The slaughter in Mexico in November of nine members of a local Mormon family horrified the world.
Three women and six children were gunned down in broad daylight while driving in three SUVs on a rural road in Sonora near the state’s border with Chihuahua, 160 km from the U.S. border. Seven children escaped.
Whether the massacre was an intentional attack or a case of mistaken identity is uncertain. But what is clear is that Mexico is experiencing record levels of violence as cartels and other organized crime groups carry out attacks on rivals, security forces and civilians with near-full impunity.
“The hard truth is that Mexico is dangerously close to being a failed state,” U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, stated after the murders.
Eleven months into his term, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been unable to contain the violence.
In mid-October, gunmen belonging to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel ambushed and killed 14 police officers who were travelling along a road in the western state of Michoacan. Three days later, in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, Mexican security forces who had just captured Ovidio Guzman, the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s drug kingpin and head of the Sinaloa cartel, were forced to release him after his half brother and 800 members of the cartel laid siege to the city of Culiacan.
“It was already bad and it is getting worse,” Jose De Bastos, regional intelligence analyst for the Americas at WorldAware, a global risk management firm in Maryland, says of the violence. Homicides hit a record 36,685 in 2018, up from 32,079 in 2017, he says, and this year are widely projected to exceed last year’s tally.
De Bastos points out that it took police five hours to arrive on the scene after the Nov. 4 attack on the Mormon family. “That shows you there are many areas of Mexico where there simply is no authority.”
The high-profile arrests of many of the cartels’ top leaders, like El Chapo, who is now serving a life sentence in the U.S., created a leadership vacuum that split many cartels into rival factions, experts say. “What we’re seeing is smaller groups loosely tied to criminal organizations are becoming increasingly violent and autonomous,” says Cassius Wilkinson, a specialist on Mexican politics and public security at Empra, a risk-consulting firm in Mexico City.
The fractured cartels continue to traffic drugs, but competition and turf wars over routes are forcing some groups to look for other opportunities to make money, like extortion, kidnapping, armed robbery and fuel theft. Guanajuato in central Mexico, for instance, used to be a peaceful state, De Bastos says, but in recent years has become dangerous due to fuel theft from the pipelines that run through it.
Cargo robberies are also problematic. A truck carrying $6 million to $8 million worth of doré bars belonging to a unit of Mexican mining firm Fresnillo was robbed in Sonora on Nov. 8. “Events like this are definitely cause for concern and speak to a larger picture of increased violence, diversified criminality and competing actors that are a concern for any company, particularly mining companies, given where they operate,” Wilkinson says.
Rules that cartel organizations used to follow are becoming increasingly irrelevant, which is why there are more open confrontations with police and public violence like shoot-outs on public roads, Wilkinson notes.
Ten years ago, there were implicit understandings between companies and organized crime groups operating in the same area, which limited the potential for conflict, he says. “If you were working for a mining company, for example, and driving down a highway at a certain time, someone representing the organized crime group in the region might tell you: ‘Hey, it’s not the best time to go down this route — if you come back tomorrow you can take this route and not have any problems.’
“Those understandings are becoming a little less clear,” Wilkinson says, “and a major reason is that there are more competing groups in the area, so rather than dealing with the interests of a single actor, you’re dealing with competing interest groups.”
Still, none of the analysts view Mexico as a failed state just yet. De Bastos of WorldAware reasons it would be wrong to use that label since many parts of the country function normally, but concedes, “it is correct to say that the Mexican military, police, and recently created National Guard are not in complete control of the entire territory — there are certain areas of Mexico where the government doesn’t reach.”
Carlos Cardenas, head of country risk for Latin America at IHS Markit, an information services company in the U.K., says criminal organizations thrive in parts of the country with limited state presence and weak institutions, but points to Mexico’s economy as evidence that things are far from dire. Mexico exports US$450 billion a year, he says, making it the second-largest economy in Latin America.
“It is not a failed state,” Cardenas says, “but there are many challenges ahead in terms of corruption, strengthening of institutions, combating organized crime, and improvement of the business environment.”