With Decline of Mexico’s Drug Cartels, Violence on the Rise

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As Mexican authorities go after the leaders of drug trafficking organizations, to decapitate and dismantle them, the patterns of violence in the country’s drug war are shifting. InSight takes a closer look at these shifts, and assesses their implications for policymakers in the country.

It seemed like something out of the headlines of a Middle Eastern newspaper. In a shockingly gruesome display of violence, gunmen opened fire and lobbed grenades into a crowd gathered in a Guadalajara nightclub this weekend, killing six people and wounding 37 more. As Mexico’s El Universal reports, the killings are the third such attack to take place in a Guadalajara bar in just three months, bringing the total to nine dead and over 60 injured.

Like other major cities in Mexico, Guadalajara has witnessed an increase in the number of smaller drug gangs. The city’s recent wave of killings comes after the resurgent Milenio Cartel blocked major roads in the city two weeks ago, threatening to turn Jalisco into a battleground with their rivals, the Nuevo Cartel de Jalisco.

Such smaller criminal groups are cropping up all around the country, indicative of one of the most serious problems of Mexico’s drug war: the “atomization” of the cartels. As Mexican authorities increasingly target large crime syndicates, these tighter, more agile groups have sprung up to replace them. The pattern bears resemblance to the security situation in Colombia, where the decline of the Medellin and Cali cartels in the 1990s led to the rise of small-scale criminal networks.

However, these newer organizations are not any less prone to violence than their larger counterparts. ·In fact, some indicators point to them being still more violent. Although the Mexican government captured and killed a record number of cartel leaders in 2010, the year was also the most violent on record, with officials recording 15,273 drug-related homicides.

The wave of killings coincides with a dramatic increase in kidnappings in the country. According to a report by the Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Penal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Publica y la Justicia Penal – CCSP-JP), kidnappings in Mexico are at a record high. The Mexican think-tank uses data from two federal government agencies, and counted 1,847 kidnappings in 2010. This is more than double that of 2009 and the highest number on record since 1971.

As the report’s authors note, the wave of kidnappings coincide with the government’s crackdown on illegal cartels. As such, they argue that the current approach to organized crime has created a more unstable criminal landscape in which groups that previously more relied on drug-trafficking for funding are now forced to engage in kidnapping to sustain themselves.

Ultimately, the above trends lend support to those who argue that President Calderon’s current policy merely transforms drug trafficking groups from the more professional, hierarchical organizations with clear chains of command, to organizations where the more violent, unsophisticated elements compete for power. If they continue, it may test Mexicans’ patience with the administration, potentially costing Calderon’s National Action Party (Partido de Accion Nacional – PAN) the presidency in 2012.

According to some analysts, the high homicide rate was a major factor in the revival of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI) in July’s regional and local elections. In the elections, the PRI won nine of the twelve governorships up for grabs, as well as control of the lower house of Congress.

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