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Mexico maelstrom: how the drug violence got so bad

The militarised crackdown on the cartels has seen 200,000 dead in 11 years, with 2017 the deadliest year yet — now many Mexicans just want the killing to stop

Image Credit: AFP
The corpse of a man found wrapped in black plastic lies on the floor along the highway in Acapulco, Guerrero state, Mexico on December 4. Violence is rife and spreading: tourist areas have seen shootouts and decapitations this year.
Gulf News

Mexico City

Sofia, a medical assistant in Reynosa, a scruffy border city in northern Mexico, has a regular morning routine.

She wakes at 6am and readies her son for preschool, then she reviews her social media feeds for news of the latest murders.

In Mexico today, choosing your route to work can be a matter of life or death, but Sofia compares the daily drill to checking the weather on the way out the door. “It doesn’t rain water here,” she said. “It rains lead.”

It is 11 years since the then president Felipe Calderon launched a militarised crackdown on drug cartels deploying thousands of soldiers and promising an end to the violence and impunity. But the bloodletting continues, the rule of law remains elusive and accusations of human rights abuses by state security forces abound.

All the while, Mexico continues to race past a series a grim milestones: more than 200,000 dead and an estimated 30,000 missing, more than 850 clandestine graves unearthed. This year is set to be the country’s bloodiest year since the government started releasing crime figures in 1997, with about 27,000 murders in the past 12 months.

Some of the worst violence in recent years has struck Reynosa and the surrounding state of Tamaulipas, which sits squeezed against the Gulf coast and the US border.

Not reported enough

Once in a while, a particularly terrible incident here will make news around the world such as the murder of Miriam Rodriguez, an activist for families of missing people, who was shot dead in her home on Mother’s Day.

But most crimes are not even reported in the local papers: journalists censor themselves to stay alive and drug cartels dictate press coverage.

“We don’t publish cartel and crime news in order to protect our journalists,” said one local news director, whose media outlet has been attacked by cartel gunmen. The information vacuum is filled by social media where bloody photographs of crime scenes and breaking news alerts on cartel shoot-outs are shared on anonymous accounts.

In Reynosa, violence has become a constant strand in everyday life. Morning commutes are held up by gun battles; movie theatres lock the doors if a shoot-out erupts during a screening. More than 90 per cent of residents feel unsafe in the city, according to a September survey by the state statistics service.

The violence here first erupted around 2010 when the Gulf cartel’s armed wing — a group of former soldiers known as Los Zetas — turned on their masters.

Since then, wave after wave of conflict has scorched through the state as rival factions emerge and collapse.

Fighting erupts over trafficking roots and the growing local drug markets, but state forces are also implicated: earlier this month, soldiers killed seven people in what was described as a “confrontation”.

The government bristles at any suggestion that the country is at war. When the International Institute for Strategic Studies ranked Mexico as second-deadliest country in the world — ahead of warzones such as Afghanistan and Yemen — the foreign ministry responded angrily, pointing to higher murder rates in Brazil and Venezuela.

War on not, the bodycount keeps climbing.

And the violence is spreading: tourist areas have seen shoot-outs and decapitations, and even the capital has seen confrontations with armed groups.

Promises made

All of which has been disastrous for the image of President Enrique Pe-a Nieto, who took office in 2012 with an ambitious agenda to push through structural reforms and promote Mexico as an emerging economy.

Fighting crime seemed an afterthought.

Pe-a Nieto’s government maintained the military focus of the drug war, and continued to target cartel kingpins. But analysts question the strategy, saying that it shatters larger criminal empires but leaves smaller factions fighting for the spoils.

Breaking up the cartels also has the perverse effect of encouraging crime groups to diversify, said Brian J Phillips, professor at the Centre for Teaching and Research in Economics.

And the liberalisation of marijuana laws in some US states has prompted some farmers to switch to opium poppies, prompting fresh conflict around the heroin trade.

“I don’t care about organised crime,” said one woman, known online as Loba, or She-wolf. “They can traffic all the drugs they want so long as they don’t mess with ordinary people.” Loba is one of the social media activists who report on cartel violence via Twitter and Facebook. It’s a perilous undertaking: at least two citizen journalists in Tamaulipas have been killed.

When asked why she runs such risks, Loba answered: “Perhaps this can save someone from being shot.”

— Guardian News 
& Media Ltd