Bloodshed and Resilience in Mexico
In Mexico, what was once a national security threat has become a local public security problem, but there is not much of an infrastructure in many parts of the country to deal with it, writes Andrew Selee.
A few weeks ago, 43 students at a teachers college in Mexico’s southern state of Guerrero disappeared. From what we know so far, police in the city of Iguala handed them over to a local drug gang, affiliated with the mayor, and they were almost certainly killed.
Public authorities have yet to locate the graves where the students are buried, but in searching for them they have turned up several other mass graves that testify to the gruesome gangland war going on around the city over the past few years.
Mexicans have reacted with understandable horror and nationwide protests against the wave of violence that still simmers in many parts of their country. The political fallout so far has included Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre, who effectively stepped down under pressure.
To be fair, there has been a lot of good news in Mexico over the past three years. Countrywide, homicide rates have gone down substantially since 2011, and most of the major drug cartels that once controlled parts of the country have been neutralized. But the underlying problem of weak rule of law — and the impunity associated with crime — remains a grave and persistent challenge to Mexico’s future.
Instead of six or seven big drug cartels wreaking havoc on the country, Mexico now faces dozens of smaller local gangs and mini-cartels, many of which also carry out extortion, kidnapping and other criminal activities in their communities. While Mexico has made enormous steps in improving its federal law enforcement and intelligence capabilities in recent years, the problem is now primarily with local and state police, prosecutors and courts in many parts of the country, which remain weak and easily co-opted by organized crime groups. What was once a national security threat has become a local public security problem, but there is not much of an infrastructure in many parts of the country to deal with it.
Of course, the decimation of the big cartels is good news, and cities such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey — once among the most violent cities in Mexico and all near the U.S. border — are now relatively calm. These places show the ability of local communities to fight back against organized crime groups and force deep changes in policing and government responsiveness. Courageous journalists and civic leaders in these cities and elsewhere in the country have often led the way by publicizing what is going on and demanding action.
In fact, what happened in Iguala recalls another equally painful massacre four years ago in Juárez in which a local drug gang killed 15 high school students at a party in the working-class neighborhood of Villas Salvarcar. I was nearby when the killing took place, and we went to accompany the families in their grief. I will never forget the faces of a family mourning their two teenage boys killed in the murderous rain of bullets, their caskets laid out in the small living room.
But this incident actually became a turning point in the fight against organized crime in Juárez, a large city of over a million inhabitants across the border from El Paso. For several years, Juárez was the most dangerous city in the world. The families of the victims raised their voices against the government and galvanized a civic movement to retake the city, and they generated support and awareness nationwide. To their credit, the federal and state governments, shamed by the citizens of Juárez, responded.
By 2013, homicide rates in Juárez had dropped by roughly 90 percent, from an average of 10 killings a day to only one.
As 43 families look for their loved ones in Guerrero, it’s worth asking if this incident in Iguala will also prove to be a turning point in the state that is now the most dangerous place to live in Mexico. Will citizens react by organizing against the criminal mafias that have taken over parts of their state in collusion with public officials? Will the government support them?
There is an opportunity for quiet but serious collaboration between Mexico and the U.S. in building up the capacity and independence of state and local governments in Mexico in the areas most under siege by organized crime. It is, after all, U.S. drug money that has driven the rise in organized crime in Mexico, along with Mexico’s weak institutional structures. Together we can prevent more families from having to mourn their lost children.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
About the Author
The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute. Read more