The Mexico drug war has embroiled that country in internal conflict punctuated by hyper-violence, corruption and impunity. The battle for primacy among drug cartels for control of the plazas (lucrative transshipment nodes and routes) has resulted in a seemingly never-ending barrage of violence. Beheadings, dismemberment, massacres, and mass graves (narcofosas) punctuate the state of insecurity. While media outlets continue to report 50,000 killed, the numbers are much higher. Perhaps 99,667 persons have been killed in the drug war. An additional 24,000 persons are reported missing or disappeared. Many victims are never identified. Accurate numbers are hard to come by.
Refugees and Social Cleansing
As a result of the narco-violence refugees and internally displaced persons are also reported in contested areas with some estimates suggesting as many as 230,000 persons have fled the cartels’ ‘social cleansing.’ Journalists, police, and mayors are often targeted with assassination. In the case of journalists, the death toll ranges from 45-67 killed during the drug war; some estimates are higher. The goal of much of this violence is to remove opposition from rival gangsters and the state. Persons interfering with cartel operations are at risk. Again accurate numbers are hard to find.
Assassinations and Atrocity
The sicario (or assassin) is the tool of the cartel. Individuals and teams of sicarios wage brutal war against their adversaries. The result: assassinations, kidnappings, torture, dismemberment, beheading, persons hung from bridges, rivals boiled in pots to become what is euphemistically called posole (or soup), and at least one recent crucifixion. Notable attacks have included grenades launched against Mexican Independence day celebrations in Morelia, killing 8 and wounding over 100 in 2008; the brutal murder of 13 high school students at a party in Ciudad Juárez in 2010; the ambush of Rodolfo Torre, candidate for Governor in Tamaulipas along with 4 others; and an armed assault on a birthday part in Torreón that killed 17 and wounded 18 others. Mass graves (narcofosas) are a recurring gruesome reality. Notable narcofosas include 51 corpses found near Monterrey in July 2011and 450 mass internees in mass graves in Durango and Tamaulipas in April 2011. The August 2011 arson attack on a Monterrey gambling house—the Casino Royale—left 52 dead, in under 3 minutes. Numerous mass killings accompany this small sample.
‘Narcocultura’ Confronting the State
While the brutality and intensity of violence within the drug war is at times staggering, it isn’t random or merely the result of undisciplined sicarios. It is often orchestrated to achieve distinct ends. In the technical parlance of conflict studies this deliberate use of high intensity violence and barbarization of conflict is designed to meet operational objectives. These objectives fall into two realms. The first is ‘instrumental violence’ used to eliminate a rival. The second is ‘symbolic violence’ used to influence adversaries, the state, and the populace. Both can be used in combination. While individual acts of brutality may result or be exacerbated by undisciplined sociopaths acting out, the logic of violence is a core component of cartel and gang modus operandi.
Barbarization and narcocultura go hand in hand. Narcocultura is a social phenomena that glorifies narcotrafficking. The narcos become heros worthy of emulation for the many “ninis” or youths without jobs or education. Think of it as Mexican gangsta rap on steroids. Two threads emerge: 1) the narco as hero; and 2) narco-folk saints like Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte to bond narcos into a cohesive social structure that provides justification for their actions and spiritual protection for their deeds. Narcomantas (banners), corpse-messaging (leaving a message on a corpse), narcomensajes (messages or communiqués), and narcopintas (graffiti) accompany acts of violence and brutality to extend the cartels’ message in a form of narco-information operations. Such imagery can be a powerful social bond.
Consider the groups La Familia Michoacana and its successor the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar). Both originate in Michoacán; in fact the more recent Knights Templar is a splinter group that seeks to replace La Familia. Both embrace narcocultura and alternative religious/spiritual values—in this case, evangelical mutations to fuel social cohesion. La Familia employed a range of paramilitary and influence operations to gain control of criminal enterprises—especially the lucrative methamphetamine trade—across Mexico’s Tierra Caliente region.
Descended from traditional marijuana gangsters, La Familia cast itself as ‘social protectors’ leveraging regional rivalries and identity to gain community support and freedom of action. In doing so, it identified Los Zetas as their rivals, claimed the mantle of ‘social bandit’ providing social goods to the community much like Robin Hood, and used barbarism and violence to demonstrate their power. Their calling card was a nightclub attack in Uruapan in September 2006. In that atrocity 20 masked desperados burst into the Sol y Sombra nightclub. They fired weapons into the air and then tossed six bloody human heads onto the dance floor. The gangsters claimed the attack was ‘divine justice.’
La Familia followed the nightclub assault with direct confrontation against the state. In July 2009 it conducted coordinated attacks against ten cities. At least 19 security officials (police and soldiers) were killed in La Familia’s assault on state security forces. The cartel’s actions included six near-simultaneous assaults of federal police stations and a pair of cartel commando raids by nearly 50 gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenades. This action was followed by the torture and assassination of 12 off-duty police intelligence agents. As the state reacted La Familia fragmented and a new—still cult-like—successor with many of the same attributes, the Knights Templar emerged.
Los Zetas and Paramilitary Brutality
Los Zetas are Mexico’s paramilitary cartel challenger. Descended from deserters from Mexican army special forces and augmented by gangsters and mercenaries alike, the Zetas have taken brutality to a new level. Like other cartels they conduct ambushes and use extreme violence including beheadings and dismemberments to fuel their battle against the state and rivals. But their prowess in tactical operations gives them an advantage. After serving as enforcers for the Cartel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel, CDG) they broke ranks to forge their own criminal army. In doing so, they have turned Nuevo León and Tamaulipas into an ‘epicenter of horror’ where state functions have collapsed and terror reigns. Mass murder and barbarity seal this ‘narcopolitical’ meltdown in what Mexican journalist Diego Enrique Osorno calls ‘necropolitica’ or ‘necropolitics.’ The Zetas have employed extreme violence to secure their position among Mexico’s narco-elite. They now dominate northeast Mexico. This places them in direct confrontation with the Sinaloa Federation and Mexican government alike.
Mexico is severely challenged by the drug war. Narcos directly confront state institutions, including the police and mayors. Journalists are attacked to shape reportage of cartel activities, and officials at many levels are corrupted and co-opted by the cartels, leading to a state of impunity. Corruption, impunity, and violence punctuate the battle for criminal dominance. Few murders, let alone atrocities or acts of barbarism however extreme, are investigated and even fewer are prosecuted. Indeed, impunity for murder has been pegged at 90% in some of the most contested regions of Mexico. The resulting impunity amplifies fear and serves to leverage the symbolic violence used by the cartels to secure their freedom of action. According to the 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment, Mexican cartels operated in 1,000 US cities, often linked with US gangs. This penetration goes far beyond the Southwest border. To address the threat of Mexican cartels we must first recognize that cartel violence has a destabilizing effect on Mexico.
Cartel reach extends throughout Mexico and is not limited to the hotly contested areas of today’s headlines. The cartels operate throughout Latin America and into the US and Canada. To combat this threat we most recognize that the Mexico drug war is not just a border issue. Public corruption in Mexico (and the US) must be eradicated to limit the ability to penetrate state institutions and co-opt state officials and sustain impunity. This makes building Mexican security sector capacity at the Federal, state, and local levels imperative. Police, prosecutors, judges, and corrections personnel need to be trained and their agencies professionalized. US assistance in this endeavor is mutually beneficial.
Barbarity Continues: Crucifixion in Michoacán
The need for capacity building for the Mexican security sector is graphically reinforced by a recent uptick in barbarization, in this case a crucifixion. On Friday, 07 September 2012 a 24 year-old man, Eladio Martinez Cruz was found crucified on a traffic sign in Contepec, Michoacán. Allegedly he was arrested by municipal police for rape and subsequently taken from their custody, tortured, castrated, and crucified (other barbaric details scrubbed). This case, while a single incident, follows the trend of increasing barbarization throughout the life of Mexico’s narco conflict. Actions—such as the Mérida Initiative—to stabilize the threat and contain the reach of the cartels and growth of narcocultura are essential to securing Mexico, the US, and Western Hemisphere.