International Crisis Group (ICG) has built a reputation for analyzing some of the bloodiest and most intractable political conflicts on the planet, from Colombia and Guatemala to Syria and Iraq. Now, with a new report, "Peña Nieto's Challenge: Criminal Cartels and Rule of Law in Mexico," the NGO has turned its gaze toward Mexico as well, an implicit acknowledgement of the degree of the decline in the nation’s security.
The 52-page report includes sections that examine the nature of Mexico's criminal groups, the policies of former President Felipe Calderon, and the consequences of Mexico's spike in violence. The report also includes an extended look at the lessons that may be drawn from the drastic decline of Ciudad Juarez, and the city's subsequent rebound.
InSight Crime Analysis
ICG makes it clear why Mexico's transnational criminal organizations, labeled "criminal cartels," are chasing the huge profit margins available from trafficking various illegal substances, especially cocaine:
"A kilo brick cost about $2,400 in Colombia, $33,300 when sold wholesale in the U.S. and some $120,000 when sold 'retail' on the streets of U.S. cities. In trafficking and distribution, the parts dominated by Mexican traffickers, the price rose 50-fold."
Popular conceptions of Mexican drug trafficking -- such as the mountain-based drug capos celebrated in the "narcocorridos" -- revolve around these transnational groups. However, this conception of powerful cartels pulling all the strings of the drug trade is no longer enough to describe the complexity of Mexico's security problems. In recent years, a wide range of other criminal activities, from oil theft to extortion, have displaced drug trafficking as the major money-maker for criminal organizations.
And as InSight Crime has pointed out , the gangs behind much of Mexico's violence are not limited to the so-called "criminal cartels." Smaller regional gangs have steadily eaten away at the absolute control of groups like the Guadalajara Cartel of the 1980s or the Juarez Cartel of the 1990s.
Calderon's response to these shifting security dynamics was based on a heavier use of the military and aggressive manhunts targeting big-name traffickers, or "kingpins." ICG goes on to argue that this approach -- regardless of the financial and operational support received from the US -- was insufficient to tamp down on the growing levels of violence linked to drug trafficking when Calderon assumed office. Likewise, the security and justice reforms initiated under Calderon have done little to deal with the immediate threats to Mexican security, although they may have laid the foundations for long-term improvement.
Indeed, rather than limiting the damage, Calderon’s policies seem to have escalated the scale of the fighting. The impact is visible on the streets in a growing number of cities, and is reflected by the corruption of an increasing number of government institutions.
In terms of Calderon's successes, ICG takes a long look at Juarez, the Chihuahua border town that was the nation’s most violent city for most of the president's tenure, topping out at more than 3,000 murders in 2010. This surge in violence was due in part to a long-standing battle between the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, and the Juarez Cartel for control of the key border crossing.
But, as InSight Crime has reported , it also stems from the presence of hundreds of local street gangs that worked for the two cartels and served to accelerate the intensity of the larger conflict. Since 2010, however, violence has fallen dramatically. Murders in October 2012 were almost 90 percent lower than the corresponding figure from two years prior, making Juarez one of Mexico's undeniable success stories.
Determining the sources of the improvement has proved trickier than explaining the causes of the violence, but the ICG report mentions a small handful. One is the arrest of particularly violent local commanders, such as Jose Antonio Acosta and Noel Salgueiro, who had commanded death squadrons responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths since the war started in 2008. Another explanation is that Guzman has simply won the fight, and the forces loyal to the Juarez Cartel have lost the capacity to continue fighting.
ICG highlights certain aspects of Calderon's policies which may have helped ease the bloodshed in Juarez. First, the social programs of Todos Somos Juarez (which kicked off in 2010, backed by the Calderon administration), flooded the city with federal cash, giving at-risk youth substantial resources to help them avoid the lure of street gangs. Second, the local police, under the leadership of new boss Julian Leyzaola, took on a much more prominent role, and has been aggressive in implementing something like a zero-tolerance policy toward petty crime. This has not been without its side effects -- the number of residents who have passed through city jails has exploded, and there have been accusations of abuse by local police -- but Leyzaola’s tenure has coincided almost exactly with the decline in murders.