it is difficult to say exactly how much or what happens to it.

The Lay of the Land

Here’s a map outlining the sterner US warnings for Americans traveling to Mexico: Red: Do Not Travel, Orange: Reconsider Travel, Gray: Exercise Increased Caution.

To ensure safer travel throughout Mexico, the State Department suggests the following tips: Use toll roads when possible and avoid driving at night, exercise increased caution when visiting local bars, nightclubs, and casinos, do not display signs of wealth, such as wearing expensive watches or jewelry, and be extra vigilant when visiting banks or ATMs.

Given the political and resource constraints facing the Mexican government, this level of violence will likely continue to rise in 2018. The current criminal organizational landscape is exceptionally fluid.

Though it is in Mexico’s interest, particularly economically , to stop drug-related violence, the key question becomes: What can the Mexican government do?

There are two schools of thought. First, the short answer for stopping the drug violence is: not much. The problem is that these groups have many alternative routes and means of conducting their business, and more resources than the Mexican government.

The second thought is: Does the Mexican government really want to stop the drug trade? The immense amount of economic commerce the drug trade provides, the employment, and the payoffs to government officials are not likely to facilitate a desire to change the current situation.

The bottom line is the Mexican government needs to address the violence of drug trafficking organizations for domestic, economic, and political reasons, as well as to maintain its relationship with the United States. Mexico must gain control of the criminal violence to survive as a viable state on the world stage.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Dr. Katherine Harris

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. She has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands, plus many non-profit and community associations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany. Academically, Dr. Harris holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from The University of Maryland European Division, a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, and a Doctorate in Education from Rowan University with an emphasis in leadership and higher education in a global context.

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