Political Conditions In Mexico, The Fight Against The Cartels, And Their Security Implications

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Political Conditions In Mexico, The Fight Against The Cartels, And Their Security Implications

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Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront

The President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has now been in office for two years. During this period he has launched a major anti-corruption campaign and initiated a number of strategic and tactical changes to the country’s approach to combatting the cartels and other illegal armed groups. While preliminary data suggests the security situation in Mexico may be improving, there are still many existing and potential threats that must be confronted.

The regional context – political developments in Latin America

It is worth emphasizing at the outset that the politics in Latin America are in a class of their own, where the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ are still meaningful ideological, political and social terms that are readily identifiable and evident throughout the region.

‘The left’ is invariably committed to national political and economic sovereignty (recognizing that the former is not possible without the latter) and in particular independence from the stifling influence and interventions of the United States, regional cooperation and integration among all Latin American and Caribbean countries on the basis of equality and mutual benefit (and the international corollary of a multi-polar world), the recognition of quality education and health services (along with other essential goods and services) as a fundamental right rather than a privilege and a strong role for the State and public sector (broadly conceptualized to include national, provincial and municipal levels, as well as community associations, cooperatives and other forms of producer and worker cooperatives) in providing these essential services and controlling the associated infrastructure and technology as well as strategic economic sectors and resources (rejecting outright the tenets of neo-liberalism, but not rejecting the merits of private enterprise as such), land reform as well as more wide-ranging agrarian reform to strictly limit the degree of land concentration and foreign ownership of land, and the importance of trade unions and workers’ rights in dealings with their employers – be they State agencies or enterprises or domestic or foreign companies. In more recent times, many leftist political organizations and all social movements have also recognised an inherent compatibility and inter-relationship between their programs and objectives and recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples.

After more than a century of bitter and often bloody rivalry and conflict, by the 1990s ‘the right’ ruled in all countries in Latin America except Cuba. As in almost all Western countries, elections became a largely routine procedure involving a contest between the right and the far right – in Mexico, between the PRI and the PAN, in Colombia, between the Liberals and the Conservatives, largely mirroring the stale, stage-managed contests between the Democrats and Republicans in the US. Neo-liberalism was universally acclaimed as the only realistic economic policy, and the US determined the overall course of the international relations of all Latin American countries both within and beyond the region. Massive capital flows streamed from the region to tax havens and the US, and poverty as well as inequalities in wealth, income and opportunity skyrocketed.

In the aftermath of the ‘lost decade’ of the 1990s, when the left all but disappeared from the political scene and remained only in a few scattered but resolute bastions on the margins of ‘mainstream’ society, some left-wing political organizations and social movements managed to regroup and establish coherent and well-organized policy platforms and political strategies to once again propose alternative agendas to the neo-liberal programs of the Washington consensus which reigned supreme at the time.

The first major success was in Venezuela with the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, who embarked on a program of ‘Socialism for the Twenty-first Century’ which included reasserting national independence from the dictates of Washington and rebuilding and reclaiming control over State institutions and key sectors of the national economy and infrastructure from the tutelage and control of the World Bank, IMF, Western transnational corporations (particularly from the US, the UK and Spain) and their associated consultants and advisors. LINK

The initial success of the left in Venezuela demonstrated the fallacy of the dogma that ‘there is no alternative’ to neo-liberalism and the Washington consensus, and reinvigorated leftist political organizations and social movements throughout Latin America. Over the next ten years moderate leftist governments were voted into power at the national level in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Honduras, and more emphatic leftist governments were voted in by a landslide in Bolivia and Ecuador. (Chavez adopted a relatively moderate line when he began his first term, however he shifted abruptly to the left and in particular gave up on trying to remain on good terms with the US while steering an independent course after the US-backed coup attempt in 2002.)

In most countries where the right remained in power throughout the first two decades of the new millennium (typified by Colombia and Chile and their unwavering alliance with – or subordination to – the United States, depending on your point of view, and commitment to neo-liberalism), left wing groups and other autonomous social collectives and movements nonetheless proliferated on the margins of the traditional power structures, demanding recognition of and respect for the rights of farmers, workers, students, Indigenous peoples, usually accompanied by demands that their national leaders demonstrate more independence from the US and work towards greater regional cooperation and integration.

The US and right wing political and economic elites regained control over the national government in all of the countries noted above except Venezuela over the following decade – in every case except Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador achieved by means other than democratic votes – starting with Honduras in 2009, when President Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped by a rogue military operation and expelled from the country. LINK

Nonetheless, while the US and allied right-wing political parties have regained control over the national governments, State institutions and foreign policy of almost all countries in the region since 2009, the leftist groups and social movements have not been eliminated from the equation and are reformulating their programs and strategies in light of recent experiences. Relatively moderate left-wing governments have returned to power in Argentina and Mexico over the last two years, and most recently and emphatically Evo Morales’ political party (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS) in Bolivia returned to power in a landslide vote late last year under the leadership of the new president, Luis Arce. Ecuador is set to go to bitterly contested national elections in February in chaotic political and economic conditions.

Political conditions in Mexico

Throughout this tumultuous period Mexico remained firmly under the control of right-wing governments along with Colombia and Chile, up until 2018 when Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) political party were voted into national government, also achieving a majority in both houses of the National Congress (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) as well as in many of the country’s 32 states and municipalities.

AMLO and the political party to which he belongs (Morena) are from the left side of the political spectrum, and they can generally count on the support of two other left-wing parties (Partido del Trabajo, PT and Partido Encuentro Social, PES) which formed a coalition (Juntos Haremos Historia – ‘Together We Will Make History’) for the 2018 national elections in order to contest the long-standing dominance of the right-wing parties over the government and State institutions.

As the Moreno party now controls the presidency as well as having a majority in the National Congress, it controls the commanding heights of the legislative and executive branches, and AMLO also appears to have the support of key military and other security commanders at this stage.

While these factors are crucial if the new government is going to be successful in improving Mexico’s social, economic and political situation, they also face a large number of hostile or ambivalent groups and individuals at all levels of government and throughout society, some of whom are doing everything possible to thwart any substantial changes to the status quo.

Their main competition for the pending mid-term elections in June (for the lower house of the National Congress and many State and municipal governments and assemblies) is from the right-wing parties, mainly the traditional ruling parties Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), though there are numerous smaller political parties which are also right-wing.

The opponents to AMLO and Morena from the left are generally from the far-left, in particular the Zapatistas, which started an armed insurgency in 1994 and continue basically in that condition, having secured territorial control over some areas in the south of the country (particularly in Chiapas and Guerrero). However, they are not generally fielding candidates for the mid-term elections to be held in June, their main preoccupation being securing control over their traditional territories and the safety and well-being of their communities within those areas.

In terms of Mexico’s relations with the US, the new Mexican president has demonstrated on numerous occasions that he is determined to reassert Mexico’s independence and follow an autonomous path in terms of the country’s domestic and foreign policies: notable developments in this respect include AMLO’s refusal to endorse and participate in the diplomatic and economic blockade of Cuba and Venezuela, the granting of asylum to Evo Morales and other persecuted government figures following the coup d’état in Bolivia in November 2019, and Mexico’s efforts to revive the moribund project of building regional cooperation and integration. All of these moves are anathema to the US Establishment, however they are recognized and celebrated with equal vehemence by leftist forces throughout Latin America.

In the latest developments, which are sure to further infuriate the US Establishment, Mexico has stripped US intelligence, ‘law enforcement’ and Treasury agents of all diplomatic immunities and privileges which they had previously enjoyed, and will henceforth require them to inform Mexican officials of their presence and activities in the country. At the same time, the Mexican Prosecutor-General has declared that a dossier compiled by US law enforcement agencies against Salvador Cienfuegos (the head of the Mexican armed forces during the presidency of Peña Nieto from 2012 to 2018) alleging that he had protected a Mexican cartel and facilitated the trafficking of illicit drugs to the US does not contain sufficient evidence to justify prosecuting the former general. The case has become a major scandal in Mexico and has several distinct fundamental implications and repercussions, considered in more detail below.

The animated pursuit by US officials of the retired Mexican general contrasts starkly with the US reaction to the case of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, for example, or the commanders of the armed forces involved in the coup d’état against Evo Morales in Bolivia which immediately installed a US-aligned post-coup regime. The US’ two-faced foreign policy agenda in the region – ruthlessly demonizing and punishing any country that pursues an independent course, and propping up any government that acts in accordance with US interests and objectives – is discussed in detail by former Ecuador president Rafael Correa. LINK

In the case of Colombia, for many years there have been denunciations of Álvaro Uribe’s alleged ties with paramilitary groups, and there are a multitude of stalled or frozen investigations in congressional committees and the legal system. Several of the accusations have resulted in the prosecution of some of Uribe’s closest subordinates, colleagues and even at least one family member of the former president (his cousin Mario Uribe, a former Senator), however Álvaro has always managed to avoid prosecution. With respect to the investigations in the legal system, either the Prosecutor-General’s office officials responsible for investigating related cases, or the court’s themselves, have never made substantive progress.

This appeared set to change last year when one set of allegations fell directly within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, and in preliminary hearings the magistrates determined that Uribe had a case to answer and the formal investigation would proceed. (LINK) Uribe then resigned from his position in the Senate and his lawyers argued that the change in his civil and political status deprived the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over the case. The magistrates accepted the argument and referred the investigation to the national Prosecutor-General, a close ally of current president and Uribe protégé Ivan Duque, pre-empting the possibility of a genuine investigation of the case or any other allegations against Uribe.

In terms of the US reaction to the Supreme Court’s investigation, and in particular an interim order placing Uribe under house arrest while the investigation proceeded, rather than offering to cooperate in the investigation US officials (including then vice-president Mike Pence) demanded that the court order be rescinded. The abrupt and imperious US intervention in the judicial process served to protect the former president, who always collaborated closely with US interests and objectives in the region, from investigation by the only entity that seemed prepared to carry the case forward.

The US has also demonstrated very little interest in prosecuting the numerous military commanders in Colombia that have been accused of collaborating with paramilitary groups or commanding military units directly involved in the conduct of assassinations or massacres, facilitating or covering up drug trafficking activities, committing systematic human rights abuses, or other grave criminal activities.

Major Sources of Opposition to the National Government

In terms of the domestic political situation, despite constant criticism and allegations of corruption, incompetence and authoritarian ambitions and practices in the mainstream media, which for the most part has been hostile to the AMLO presidency from the outset, the new president has enjoyed substantial public approval and support throughout his presidency.

From historic highs of around 80% approval in early 2019, the approval ratings dropped steadily throughout 2019 and 2020 as the economy declined (and then plummeted following the COVID-19 outbreak) and endemic crime and violence persisted. Nonetheless, even at its lowest point his approval rating remained over 50%, and it began to rise during the second half of 2020 to reach 61% at the end of November from a low of 56% in August according to an opinion poll conducted by Reforma newspaper. The findings are consistent with numerous other public opinion polls that have been conducted throughout the period. LINK

However, Mexico is currently facing the country’s worst economic recession in almost a century, and the pandemic has hit Mexico hard – it now has the fourth-highest death toll in the world.

AMLO is therefore in a difficult position, as the government must improve the daily living conditions of the poor and lower-middle classes while at the same time confronting the enormous challenge of regaining control over State institutions and the national territory in the midst of a severe economic crisis and the ongoing devastating violence and chaos that prevails in many regions, where the traditional ‘drug cartels’ as well as other illegal armed groups and manifestations of organized crime have taken over large swathes of the countryside as well as many provincial and municipal governments and institutions, whether by way of the extortion of, or collaboration with, local political and economic elites.

Nonetheless, despite the extremely difficult situation, the majority of Mexicans continue to consider the president to be an honest leader who is genuinely trying to confront and resolve the nation’s problems. At this point, it seems likely that the governing Morena party will retain its majority in the National Congress in the pending mid-term elections in June, or if not it should remain the largest party by a considerable margin. However, such a result is not guaranteed, and much will depend on developments over the following months.

The elections are scheduled to be held on 6 June 2021 and affect all 500 legislators in the Chamber of Deputies as well as the governors in 15 of the country’s 32 states and most elected officials at the municipal level – overall, more than 21,000 official positions.

The main challenge to the governing party (Morena) is from the traditional ruling parties, the PRI and more recently the PAN, which still have well-elaborated political and electoral machinery to conduct their campaigns, as well as widespread support in the mainstream media.

Right-wing opponents

There have been reports of an alliance being formed among right-wing opposition parties in collaboration with some prominent entrepreneurs/ oligarchs, national and international media outlets and others with the objective of ousting AMLO from power at the first possible opportunity.

In June of 2020 President Lopéz Obrador announced during his traditional morning press conference the discovery of documents which allegedly outlined the membership and objectives of a ‘Broad Opposition Block’ (Bloque Opositor Amplio), a coalition of groups determined to remove the president from power at the first possible opportunity, preferably well before his constitutional term ends in 2024.

The coalition members listed in the document comprises most of Mexico’s right wing and centrist opposition parties (including the former ruling parties of Mexico’s traditional political and economic elite, PAN and PRI, as well as several other smaller political parties) working in collaboration with local and foreign (primarily US) corporate elites and media outlets (agencies mentioned in the document include Reforma, El Universal, El Financiero, Proceso and Nexos). The leaked document also claims that the governors of 14 of Mexico’s 32 states support the opposition campaign.

The “plan of action” outlined in the document declares the intention to use the media as much as possible to blame the AMLO government for “unemployment, poverty, insecurity, and corruption”, repeating and amplifying the message through “social media networks, influencers, and analysts to insist on the destruction of the economy, of the democratic institutions, and the political authoritarianism of the government of the 4T” (the Fourth Transformation, the title adopted for AMLO’s economic and social development strategy). LINK

Whether coincidentally or not, most of Mexico’s (as well as US and European) most prominent mainstream media outlets political coverage is consistent with the elements described in the ‘plan of action’ document, hammering the readership with story after story denouncing the authoritarian nature of the government and alleged cases of corruption, holding the governing party and AMLO personally exclusively responsible for the existence of widespread crime, corruption and violence.

The document attributed to an alleged ‘Broad Opposition Block’ is broadly reminiscent of a document which was revealed in 2018 and has been attributed to the Southern Command (‘SouthCom’, the US military command responsible for the Caribbean and Latin America) outlining a detailed strategy and action plan to overthrow the Venezuelan government. LINK

The authenticity of the Mexican document is disputed. Nonetheless, many of the strategies described and the actions of many of the organizations identified as members of the alliance are consistent with subsequent developments, and the mid-term elections to be held in June of this year will be a decisive period for the ambitions of the opposition groups to regain a majority in the National Congress, increase their power base in the states and municipalities, and ultimately depose AMLO from the presidency.

It is worth noting that two aspects of the most recent developments related to the Cienfuegos case mentioned above (allegations by US law enforcement officials against Mexico’s former general and Minister of Defence) appear to replicate the US and Venezuelan opposition strategy to overthrow the Maduro Government. One aspect is the universal condemnation in the Mexican and Western mass media of the Mexican prosecutor-general’s and president’s statements and actions, suggesting that AMLO is entirely at fault and responsible for the deterioration in relations despite the US’ best efforts to help Mexico.

Most of the corporate mass media have accepted all US officials’ statements at face value, and dismissed Mexican officials’ and judicial investigators’ statements as lies. When the president released the details of the US investigation to demonstrate that the US allegations were not sufficient to instigate formal legal charges, he was roundly condemned in the mass media for breaching the confidence of and irrevocably damaging relations with the US. The fact that US officials had violated Mexican sovereignty generally, and legal agreements between the two countries specifically, in the conduct of their investigation is overlooked or considered irrelevant in most mainstream accounts. LINK

Moreover, for these media agencies, the possibility that there may have been ulterior motives involved in the conduct of the investigation, or that US public and private sector officials may also be involved in irregular or illegal activities that facilitate drug trafficking and cover-up the main beneficiaries of this and other illegal activities, is apparently unthinkable.

One example of this is the numerous cases of minimal fines being imposed on major US and UK banks for laundering hundreds of millions of dollars which clearly derived from drug trafficking by Mexican cartels. In one of the few cases of which any information has been revealed, between 2004 and 2007 Wachovia processed over $370 billion of suspicious financial transactions from Mexico:

Criminal proceedings were brought against Wachovia, though not against any individual, but the case never came to court. In March 2010, Wachovia settled the biggest action brought under the US bank secrecy act, through the US district court in Miami… It paid federal authorities $110m in forfeiture, for allowing transactions later proved to be connected to drug smuggling, and incurred a $50m fine for failing to monitor cash used to ship 22 tons of cocaine.

[The] bank was sanctioned for failing to apply the proper anti-laundering strictures to the transfer of $378.4bn – a sum equivalent to one-third of Mexico’s gross national product – into dollar accounts from so-called casas de cambio (CDCs) in Mexico, currency exchange houses with which the bank did business.

[The] total fine was less than 2% of the bank’s $12.3bn profit for 2009. On 24 March 2010, Wells Fargo stock traded at $30.86 – up 1% on the week of the court settlement. LINK

Apparently HSBC moved in to take advantage of the newly opened market opportunity once Wachovia was forced to abandon its clients in Mexico for a while, and also received a token fine when financial regulators reluctantly intervened several years later. LINK

The second aspect that has apparent parallels with the project of the US and elements of the traditional domestic political and economic elites to overthrow the Venezuelan government is the insinuations and affirmations that the commanders of the Mexican Armed Forces are generally corrupt, devious and untrustworthy – along with many other public officials – and that since AMLO assumed power they have become out of control and ‘untouchable’ (notwithstanding that the allegations related to events prior to AMLO’s presidency). The most recent accusations dovetail neatly with the long-running claims that the Mexican government is increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic.

The strategy is also similar to the criminal proceedings, economic sanctions and other punitive actions instigated against senior Venezuelan public officials and military officers in an effort to persuade them to turn against the Venezuelan President. A second element of this strategy is the offer of large monetary rewards and other inducements to those willing to collaborate with US and radical opposition efforts to either overthrow the government, or abscond to Miami and make allegations of criminal conduct against their former colleagues and other senior government officials.

The above points as to the possible existence of ulterior motives behind the attempt by US officials and some elements of the traditional political and economic elite within Mexico to create problems for the Mexican president and his relations with the military high command aside, there is much concern within Mexico and elsewhere about the possibility that many senior and mid-level State officials at all levels (national, provincial and municipal) – including politicians, members of the judiciary and prosecutors’ offices, bureaucrats, police, military and intelligence personnel – are involved in corrupt and other illegal practices, and that this is one of the reasons why it has been so difficult to make substantial progress in reducing the rates of corruption, violence and other crimes such as drug trafficking, kidnapping, people smuggling and extortion. And it is not just in Mexico – there are many reasons to deduce that corruption and collaboration also exists between some cartels and senior officials from both the public and private sectors beyond Mexico’s borders.

Shortly after assuming office, AMLO initiated the practice of holding a lengthy morning press conference, often accompanied by senior government officials, to provide an opportunity to explain the latest developments in the country and respond to questions. The initiative has generally been well received by the public, and predictably condemned by the political opposition as a free platform for government propaganda. Of course, there is nothing preventing opposition political parties and personalities from taking similar initiatives. Moreover, as noted above at times it seems as though some of the most prominent mainstream Mexican and international media agencies have served as platforms for anti-government propaganda since AMLO has taken office.

One commentator has argued that the format of the daily press conferences is quite limited, tending to favour an exchange of monologues rather than deep analysis and debate, and suggested that the initiative could be more productive if the format were altered to include full participation by others such as practitioners, experts and civil sector representatives and organizations, for example, in order to examine particular topics and events in detail and from a wide range of perspectives.

Left-wing opponents: Tensions between the Federal Government and the Zapatistas

Another major challenge to the Mexican government is presented by the far left – in particular the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and many other rural and Indigenous communities which broadly identify as Zapatista (including the Congreso Indígena Nacional) though they declined to join the armed insurgency.

These groups are strongly anti-capitalist and are vehemently opposed to the centralized extractive economic model which is being imposed on many of their territories. They have been extremely critical of the AMLO government from the outset, with two points in particular the subject of contention: the first is the ongoing imposition of mega-projects without the informed consent of – and in many cases against the emphatic objections of – many of the rural and remote communities that will be most affected by them.

The second major point of contention is the inability – many of these critics suspect, the unwillingness – of the Federal government and public security forces to end the reign of terror to which rural and remote communities are being subjected by the cartels and other illegal armed groups, often in extensive collaboration with municipal, State and Federal ‘public security forces’, as well as State and municipal officials and elected representatives, local landlords and economic elites.

These suspicions were reinforced by the geographic distribution of the initial deployments of the newly created National Guard security forces. A report by Mexican  media outlet Contralinea in 2019 stated in this respect:

What is most surprising is the number of troops deployed in states where violence rates are not the highest in the country…

It turns out that apart from Mexico City and the State of Mexico (which are the headquarters of the federal government and have the largest population), the states with the greatest presence of Federal forces are: Veracruz, Chiapas, Guerrero, Jalisco and Oaxaca…

How does the federal government justify that Chiapas is saturated with 11,968 military and police personnel and, in contrast, Durango (4,053), Sonora (6,516) and Chihuahua (7,279) are assigned less? Their size? No, because the latter entities are significantly larger than Chiapas. The number of inhabitants? No, because although there are more inhabitants in Chiapas, the difference does not correspond to the increase in Federal troops. The crime rate? Even less. Chiapas is one of the entities of the Republic in which least crimes are committed and there are no territorial disputes and mass killings between cartels. At the same time, Durango, Sonora and Chihuahua are subject to intense disputes between private armies of the Sinaloa Cartel (Gente Nueva, Los Salazares) and La Juarez (La Línea) with incursions by the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel. Where massacres occur with dozens of lives cut short after the victims were tortured, with images then transmitted by social networks to generate terror.

Or is it that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is located in Chiapas? That it is the epicentre of the Indigenous struggle that opposes the forced dispossession that the megaprojects of the previous and current Federal administrations will imply? That the Zapatista communities are the largest and most advanced bastion of the National Indigenous Congress? And that Chiapas is also the home region for other organizations of different ideological persuasions, such as the National Front of Struggle for Socialism (Frente Nacional de Lucha por el Socialismo – FNLS), but which are also committed to the anti-capitalist struggle?

The report notes similar disparities with respect to the apparently disproportionate deployment of Federal forces to the provinces of Oaxaca and Veracruz (which received over 10,000 and 13,000 National Guard personnel respectively) compared to their relatively low rates of crime and violence. They are, however, the location of several intended mega-projects, including a major transport hub and corridor across the peninsula (the ‘Corredor Transístmico’), which are being imposed despite the strong objections of many of the Indigenous communities in the region. A similar phenomenon can be discerned in the provinces of the Yucatan Peninsula (Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatán y Quintana Roo), the location of the Maya Train corridor project.

And what about the 10,732 Federal troops in Guerrero? Are they going to combat Los Ardillos, Los Rojos and other expressions of the cartels Los Beltrán Leyva, Familia Michoacana, Templars and Jalisco Nueva Generación? Or are they being deployed against the communities that have organized to expel the cartels from their territories?

Continuing with the comparisons; in Zacatecas they have deployed 3,360 Federal troops; in San Luis Potosí 2,116; in Guanajuato 6, 516; and in Coahuila 5,203. These are states with a high presence of various drug cartels and with large swathes of territory in permanent dispute.

Perhaps the difference is that the CNI (National Indigenous Congress) has grown in Guerrero and that the state, in all its regions, is a historical and permanent cradle of rebellion?

Consequently, tensions between the Federal government and the Zapatistas and other rural and Indigenous communities in these southern regions remain extremely high though they have not yet deteriorated to the point of a declared state of insurgency and armed conflict between Zapatista forces and public security forces, with both sides clearly recognizing that such a development would be catastrophic.

As one analyst notes, paraphrasing the conciliatory tone AMLO adopted after assuming the presidency, the deployments could in part reflect a preemptive containment strategy to the effect that: “We respect the Zapatista movement and my fraternal, respectful recommendation is that we do not fight”; but, in case of doubt, we are going to surround and contain them, the phrase would appear to conclude…

Apart from the core areas under the control of the Zapatistas in parts of Chiapas and Guerrero in the far south of the country, some other rural and Indigenous communities have established community-based and controlled police and militias (which can be distinguished from both the paramilitary groups and the insurgent groups in Colombia, which remained beyond the control of local communities), however they are heavily outgunned and often outnumbered by the illegal armed groups which often act in tandem with local and State officials and police (as well as Federal security forces in at least some cases, it would appear). At best, the State security forces are not intervening to protect the communities, much less confronting the illegal armed groups that are terrorizing the communities.

Although AMLO has on several occasions sought to open discussions with representatives of the Zapatistas and other associated groups and communities, from the outset of AMLO’s presidency they have refused outright to enter into discussions with the Federal government and no progress has been possible in terms of reducing the differences between them and trying to find some points of agreement to build trust and cooperation, such as recognizing the rights of Indigenous and rural communities to self-government and control over activities and projects on their territories subject to informed consent, supporting community-controlled police and security forces, negotiating over the deployment and objectives of Federal security forces in such areas and how they can elaborate joint patrols and other mechanisms of cooperation and coordination to maximize their effectiveness in terms of guaranteeing the safety of rural and remote communities, and beginning the difficult and dangerous task of identifying, disempowering and dismantling the deeply embedded organized crime networks in rural and remote regions and their tacit or explicit alliances with at least some factions within the political and economic elites, public officialdam, cartels and other illegal armed groups in each region and locality.

Centralization of the public security forces

The rate of homicides and other violent crimes in Mexico accelerated drastically following the commencement of the ‘Mérida plan’ in 2007 under then president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) at the urging of the US as a regional complement of its ‘war on drugs’. The plan involved a military offensive to combat organized crime and drug trafficking, similar to ‘Plan Colombia’ which had been launched almost ten years earlier in Colombia.

The rate of homicides proceeded to increase rapidly over the next ten years (notwithstanding a moderate decline between 2011 and 2014), and from the already high levels the rate of homicides shot up dramatically in 2018 reaching approximately 34,655. The previous year (2017) had also registered a record high number of homicides since official data began to be systematically collected and compiled in 1998.

As in Colombia, the level of politically-motivated and other strategic terror-related murders (the profile of most targets is the same as that of the victims of the counter-insurgency strategies typically favoured by the US in the region, involving victims such as social and community leaders, journalists and environmental activists and human rights defenders) has also surged in the midst of the generalized violence during the period; for example, at least 130 political candidates were assassinated during the 2018 nation-wide election campaign.

The official data of the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security revealed that there were 35,484 homicides registered in 2020, a slight decrease from the number of homicides in 2019 (35,616). In 2017 the number of homicides was 29,636 while in 2018 it was 34,655.

The creation of the new National Guard corps to take over primary responsibility for securing control over the national territory is a core element of the new government’s security strategy. While it amounts to some changes to existing strategies and programs, the new corps was created largely from existing military and police units, and in some respects could be considered repackaging of old goods.

Recent figures released in mid-January 20021 by the Federal government suggest that the long-term trend of increasing rates of homicide and other grave crimes and offences has levelled off and may even be starting to fall slightly – there were 133 less homicides registered in 2020 compared to 2019, and decreases were also registered in other major crime categories such as kidnappings (according to official data the number of kidnappings fell by 36%) and robberies (which fell by 21%). Almost 52% of the homicides were registered in just five states (Guanajato, Baja California, Chihuahua, Jalisco and Michoacán), while over 27% occurred in 15 municipalities (including Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, León, Acapulco, Culiacán, Guadaljara and Cajeme). LINK

While the latest official figures give grounds for cautious optimism, it will be at least a year before it will be possible to determine whether this represents a definitive rupture with the cycle of escalating violence, crime and corruption of the last two decades. Also, the official data still does not include ‘forced disappearances’, which are estimated to amount to over 37,000 people over the last two decades.

Another aspect that has some civil society organizations and analysts concerned is that the deployment of the National Guard and allocation of resources to finance them has occurred at the same time as provincial and municipal police forces have been subjected to a large reduction in resources and powers. LINK Although many of the local and provincial forces were undoubtedly heavily penetrated by cartels and other crime groups, the centralization and militarization of public security functions also entails risks and does not guarantee that the newly established force will be more resistant to corruption and other abuses of power. LINK

The preference for an inherently centralized and top-down approach to the grave security challenge is understandable in one sense, as the process is fraught with obstacles and the possibility of subversion and degradation from within. The risk of infiltration and subversion of the Federal security strategy is especially high given the polarization of political, economic and social forces and the extensive infiltration of public and private institutions by criminal organizations and partisan groups that would like the strategy to fail, which means that political control over the security forces in any given jurisdiction can be used to further personal political and economic objectives and even to deliberately thwart efforts to confront crime, corruption and violence.

However, the centralization of command and control also means the centralization of responsibility and accountability, and it makes the public security forces even more isolated and remote from the communities they are meant to protect and serve, institutionally and operationally, and runs the risk that local communities and even entire regions will be powerless to participate in the elaboration of security strategies and the investigation and prosecution of alleged abuses by security forces personnel. The ability of citizens to denounce irregularities and abuses of power without fear of retaliation is particularly important given the high rate of impunity that prevails – for instance, over 95% of homicides remain in impunity, and it is likely that many grave crimes are not even reported.

The fact that criminal groups have managed to take over control of the activities of the police force of a particular municipality or province requires the existence of counter-measures. However, dissolving the police forces in their entirety doesn’t solve the problem, as the security forces exist within a broader institutional matrix which must necessarily be affected by the same forces and groups that enabled the operational control of the police to be taken over. Moreover, there is no guarantee that Federal security forces – or more accurately specific commanders and units – have not been similarly compromised.

The institutional matrix and operative forces and groups in each locality must be investigated thoroughly in order to determine the extent of criminality in each instance and identify the main perpetrators and operatives.

Anti-Corruption campaign

The campaign against corruption was a core issue in the 2018 elections, and the new government has made this a central element of its strategy. Considerable progress has already been made on numerous high-profile cases.

Two years after Enrique Peña Nieto’s term ended, the initial legacy of his time in government included: two former secretaries of state in prison (Rosario Robles and Salvador Cienfuegos – the latter has since been released for lack of probative evidence); another senior government figure (Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong) has an open file for damage to the national patrimony; the former head of the Treasury and Foreign Relations, Luis Videgaray, is accused of accepting bribes from the Brazilian company Odebrecht and has been charged with ‘treason’; the former general director of the State-owned oil company (Pemex), Emilio Lozoya, is a protected witness (he originally fled to Spain but was subsequently arrested and extradited to Mexico last year) providing testimony in various criminal proceedings; the former Attorney General of the Republic, Jesús Murillo Karam, is being investigated for negligence and complicity in the disappearance of the 43 rural student teachers of Ayotzinapa.

Many other files have been opened involving serious crimes (including corruption, abuse of power, influence peddling, bribes, fraud, diversion of public resources and even links with organized crime) against former senior State officials from almost of all major State institutions, agencies and State-owned enterprises.

One wide-ranging investigation has to do with the contracting of services from the Ministry of the Interior invoking the concept of ‘national security’ so as to avoid normal procurement procedures and provide a layer of secrecy covering all information concerning the hundreds of ‘no-bid’ contracts involved. The ministry was directed by Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong (currently coordinator of the PRI in the Senate) for most of Peña Nieto’s presidency. LINK

The agencies responsible for these and other related investigations are the Secretary of Public Functions, the Ministry of the Interior, the Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera, UIF), the Tax Administration Service (SAT) and the national Prosecutor-General’s Office (FGR).

Domestic and international pressure had forced the previous government to elaborate a raft of anti-corruption measures, given additional force by sweeping legislative amendments to underpin the new regime, however the implementation of many components of the new National Anti-Corruption System (Sistema Nacional Anticorrupción, SNA) has been sporadic and incomplete at best. The SNA is described on its website as “an initiative of coordination and collaboration between civil society organizations, federal and local authorities to combat corruption, increase transparency and strengthen citizens’ trust in public institutions”.

It is apparent that the government has also resorted to a centralized approach to implement the anti-corruption strategy and investigate and prosecute high profile cases, favouring agencies within the jurisdiction of the executive rather than rely on the recently established mechanisms of the National Anti-Corruption System.

Political opponents and other trenchant critics of the AMLO government have seized upon this as further evidence that the presidency is adopting authoritarian and partisan governing methods. However, the failure to activate and strengthen the integrated anti-corruption system is the responsibility of all political parties with substantial presence in the National Congress and provincial and local assemblies, and demonstrates the risks associate with leaving key components and tasks of supposedly ‘autonomous’ and ‘independent’ accountability agencies under the control of politicians.

That said, it is also clearly incumbent upon the presidency and the governing party to do everything possible to break the deadlock and in particular to accelerate the activation and strengthen the functioning of key components of the new anti-corruption system, such as the Citizens Participation Committees and the national Coordinating Committee.

The Citizens Participation Committees (comprising a national committee as well as regional committees) were intended to provide a secure institutional mechanism for participation and oversight by civil society at all levels of government. However, the mechanism has been largely neglected; apart from a chronic lack of resources, capacity and recognition by other agencies, in many cases the politicians responsible for appointing members to the committees have failed to appoint the full number of members to the respective Selection Committees, preventing the Citizens Participation Committees from contributing to the anti-corruption drive and in many cases leaving them completely inoperative. LINK

Although the new government has been proactive in launching high-profile anti-corruption cases and elaborating some more comprehensive structural and systemic anti-corruption measures (such as carrying out a thorough review and overhaul of the assets and management of the State-owned oil company Pemex and other key State assets), the successes in combatting corruption and other illegal practices by public officials to date do not appear to have made a significant dent on the overall scale and persistence of institutionally embedded corruption, illegal networks of patronage and collaboration between legal and illicit sectors, and the endemic violence that continues to ravage many sectors and regions.

An illustrative case is that the theft of gasoline from Pemex installations and its national distribution network (usually by cartels or other organized crime networks) has been substantially reduced. However, as some of the more traditional and most lucrative opportunities for corruption, embezzlement and theft of public resources have been cut off or reduced, organized crime and illegal armed groups have shifted their attention to other areas and activities, such as extortion and embezzlement of the resources of the provincial and municipal levels of government and local communities, which are more vulnerable to pressure from the illegal armed groups and which also generally attract less attention, meaning that financial and other administrative irregularities are more likely to go unreported and undetected.

A similar situation is apparent in Colombia, examined in detail in the report completed by the Historic Commission on the origin and causes of the armed conflict in the country. The Commission was established during the negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government which resulted in the Peace Accord being signed in 2016 (another detailed consideration of the phenomenon can be found HERE).

The Cartels

The Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) is widely considered as being the most powerful cartel in Mexico at the present time, equalling or even surpassing the Sinaloa Cartel as the dominant actor among the cartels over the last couple of years in terms of size, firepower, territorial control and revenues. LINK

While there are several other cartels that are also preeminent both in Mexico as well as in other countries, and the CJNG is currently involved in numerous regional and local disputes for territory and resources, the main rival to the CJNG is the Sinaloa Cartel. Apart from its still vast power base in Mexico, the Sinaloa Cartel (sometimes referred to as the Cartel del Pacífico – Cartel of the Pacific) is widely reported as having established a substantial presence in Colombia in recent years, the main objective being to forge ‘upstream linkages’ and tactical alliances with illegal armed groups in Colombia to ensure reliable cocaine supplies. This has usually been done by forging agreements with organized crime and illegal armed groups in major production zones and distribution corridors rather than by trying to take over or displace existing networks and assert territorial control. LINK

According to media reports, the Jalisco (CJNG) and Sinaloa cartels are currently involved in ongoing territorial disputes in several different areas throughout the country, often forming temporary alliances with other cartels in their efforts to gain an advantage over their main rivals. LINK

Recent developments suggest that the CJNG is the cartel that is considered to be the most dangerous to the country and to the State, and that it has been the most heavily targeted by counter-measures directed at reducing the power of the cartels and if possible eliminating them, whether as organizational entities capable of large-scale strategic operations and activities or physically if necessary. The cartel has responded in kind, escalating the number of high-profile attacks against senior State officials, particularly officials that have been involved in trying to prosecute senior cartel figures. LINK

Apart from its support role in the investigation of corruption cases noted above, the federal Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera, UIF) has played a central role in the investigation of Mexico’s cartels and other organized crime and illegal armed groups.

As a result of the UIF’s financial investigations during 2019 and 2020 financial institutions in Mexico blocked more than 17,000 accounts associated with 12 cartels with a total value of around 1,690 million pesos. Of this, over 931 million pesos (around 55%) were in accounts the UIF identified as being associated with the CJNG.

Over 3,500 accounts containing in total more than 410 million pesos associated with the cartel ‘La Familia Michoacana’ were also blocked, the second highest total attributed to a specific cartel. In third place by total value of accounts blocked was the Sinaloa Cartel (approximately 220 million pesos).

The nine other major criminal organizations targeted by the UIF during this 2-year period were Unión Tepito, Cártel Santa Rosa de Lima, Los Zetas, Cártel del Golfo, Guerreros Unidos, Caballeros Templarios, Los Rojos, Cártel de Tláhuac y Anti Unión. LINK

While the CJNG accounts comprised over half of the suspect accounts identified and blocked by the UIF, and those of the Sinaloa cartel were much less, this is not necessarily a reflection of their respective revenues and accumulated wealth. It appears that the latter is much more adept at hiding or disguising their revenue and wealth.

The UIF has also produced an updated map identifying the core areas throughout Mexico where each cartel is present. The study identified 19 ‘high impact delinquent organizations’ within Mexico, two of which also have a substantial international presence. Five other criminal organizations have also increased the scope and range of their activities in multiple regions in recent years: the Cártel de la Unión Tepito; the Cártel de Tláhuac (mainly present in Mexico City); ‘Los Viagra’ (mainly in the state of Michoacán); the Cártel de Noreste (in Tamaulipas); and the Cártel Independiente de Acapulco, ‘Los Rojos’ and ‘Guerreros Unidos’, in the state of Guerrero.

The other major criminal groups identified in the analysis conducted by the UIF were the Cártel del Golfo, Los Zetas, La Familia, Los Beltrán Leyva, Cártel Santa Rosa and Fuerzas Antiunión.

Political Conditions In Mexico, The Fight Against The Cartels, And Their Security Implications

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In terms of territorial presence, the CJNG were found to have a significant presence in 24 Mexican states and the Sinaloa cartel in 19 states. The next prolific in terms of territorial presence were the Cártel del Golfo (present in 14 states), Los Zetas (13), the Cártel del Noreste (5), Guerreros Unidos (4), La Familia (3), Los Beltrán Leyva (3), the Cártel Santa Rosa (2), Unión Tepito (2) and Fuerzas Antiunión (2).

The analysis also determined that the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG are actively disputing 15 states: Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sinaloa, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Colima, Querétaro, Estado de México, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Quintana Roo. LINK

Officials have identified five principal fronts in the campaign to weaken and eventually dismantle the criminal organisations and illegal armed groups: the targeting of the groups’ armed formations and hitmen, as well as the leaders of the cartels; the identification and interruption of their financial structures; combatting the political corruption that protects them, particularly at the local and regional levels; combatting the judicial, ministerial and police corruption that facilitates the groups’ activities and provides them with legal protection; and, eroding the social base that supports them, primarily through social and financial inclusion programs.

While there have been some significant achievements in the Federal government’s efforts to come to terms with the cartels and reduce their scale and scope of operations, it is clear that the battle is far from over and future developments remain entirely unpredictable.

Ending the ‘war on drugs’

One aspect that remains to be revealed is AMLO’s approach to the ‘war on drugs’. During the election campaign he stated his intention to scale down or end the drug wars in Mexico, by among other things pursuing a strategy of decriminalization and harm reduction, treating the consumption of drugs as a health and social responsibility issue rather than a criminal matter to be confronted with heavy jail sentences and brute military force. While some steps have been taken in this respect in relation to the decriminalization of the production and consumption of marijuana, the government has not yet stated whether it is considering more comprehensive reforms.

Although it is still relatively early in his term there are also still no clear indications as to how alternative strategies for trying to persuade the cartels and other illegal armed groups to disarm and demobilize could be pursued, perhaps in return for reduced sentences if they are willing to participate in some type of ‘truth and justice’ process as has occurred in other countries in Central and South America since the 1990s. The elaboration and results of the disarmament and demobilization agreements that have been negotiated in several Central American countries and in Colombia provide many insights into different approaches that could be adopted.

The persistence of structural violence and terror in rural and remote regions

In many rural and remote areas, the deployment of the National Guard has not yet made a perceivable difference to the underlying dynamic of deep links between illegal armed groups, local and regional political and economic elites, and ‘public security forces’, and some reports suggest that in at least some cases elements of the public security forces appear to be tacitly collaborating with the actions of illegal armed groups that are terrorizing local communities.

The Ayotzinapa case demonstrates the difficulty of carrying out investigations of individual crimes as isolated instances, without taking into account the deeper institutional and situational contexts. Evidence presented by some witnesses in the ongoing investigation of the murder of 43 student teachers in Ayotzinapa in 2014, including the testimony provided to investigators by former members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel which has been attributed with primary responsibility for the massacre, indicates that over a long period the cartel has given bribes to commanders and other Army officials to facilitate the transfer of drugs, weapons and money in Guerrero, and that members of at least one military unit participated in the murder and disappearance of the student teachers.

One of the witnesses, a former member of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, affirmed that:

“Members of the cartel, acting in collaboration with the Municipal Police of Iguala, the State Police of Guerrero and the Army, together with the Federal Police, began to detain the student teachers in different parts of the city.” He further testified that the students were detained in groups, one of which was taken by armed soldiers in official vehicles to the headquarters of the 27th Infantry Battalion, in Iguala. LINK

Also in the frontier state of Guerrero, exasperated by the failure of the public security forces to protect them, twenty-two communities of the Nahua Indigenous people of the Montaña Baja region have decided to arm themselves in order to combat the illegal armed groups that are terrorizing them and trying to take over their communities and territory. The communities have established autonomous governing councils and assemblies, which among their many other tasks oversee the management and operations of their militias.

More than 30 community members were killed by the illegal armed groups in 2019. The communities’ armed security forces carry AK47s, R15s and some Uzis, but are mostly armed with shotguns and 0.22 calibre rifles, Within the heavily stocked arsenals of their adversaries, the cartels Los Ardillos and Los Rojos (factions that split off from the Cártel de los Beltrán Leyva), are vehicles that carry light artillery pieces and 50 calibre Barret M82s, a semi-automatic sniper rifle that is considered to be one of the most powerful rifles in the world.

The communities have also consolidated their organization across the region in the Indigenous and Popular Council of Guerrero Emiliano Zapata (Concejo Indígena y Popular de Guerrero Emiliano Zapata), and most of them are also members of the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities-Community Police of the Founding Peoples (Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias-Policía Comunitaria de los Pueblos Fundadores).

There is an atmosphere of peace and security within the communities. But the areas around them are besieged by the cartel Los Ardillos, which has also cut off the main routes to the regional centres where the communities obtain essential supplies and services and sell their produce.

The checkpoints that have been mounted by Los Ardillos are located in the three adjacent townships of Atzacualoya, El Jagüey, Hueycantenango and Tlanipatla. The cartel has reportedly built temporary lodgings at the El Jagüey checkpoint where it has permanently posted 150 of its gunmen. The location also serves as an operations centre for the armed wing of the cartel.

The National Guard soldiers deployed to the region have stopped conducting patrols in the area. When journalists from Contralínea travelled along the route in 2019, the only National Guard checkpoints they observed were at the entrances to the city of Tlapa, some 110 kilometres from the region. The entire region, home to around 50,000 Nahua people living in 22 communities, is under a state of siege and has been left abandoned by all three levels of government. LINK

As the preceding cases illustrate, as yet it appears that the new Federal government has not managed to make substantial headway into the core underlying factors, causes and consequences of the institutional decay and rampant violence and corruption that have been tearing Mexico apart over the last 20 years. This should not be surprising, however, as there is in fact a plurality of modalities of violence, and in many cases the structural origins of conflict and violence go much further back.

The Mexican cartels and other illegal armed groups have become more fragmented and decentralized and have diversified their illegal economic activities. One major aspect that has not been subjected to detailed investigation is the politically-related activities of such groups, and how they fit in to the campaigns of violence and terror being waged against many rural and Indigenous communities throughout the country. LINK

There is another aspect that further complicates the situation. Last year, the CJNG claimed that some high-level State officials were covertly collaborating with some of the cartel’s rivals, specifically to try to take down the CJNG but also in pursuit of their own political and economic projects and associated illegal activities. LINK

Such a scenario has many precedents and parallels in Colombia, where Colombian (and US) politicians, military and law enforcement officials, businessmen and landlords, among others, have collaborated extensively with paramilitary groups for many purposes, including forming tactical alliances to take out other illegal armed groups that are particularly troublesome for the authorities and their associates, to forcibly displace communities to take over land and resources, or to achieve social and political control in specific regions and sectors. LINK1, LINK2

As noted above, according to the official figures, the Sinaloa Cartel has been relatively lightly affected by the latest round of financial investigations. It appears to share some characteristics with the most omnipresent and yet most elusive of the paramilitary groups in Colombia, the ‘Águilas Negras’, which has been involved directly or indirectly in many of the hundreds, if not thousands, of strategic targeted assassinations of political opponents to the ruling parties as well as other civil society and community leaders over the years.

The longevity and omnipresence of the illegal armed group, and the inability of officials to make the slightest progress in identifying its members and organizational structure, suggest that it may be closely associated with, if not organically embedded in, the deepest power structures that reign over Colombia. LINK

Conclusion

The political and economic situation in Mexico is at a critical juncture. Apart from the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the country, there are numerous existing and potential sources of additional destabilization and disruption of future political and economic developments. Such potentially disruptive factors and influences include some elements within the political opposition forces dominated by Mexico’s traditional political and economic elite who might be inclined to resort to extreme measures to try to recapture their lost power (possibly with the assistance of ‘regime change’ experts from the US), the major Mexican cartels and other illegal armed groups, and the future course of the pandemic.

Each of these factors is of utmost relevance to the future course the security situation in Mexico will take. While preliminary data suggest that the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador continues to enjoy a high level of public support and approval, this could change rapidly if there are adverse changes in the economic or political situation. One of the key elements of the new government’s security strategy, the National Guard, is still in very early days and it remains unclear whether it has made, and can make in the future, a significant difference to the catastrophic security situation that Mexico has been suffering for the last 10-20 years.

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