Drug-Kingpin Takedowns Spur Turf Wars as Murders Surge in Mexico

  • Violence returns to levels not seen since before Pena Nieto
  • All homicides are up 15%; a tally of drug killings spiked 33%

Three years after Mexicans elected President Enrique Pena Nieto on a pledge of putting an end to the murder and violence gripping the nation, killings have returned to the dark days of his predecessor’s administration.

Homicides rose 15 percent to 9,400 in the first half from a year earlier, the government said in July, reaching levels of former President Felipe Calderon’s term. But drug-related killings have soared even more according to one tally: Milenio newspaper, which has tracked organized-crime deaths since 2006, reports a 33 percent surge through July.

Federal Police remove a body from a field near Acapulco.

Phtographer: Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images

The rebound in cartel violence flies in the face of Pena Nieto’s efforts to target the deadliest crimes by taking out the heads of gangs. It comes as the nation already is disillusioned by economic growth lagging behind government forecasts, corruption scandals, and the president’s inability to resolve the case of 43 students almost two years after they disappeared at the hands of police allied with heroin traffickers.

"You don’t really have a coherent set of policies to reduce violence," said Alejandro Hope, who worked in a management position at Mexico’s intelligence agency, known as Cisen, from 2008 to 2011. "What you’re seeing is that you still have a significant institutional weakness that hasn’t been corrected."

The violence has grown more brutal in the past three months. The home of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman’s mother was raided in June, mayors have been assassinated, the director of a beauty pageant was shot to death and, just two days ago, at least six people were kidnapped at an upscale restaurant in Puerto Vallarta. Police say one of El Chapo’s sons was among those abducted.

The rise in murders has cratered Pena Nieto’s popularity. His approval rating plunged to 23 percent in a Reforma newspaper poll published last week, the lowest level since the late 1990s, from 30 percent in April. Seventy-one percent of respondents disagreed with the way the president is combating organized crime.

"Security was already there as a concern, but it was improving during the first years of the administration," said Alejandro Schtulmann, president of Mexico City-based political-risk advisory and consulting firm Empra, whose work includes a focus on Mexico’s organized crime and violence. "Now the government doesn’t appear capable of solving this problem. It has a trickle-down effect on perceptions that crosses from tourism to business to concerns about political stability."

Pena Nieto’s press office declined to comment on security matters and referred questions to the National Security Commission, which didn’t comment. Pena Nieto said in a Televisa interview on Monday that he’s more concerned with advancing Mexico than the public’s opinion of him.

Joaquin Guzman arrested in Jan. 2016.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

The capture in January of El Chapo, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, has probably played a part in the resurgence. The power vacuum El Chapo left behind augurs even more killings because Pena Nieto has focused too heavily on taking down drug lords and not enough on dismantling mid-level operators who fight ruthlessly to occupy positions vacated by captured kingpins, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"We are likely to see bigger spikes in violence for the remaining time of the Pena Nieto administration," said Felbab-Brown, whose research and writings have focused on drug-fueled conflicts from Mexico to Afghanistan. "The government isn’t showing a strong capacity to nip the violence in the bud."

Poor Timing

Felbab-Brown lamented that the killings are taking hold just as Mexico is getting a close-up from the U.S. through the lens of Donald Trump’s run for president. The Republican nominee has labeled undocumented Mexicans as rapists and promised to build a wall at the Mexican border. "It could precisely encourage the worst demagoguery" from the Trump campaign, she said.

One of the strongest examples of how El Chapo’s absence has fomented violence, aside from the kidnapping of his son, is the attack on the home of his mother, Maria Consuelo Loera, in June. About 150 men from the rival Beltran Leyva cartel descended on the octogenarian’s gated compound and the rest of her village of La Tuna, according to local media and police reports. They cut the telephone and internet lines and killed eight people in and around the village, including a cousin of El Chapo.

Enemies of the Sinaloa Cartel, such as the Beltran Leyva group, have "seized the opportunity" to invade its turf, Schtulmann said. Organized-crime killings have risen an even higher 48 percent through July from a year earlier, according to Schtulmann.

Rival Gangs

The Sinaloa syndicate’s main rival lately has been the Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartel, which gained notoriety last year after shooting down a military helicopter, killing six soldiers aboard.

As they seek to make inroads, killings by rival gangs have spiked in states that hadn’t been traditionally targeted by organized crime, according to Eurasia Group, such as the industrial hub of Guanajuato, or in tourist attractions like Baja California Sur.

Among the victims of rising crime are entire families. Several have been shot to death in their homes, including women and children, in the violent state of Tamaulipas. Government officials also have been targeted. Three mayors have been assassinated in the past month, and one was arrested for allegedly participating in the murders of 10 men whose charred bodies were found in the western state of Michoacan. And then there’s the killing of a beauty pageant director, who was gunned down hours after crowning the winner of Miss Sinaloa.

When Pena Nieto took office, he pledged to return the army to its barracks and use more intelligence and coordination among law enforcement corps to reduce the violence. None of that has happened, according to Martin Barron, a researcher at Inacipe, a Mexican criminal-science university funded in part by the attorney general’s office.

"There’s no strategy against drug traffickers," Barron said.