The continued presence of criminal groups along some of Mexico’s highways, especially in the embattled northeast, has become a litmus test for just how much control the government really has in certain parts of the country.
Earlier this year, two Mexican journalists from Tamaulipas state were travelling back to the border city Reynosa from Ciudad Victoria on what should have been a routine trip. Instead they came close to losing their lives after they ran into a squad of gunmen forcing various vehicles off the road. A shootout broke out nearby and they managed to get away, but the gunmen fired at them and one of the journalists was shot in the arm. She survived, but had to receive medical attention.
This incident is by no means isolated — it is part of a problem that has plagued parts of Mexico since cartel-related violence escalated after 2008. Gunmen linked to cartels run impromptu checkpoints or hold up cars as part of their efforts to control territory. The criminals operate at night and even in broad daylight, sometimes in civilian clothes and sometimes in military garb.
In many cases, the criminal groups simply want to know who is passing through the area. They ask for papers or check trunks. In other places, they want to charge people for the right of passage. In the worst-case scenario, they are looking to steal vehicles or kidnap the passengers. It is like playing Russian roulette: If you are stopped, you don’t know if it will be a scare or lead to your abduction.
There may now be slightly less cartel checkpoints than in Mexico’s worst years of violence — between 2010 and 2011 — when the Zetas and their progenitors from the Gulf Cartel entered into a full scale war in some parts of the northeast. But they are still a persistent problem.
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Both criminal groups operate checkpoints in Tamaulipas, the oil rich state that borders the Rio Grande valley of Texas. These checkpoints are present on the main border road from Reynosa to Nuevo Laredo. Cartel gunmen also act on roads in Coahuila, Durango, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Guerrero and Michoacan, among other states.
The threat of these gunmen has forced some residents to abandon non-essential travel into certain areas. There are people in Tamaulipas who have not been to neighboring towns for several years due to security concerns. Those on the road for work, whether it be as an engineer, pollster, truck driver or salesman, can risk their lives for what would be simple jobs in more peaceful times. Many media organizations will not allow their reporters to travel certain routes, leaving black holes of information. International companies eyeing energy investments in the area are forced to factor these risks into their business plans.
Cartel checkpoints are also a grave affront to the Mexican government. Control of major highways is an essential part of having a monopoly on the use of force and the successful functioning of a state depends on access to all the national territory to provide basic services. It is understandable that not all the back roads in the mountains of Sinaloa or Chiapas can be policed. But losing control of highways in industrialized areas next to the US border is a sign of serious state impotence.
The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto seems to be slowly recognizing this challenge. As part of a federal offensive in Tamaulipas launched in May, troops have made concerted efforts to secure highways, particularly the Ciudad Victoria to Reynosa road where the journalist was shot in the arm. Traveling the route in June, I documented seven checkpoints of federal police, soldiers and marines and ten convoys patrolling the road.
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But this hold is tenuous. On June 26, a convoy of gunmen attacked a federal police patrol outside San Fernando, an area made famous in 2011 for the discovery of mass graves containing the bodies of well over 100 victims that authorities said had been picked up at criminal checkpoints. At least one officer was killed and three injured in the ambush.
It is also unclear how long security forces can — or will — maintain the high number of troops. A state police commander I spoke to said one problem was the number of rugged secondary roads, known as brechas, which crisscross Tamaulipas and intersect with the main highway. Cartel gunmen can use these dirt paths to sweep onto the highway, abduct people, and take them back to the many lonely ranches scattered across the state. Police have even discussed trying to block some of these dirt roads with concrete, but this is not really a viable option, as they are used by local farmers.
Soldiers and police have turned to escorting people in convoys for security. Most of these are arranged informally by businessmen or others with connections. Police or soldiers also act as escorts for some journalists, allowing them to travel into difficult areas. While it is not ideal reporting alongside masked troops with machine guns, it does provide a way for journalists to cover important stories without unreasonable risk.
Amid the high profile missions of hunting down cartel kingpins and seizing mega drug loads, Mexico’s security chiefs have often overlooked the fundamental task of controlling highways. But basic issues, like safely being able to travel from town to town, confront millions of people in Mexico on a daily basis. The extent to which the government is able to address these issues will have a big impact on people’s perception of whether their country is getting safer — or failing in its rudimentary security functions.