In Mexico, every day is now Day of the Dead

Statistics suggest a country in thrall to extreme violence. Photo: Valeria Almaraz/Unsplash

THE dispatch of 5,000 additional federal police officers to tourist cities after a spate of violent incidents – including a lengthy shootout in the Baja California resort of La Paz – threatens to become an explosive political metaphor in a crucial election year for Mexico.

The latest violence highlights profound institutional weaknesses and the inability of a corrupt political class that has run out of ideas to solve a problem that now threatens the country’s very fabric.

The unpopular president, Enrique Peña Nieto, knows that record homicide figures for 2017, bringing to a definitive end an apparent downward trend in bloodshed during his administration’s early years, could be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

At the weekend he hastily convened his misnamed ‘National Security’ council at the official residence, Los Pinos. As a result, National Security Commissioner Renato Sales pledged yet another wave of troop deployments across the country to crack down on criminal groups. 

But a lot of good more talk will do. Peña Nieto has failed miserably in his pledges to curtail the violence.

Grim statistics paint a portrait of a country in thrall to extreme violence. In 2017 a staggering 29,168 murders took violent crime to a 20-year high with official figures showing that it was Mexico’s deadliest year on record, buckling under homicide rates higher than at the height of the country’s drug war in 2011 (27,213 homicides). 

The standard narrative seeking to explain away Mexico’s problems is that the defeat in Colombia of its main drug cartels in the 1990s drove the traffickers into Mexico, setting off a bloody turf war whose currency has been extreme, theatrical violence – particularly resurgent since the extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, fabled capo of the mighty Sinaloa Cartel, and hence the end of the “Pax Sinaloa”. The University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico Project has chronicled the rise in murders and estimates that up to half (80,000–100,000) of all intentional homicides since 2006 have been related to organized crime.

But it is all too easy for politicians to blame the violence on amoral characters such as “El Chapo” Guzmán and the drug cartels’ infinite supply of faceless peones – footsoldiers. Indeed, it is a convenient distraction from the reality: El Chapo and those near to him insist that they worked closely with politicians and the security forces, who ultimately betrayed him for their own, nefarious reasons.

Like a Mexican shrimp cocktail, the country’s violent temperament has many ingredients – and most of them are political. The institution of politics in Mexico has become ineffective at many levels, unable to resolve deep-seated social problems worsened by decades of inertia that pour gasoline on the problem of endemic crime. Mexican politics has become the problem, not the solution.

Political corruption

The first factor in this hall of shame is, inevitably, political corruption, which takes many forms.

The most obvious is the direct funding of politicians by powerful criminals. As El Chapo’s associates themselves have remarked, over the years the former capo (and undoubtedly many of his rivals) dug deep in their pockets to finance political campaigns, eradicating the incentive of politicians to support effective counter-narcotics efforts. Quite simply, corruption has been entrenched with the enormous drug profits that traffickers use to bribe politicians and officials.

Less obvious, however, is the culture of political corruption that distinguished the control of Mexico by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) for most of the 20th century (until 2000 and, after a brief interregnum, since 2012 under Peña Nieto). Under the PRI, elections were notoriously and routinely rigged to such an extent that this has profoundly coloured attitudes towards the legitimacy of elected officials both within political movements themselves but also among the public.

Given the PRI’s long-term corrosive effect on the legitimacy of elections, it came as no surprise that notwithstanding the historic vote for the opposition rightwing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) in 2000, elections ever since have been fraught with allegations of vote-buying and electoral fraud, and are almost always accompanied by protests led by losing candidates.

Many Mexicans suspect that politicians and cartels do deals, and hence have developed a deep distrust in the electoral system and do not vote, further reducing the potential for “democracy” to find solutions to the country’s problems. Local politicians linked to local criminal groups have been implicated in some of Mexico’s most notorious atrocities, such as the murder in 2014 of 43 trainee teachers in Iguala, Guerrero.

Given the problems associated with corruption in Mexico – valued by one of the country’s leading business groups at about 9% of GDP – one would assume that tackling this has always been a high political priority.

Yet the government has been surprisingly tardy in its efforts to attack the finances of criminal organizations, only in 2015 introducing the first sanctions against organized crime chiefs and money launderers. It has not succeeded in capturing a significant chunk of the vast proceeds accumulated by traffickers, making only a small dent in the estimated $10 billion that Mexico’s Senate has estimated are laundered annually. Moreover, the creation of a “national anti-corruption system” based on an ambitious constitutional reform was only completed and signed into law in 2016 and, following repeated delays, did not come into force – albeit in a limited form – until mid-2017. By the end of 2017 the appointment of an anti-corruption prosecutor was still pending and just eight of Mexico’s 32 states had fulfilled their local obligations enabling the new system to operate. Civil society groups have been highly critical both of the form in which the system is meant to operate and the delays as Mexico enters its election year – traditionally known as the “Año de Hidalgo” whereby government officials purportedly line their pockets in an administration’s final months.

Distorted federalism

A widespread perception that electoral politics is deeply corrupted reduces the ability of the federal government to tackle corruption – mainly in the form of vote-buying (patronage) – at the state and municipal levels of governance where politicians are most likely to be paid off by the cartels.

There is hard evidence for this: research has suggested that where there is genuine political competition at the sub-national level, there tend to be greater levels of political violence because rival parties threaten the arrangements reached by incumbents with criminal organizations.

As if to underline the intimacy between violence and local politics in Mexico, a dramatic increase in the number of assassinations targeting mayors, mayoral candidates, and former mayors in Mexico has accompanied the increase in drug-related and other criminal violence since 2008, according to a Justice in Mexico working paper. Indeed, while there is understandable outrage at the murder of journalists in Mexico, its mayors are in fact three times more likely to be killed. 

An age-old tension between federal and sub-national power in Mexico fuelled by the intense partisanship generated by a ruling party’s jealous control of elected office may be exacerbating this problem: research from the period of control under President Felipe Calderón (2006–12) of the PAN confirms a widespread suspicion that Mexico’s federal governments have followed differentiated strategies at state and municipal levels to tackle drug violence, working cooperatively with partisans (in this case, the PAN and to a lesser extent the PRI) but deliberately denying assistance to leftwing governors and mayors – and then often blaming the violence on them.

Alongside federal limitations upon what happens in the provinces is the absence of a clear federal security strategy, something the head of the influential Coparmex business organization, Gustavo de Hoyos, told interior secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong recently. Observers consider the need for a more holistic security strategy essential to get a handle on escalating violence. Yet the government’s reflex whenever there is an upsurge that generates global headlines – confirmed this week with the announcement by its National Security chief – has been to deploy federal forces to support or replace local police, to pursue a failed “kingpin” strategy aimed at decapitating criminal groups, and to focus on municipalities where murders have been concentrated. Yet research clearly suggests that this strategy has been ineffective and can exacerbate violence: leaders are replaceable, organizations fragment creating yet more organizations, and new rivals are wont to battle it out. The resurgence of killings in 2017 came despite the removal of some 107 of Mexico’s 120 most violent capos.

Peña Nieto’s tardy response to the violence has been to pass a controversial internal security law formalizing the military’s role in domestic security by formally regulating their domestic deployment more than a decade after the government sent them into battle against the cartels. The law has been heavily criticized by rights groups, NGOs and even some multilateral organizations who fear it will curb scrutiny of the security forces who have themselves been blamed for much of the violence and many of the tens of thousands of disappearances, thereby encouraging even greater impunity and abuse in a country with notoriously weak judicial institutions.

This overreliance on military force – laid bare by the kingpin strategy – is at the heart of much of the violence of recent years. Militarization has caused large criminal groups to splinter into small ones, lose their control on trafficking commodities such as drugs, and hence concentrate on controlling territory from which they profit through other forms of predatory crime such as extortion, kidnapping and robbery. This has turned ordinary Mexicans from bystanders in the conflict to targets in a context of weak or non-existent institutions to protect them. The genealogy of the cartels is now the stuff of legend, and at the heart of the turf wars that have proliferated in the last decade.

The militarization of Mexico’s drug war owes much to politics, not least to Calderón’s weakness: the panista won the presidency by a whisker that left him without a strong (or, his leftwing opponent alleged, legitimate) mandate. As a result, one of his first acts was to declare war on the cartels and send in the soldiers in a misplaced effort to legitimize his presidency through a show of force. It went badly wrong.

Moreover, militarization offers a hierarchical solution to Mexico’s dirtiest of problems that has allowed senior federal politicians to sidestep the grubby local politics with which most of the violence can be associated, further weakening the legitimacy of local politicians and enhancing their lack of accountability. An outcome of this has been yet more corruption.

Weak institutions and citizenship

A third political factor feeding extreme violence in Mexico is that of its weak or inadequate institutions, culpability for which can again be laid firmly at the doorstep of its political class and the machine politics that moves them around the chess board.

Mexico has undoubtedly been a victim of bad timing: its transition to a functional multiparty democracy when politics and institutions were changing in the late 1990s and after 2000 coincided with the defeat of the Colombian cartels and the shift of the centre of gravity of the hemispheric drug-trafficking industry to Mexico.

For many years there have been well-documented, systemic weaknesses in the country’s criminal justice institutions – from the police to the courts – which many citizens regard as routinely engaging in corruption and criminal activity, unaccountable, and enjoying extensive impunity. Criminal gangs have long been able to supplement the wages of notoriously underpaid policemen and civil servants. 

A process of reform began under Calderón, albeit tentatively as attention focused on the drug war, and a landmark judicial reform was completed after eight years only in 2016. Its aim was to boost the professionalization of those working within the criminal justice system in an effort to reduce their incentive to collude with criminal actors. However, critics say that lingering flaws and broken promises have limited its impact, that there is a general consensus that it has done little to address pervasive corruption, and that it could take decades to change old attitudes and habits that have enabled abuses. 

Alongside criminal justice, dysfunctional political institutions are also exacerbating the violence by disabling the mechanisms of accountability that are crucial for the proper functioning of any electoral system.

The principle of “no re-election” that was a mainstay of post-revolutionary politics – deriving from fears of dictatorship under President Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911) but also providing a proxy for accountability in the one-party era of PRI hegemony by shuffling officials into other jobs after one term – was only modified in late 2013, and the changes only take effect this year. No re-election helps to explain why the institutions of accountability and transparency remain so weak in Mexico even after nearly two decades of competitive politics. Nothing happens if a governor, mayor or senior official fail to improve law enforcement. Voters cannot punish bad leadership, which gives officials little incentive to spearhead reforms, a problem exacerbated by corruption. Party machines deploy transitory políticos with fancy plans to address superficial issues, who then use their position to raid the coffers. If those who inhabit governing structures have little incentive to improve people’s lives, the authority – indeed, the very purpose – of the state can recede and the void can be filled by criminal gangs or weary citizens who simply bypass distrusted institutions, weakening them even further. There are many signs of this in Mexico: from the privatization of security in middle-class suburbs to vigilantism or lynching in the countryside and peripheral settlements. When citizens take the initiative in this way, it further weakens the incentive of the state itself to act, and itself becomes ripe for corruption.

The close relationship between violence and Mexico’s political problems explains why the former has become a central issue in July’s presidential election as the outgoing Peña Nieto struggles to keep the PRI candidate José Antonio Meade – who is languishing in the polls in with a chance. It is not difficult to see why: Peña Nieto has singularly failed in his pledge to bring violence under control, and this has undoubtedly damaged his already low ratings. A poll in September 2017 suggested that 76% of the urban Mexican population feel insecure: in 2016 that figure had been 71%. As if to underline the scale of the political problem insecurity has become for Peña Nieto, last week the presidential entourage had to cancel a trip to Tamaulipas because of the high levels of violence in the state.

The leftwing frontrunner Andres Manuel López Obrador (known as “AMLO”) – who cut his political teeth as president of the PRI in Tabasco – has so far failed to gain the initiative with his ill-judged proposal for an amnesty with criminal gangs to reduce the violence, and has personalized his own solution by promising to put himself at the heart of security strategy. 

At a deeper level, however, AMLO’s intervention reveals how violence has become a political resource in Mexico, and how its polarized politics when combined with weak institutions may be making it worse. With its foundations in the centralizing grip maintained by the PRI for 70 years, politics in Mexico has become a zero-sum game in which parties compete mercilessly for power in ways that prevent cooperation for the public good and maximize efforts to discredit opponents or chip away at confidence in the federal ruling party’s ability to protect citizens.

The flip side of weak institutions is weak citizenship and, despite almost 20 years since its formal democratic transition, Mexico still lacks and independent and strong civil society to channel citizens’ interests. There are many groups that seek to represent citizens of all kinds – human rights groups were vociferous in their pursuit of information in the recent case of a missing teenager, Marco Antonio Sánchez Flores, for example – but these are often local or sectoral and the real muscle continues to reside with powerful interest groups and hidden lobbies that lavish politicians with finance or political favours.

A good example of the weakness of civil society is the militarization of the drug war itself: activists have been calling for an end to military deployments and polls have suggested that a majority of Mexicans have been convinced the drug war has been failing since the Calderón presidency – but this has cut little ice with the detached political class.

When citizens feel excluded from the political system and its institutions, the agents of violence can prosper – and so it is no surprise that small local communities in the provinces see drug lords as local benefactors who fix the roads and provide jobs.

The role of the US

The domestic factors that are fuelling violence in Mexico are exacerbated by a fourth and undeniable reality in Mexican politics: the malign, yet often subtle, role that the US plays in myriad ways.

First and foremost, the US is the main market by far for Mexican drugs and it is burgeoning American demand that has propelled the enormous growth of this illicit trade. It is not just cocaine: the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), for example, says 93% of heroin seized in the US in 2015 came from Mexico, and the amount of heroin produced in Mexico between 2013 and 2016 tripled.

In return, the US exports weapons south, both illegally and legally, and this cross-border weapons trade has had a profound impact on levels of violence. According to the Mexican government’s research service, CESOP, 85% of the approximately 15 million weapons that were in circulation in Mexico in 2012 were illegal. A large proportion of these come from the US: CESOP has estimated that 2,000 weapons enter Mexico from the US illegally every day.

Secondly, the origins of the militarization of Mexico’s drug war owes much to the connections between Calderón’s PAN and hardline Republicans in the US who drove a similar, militarized strategy in Colombia and have also been doing so in Peru. Shockingly, at one stage it appeared that Calderón even backed the presence of a uniformed US military presence in Mexico, something apparently unthinkable in the country’s political folklore. However, the Wall Street Journal has revealed that US agents don Mexican military uniforms to participate directly in special missions in the country.

The doctrine of a militarized drug war is cherished by the US, originating under Richard Nixon – hardly a paragon of virtue – who created the DEA to export violence against drug traffickers. Since then, the US has spent something like $2.5 trillion on this strategy and taken its belligerent model across Latin America. The Mexican “war on drugs” has been inflated by a vast injection of US funds and military co-operation under the “Mérida Initiative” modelled on “Plan Colombia”, and cash has continued to flow despite growing evidence of human rights violations in Mexico. Democratic administrations have been equally culpable in extending support: the administrations of both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama stood full square behind this programme. Despite dysfunctional government under Peña Nieto, Obama continued to lavish him with blind support and his administration refused to publicly condemn human rights violations. The US channelled at least $3 billion in assistance to Mexico between 2008–14 as well as enormous amounts of secret spending in security support. Far more disturbing has been the close military and intelligence co-operation maintained between US and Mexican intelligence services, in which information is shared through so-called “fusion centres” operated by Mexico’s security agency CISEN throughout the country.

Finally, the political problems that have generated violence in Mexico have been greatly exacerbated by decades of thinly-veiled US support for candidates of the PRI and PAN combined with visceral hostility to the Mexican left. The latest ruse in a generation of efforts to weaken and discredit the left is the claim – made by the PRI but almost certainly originating in the US – that Russia is poised to intervene in the July elections south of the border through fake news and social media. With weary predictability, the US national security adviser H R McMaster has pointed to  “initial signs” of Russian interference in Mexican politics, and his views have been ingested by US commentators with an obvious axe to grind. With friends like these, who needs the cartels?