democraciaAbierta: Investigation

Mexico’s everyday war: Guerrero and the trials of peace

Crime rates are climbing across Mexico, as cartels splinter into smaller groups competing ferociously for turf. Just one state, Guerrero, contends with at least 40 such outfits. The government needs a tailored approach for each region, focused on protecting the public and reforming the police. Español

International Crisis Group
7 May 2020
A heroin cook and trafficker operating out of Guerrero shows off his handgun during an interview, 16 April 2019.
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CRISISGROUP/Falko Ernst. All rights reserved

What’s new? In 2019, Mexico once again suffered the highest homicide rate in its history. Organised crime, having survived the government’s militarised assaults and corrupted many officials, has broken up into smaller outfits active in several illicit businesses. Armed “self-defence” groups have popped up in response, but some have criminal ties themselves.

Why does it matter? Nowhere are these trends clearer – and the trail bloodier – than in Guerrero, west of Mexico City. This state presents President Andrés Manuel López Obrador with his biggest challenge in his quest to reduce violent crime without using military force. Criminal competition is fierce, corruption is pervasive and police collusion rampant.

What should be done? Mexico’s government should develop regional intervention plans combining short-term measures to protect vulnerable populations, reforms to strengthen law enforcement and boost economic growth, and tailored peace-building initiatives. Concentrating resources in the country’s most violent regions, such as Guerrero, would enhance the prospects for conflict mitigation.

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Guerrero is sadly unique among Mexican states for its history of violence and misrule. Sandwiched between Mexico City and the Pacific coast, the state endured some of the country’s most vicious counter-insurgent repression during the Cold War and one of the worst atrocities in recent Mexican history – the disappearance of 43 teacher trainees from Ayotzinapa in 2014.

Today, it is the epicentre of organised crime in Mexico, with more groups jostling for turf than in any other single region. At least 40 outfits fight over a portfolio of criminal ventures, ranging from drug production and trafficking, above all heroin for the U.S. market, to several newer rackets, extortion foremost among them.

With sky-high rates of impunity for serious offences – a number of judges and high-ranking police are accused of complicity in criminal activity – Guerrero poses the toughest test for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s promise to bring peace to Mexico. Overhauling civilian police, protecting vulnerable populations and disarming violent groups are all essential tasks if the state is to emerge from its chronic war.

Today, Guerrero is the epicentre of organised crime in Mexico, with more groups jostling for turf than in any other single region.

As in Mexico as a whole, however, the immediate prospects for reducing violence in Guerrero are disheartening, especially at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects threaten to command official attention and squeeze public resources. The problem is the sheer proliferation of criminal organisations: fewer than a dozen groups dedicated largely to drug trafficking once held most of the money and firepower, but as the “war on drugs” unfolded from 2006 onward, they have broken up into a multitude of smaller and often more aggressive outfits.

In Guerrero, this fragmentation can be traced to the federal forces’ killing of criminal overlord Arturo Beltrán Leyva in 2009. Since then, organised crime in the state has spread geographically, broadened its range of enterprises and become more dangerous to locals – above all to those it targets for extortion or suspects of helping competitors.

A continuing wave of assassinations, disappearances, enforced disappearances and internal displacements shows how criminal violence has morphed into local armed conflicts of which civilians are the main victims. Early signs indicate that these competing groups have no intention of ceasing their activities as a result of the coronavirus.

Yet Guerrero’s violence cannot be ascribed entirely to the convolutions of organised crime. Many of the newest non-state armed actors began as vigilantes who arose to defend indigenous communities against criminal predators, claiming that the state would not or could not do so. Clashes between the self-defence forces and criminal groups now account for much of the violence afflicting Guerrero. But in seizing territory and resorting to extreme violence, some of these autodefensas have started to resemble criminals themselves.

Not all police collude with organised crime, but over 80 per cent of the force's own rank and file say their fellow officers engage in "illegal" behaviour.

The proliferation of self-defence forces reflects the tremendous lack of public confidence in Guerrero’s state authorities and security forces. Across the region, the boundaries between state and crime are fuzzy. Not all police collude with organised crime, but according to the force’s own rank and file over 80 per cent engage in “illegal” behaviour.

The consequences are plain to see. Municipalities such as Acapulco have disbanded their police forces due to criminal infiltration. The weight of evidence in the Ayotzinapa disappearances investigation (marred as it is by alleged mishandling of proof and witness testimonies) points to the combined guilt of police and organised crime. Those police commanders who dare to enforce the law in defiance of criminal groups face the threat of retaliatory attacks, including bombings, to oblige them to submit to criminal orders.

President López Obrador won a landslide victory in July 2018 in part due to public discontent with the “war on drugs”, the militarised law enforcement campaign that repeatedly failed to reduce crime. He vowed instead to address the socio-economic roots of criminal recruitment – a creed encapsulated in the mantra “hugs, not bullets” – while tackling endemic corruption, including in the security forces. As president, however, his approach has been erratic.

His landmark security initiative, the National Guard founded in mid-2019, has no budget of its own and derives most of its personnel and hardware from the armed forces. His social programs aiming to dim the underworld’s appeal have yielded little to date. His plans to clean up the security forces remain on ice. Guerrero’s enduring troubles suggest that his policies will also prove inadequate to the crime-fighting task.

No quick fix is possible. Past reforms of the police, security system and judiciary ran aground, largely because they were too ambitious. A more promising starting point would be to tailor intervention plans for hot-spots such as Guerrero, with the top priorities of curtailing the extreme violence to which defenceless civilians are exposed and severing the ties binding state officials and security forces to organised crime.

National Guardsmen and other security forces should protect the vulnerable caught in the crossfire, and help create the conditions for licit economic development, especially for local farmers. Over the medium term, the government should focus on restoring credible civilian policing, ensuring strict external oversight so as to curb institutional corruption.

Existing local exercises could, if properly supported, pave the way for disarmament of criminal and self-defence groups at war in Guerrero.

Mexico’s federal government should also return to its initial proposal of fostering peace through mediation between feuding armed actors. Existing local exercises of this sort have shown some promise, and could, if properly supported, pave the way for disarmament of criminal and self-defence groups at war in Guerrero, reintegrating their members into society without causing still more violent schisms.

The government should supply the resources and physical protection to enable local civil society such as victims’ organisations to assume lead roles in these processes.

Such initiatives have yet to win over public opinion. But the government should give them the sustained investment they require. It can no longer react to the agonies of Guerrero and other states with failed remedies from the past or mere laments about criminals bent on subversion.

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Read the Crisis Group full report here.

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