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Mexican Drug War

In its Armed Conflict Survey 2017, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported 09 May 2017 the war in Syria was the world's most lethal conflict for the fifth year in a row. But it claims an unlikely second place for Mexico, whose battle with criminal cartels claimed 23,000 lives last year. "The death toll in Mexico's conflict surpasses those for Afghanistan and Somalia," said John Chipman, who heads the IISS. "This is all the more surprising, considering that the conflict deaths are nearly all attributable to small arms. Mexico is a conflict marked by the absence of artillery, tanks or combat aviation," Chipman added. Besides Syria and Mexico, the most lethal conflicts were in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, South Sudan and Nigeria.

Drug trafficking and criminal organizations in Mexico have grown in size and strength over the last decade, fueled by a northward flow of illegal drugs and human trafficking and a southward flow of money and weapons. As a result, many cartels can outgun police and intimidate judges, while drug money further corrupts institutions and reduces public trust in the authorities. Mexican drug trafficking organizations generate between $17 billion and $38.3 billion in annual sales from Colombian-produced cocaine and Mexican heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.

Mexican heroin dominates the US market. Mexico ranks as the world's third largest grower of opium poppy and the main production comes from the territory known as the “Golden Triangle” in the northwest, an area controlled by El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel. The government and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, released a joint report in June 2016 estimating the extent of opium poppy cultivation in the country, finding 61,280 acres in 2014-2015. The Latin American country was behind Afghanistan and Myanmar, which over the same period had 452,202 and 137,143 acres respectively. However, Mexico is easily the largest producer of opium poppy in the Americas.

The plant was mainly spotted in the mountains of the states of Sinaloa and Chihuahua and Durango in the northwest, Nayarit in the west and Guerrero and Oaxaca in the south. The clandestine poppy plots are usually tended by small-scale poppy farmers. According to local press in Mexico, most of the workers extracting opium from poppies — which is usually refined into heroin — are children.

The main participants in this war are The Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas Group, the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, La Familia Michoacana Cartel (FM), the Juárez Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel, to name but a few; and the Mexican armed forces (both army and navy), the Mexican Federal Police and the State and Municipal Polices.

Fragmentation, the ‘balkanization’ of organized crime in Mexico, is a trend that has been going on for decades. Before 1980, the most powerful organized crime group in Mexico was based in the city of Guadalajara, in Jalisco state in central Mexico. But it fragmented into a number of other groups. Now smaller gangs have emerged in the states that produce most of the drugs being smuggled. In the area known as “Tierra Caliente,” (the hot land), in Michoacan state, these groups operate on their own, but exist under the same geographic umbrella, as do gangs operating in particular regions in other parts of the country.

There are distinct organizations that may be fighting with each other, that may be allied with groups from different regions. But ultimately the groups within each umbrella are fairly tight-knit in terms of operations, and allegiances and rivalries can emerge overnight because of that. In the past these groups were mainly focused on producing heroin and marijuana, but Reed said they now have their own smuggling operations on the border, and even set up distribution centers in Texas and other states in the USA.

Aside from the normal use of human backpackers (mules), clandestine tunnels, and vehicles the trafficking organizations have resorted to the use of ultra light aircraft which cannot be detected by normal radar, cloned vehicles appearing to be law enforcement or other legitimate companies, and most recently the use of catapults which hurl bundles of marijuana into the U.S. to awaiting co-conspirators.

According to figures from the National Center for Information, Analysis and Planning in order to Fight Crime (CENAPI), there were over 2,400 organized crime-related homicides in 2007, compared to an estimated 2,120 in 2006. The majority of these killings continue to occur in states traditionally associated with narcotics trafficking, such as Sinaloa (385 executions in 2007), Michoacan (319), Guerrero (278), Chihuahua (215), and Baja California (181). It is estimated that approximately 300 of these homicides were law enforcement officials and 27 military officials. While Mexico’s organized crime groups have always engaged in violence, there was a dramatic rise in murders after President Felipe Calderon assumed office in 2006 and began a war on criminal gangs. By the time Calderon left office in 2012, the murder count had gone well over 20,000 per year. Under his successor, President Enrique Peña Ñieto, the murder toll began to subside, but still remains well above 18,000 per year. Recorded homicides in Mexico during the first six months of this year represent a 15 percent rise over the same period last year. According to Mexico’s National Board of Statistics, the murder rate last year was 16.9 per 100,000. By comparison, the national U.S. murder rate is around 4.5 per 100,000. From December 2006 to 2015, more than a thousand cities in México have suffered the effects of the war between several drug cartels, among themselves, as well as with Mexican armed forces. Sources are not in agreement about the number of casualties of this war, with reports varying from 30 to 100 thousand dead; the economic and social ravages are impossible to quantify.

The cartels, already fighting each other over territories near the US-Mexico border, responded to the government's reform efforts with unprecedented violence, which claimed more than 6,000 lives in 2008 and 1,000 more in the first two months of 2009. Homicide rates increased from 9.5 homicides per 100,000 people in 2005 to more than 22 in 2010. That declined to about 16 per 100,000 in 2014. The mortality rate for males ages 20-39 in Chihuahua in the period 2005-10 reached unprecedented levels. It was about 3.1 times higher than the mortality rate of US troops in Iraq between March 2003 and November 2006.

The spike of cartel violence in Mexico is primarily a reaction against the efforts of the Mexican government to take on the cartels and battle the organized crime, corruption, and violence that comes with the illegal drug trade, as well as a result of competition among the traffickers themselves to control constricted territories and smuggling routes. The cartels' backlash against the crackdown - though brutal and deeply troubling - is predictable. They seek to protect a very lucrative criminal livelihood. Mexican drug cartels have used violence as a tool of their trade for some time, but recent violence in Mexico between drug cartels - and, particularly, violence against Mexican officials by the cartels - had risen to unprecedented and disturbing levels.

A 2007 UN report estimated gang membership at 10,500 in El Salvador, 36,000 in Honduras and 14,000 in Guatemala, while criminal organizations are becoming increasingly active in neighboring Belize, Costa Rica and Panama. Central American gangs are increasingly transnational, noting that Salvadoran-based Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is believed to have 8,000-10,000 active members operating in 38 U.S. states. More than 1,800 of its members have been arrested in the United States since 2005. In a recent case, the gang's leaders were indicted for ordering the murders of two witnesses in the United States from their prison cell in El Salvador.

The violence in Mexico is not only an international threat. It is a homeland security issue in which all Americans have a stake. But the increase of cartel-related crime seen in the United States is not the same kind, on nearly the same scale, as in Mexico. While kidnappings and weapons violations have risen in cities close to the border such as Phoenix, at the same time, most major U.S. cities in border states saw declines in their murder rates in 2008. For example, the police department of El Paso, Texas reported 17 murders in 2008, while over 1,600 drug-related deaths occurred that year directly across the border in Ciudad Juárez.

Many Americans and Mexicans who live in border communities cross back and forth regularly - to work, to shop, or to visit family. Fear of the violence occurring in Mexican border cities has reduced crossings that are important to the lives of Americans and to the economic health of American border communities. The dynamic of the border region makes violence on one side of the border a pressing concern on both sides. The transnational nature of this threat clearly makes addressing the violence in Mexico a top priority in securing the United States.

America has a significant security stake in the success of Mexico's efforts against drug cartels. The cartels that Mexican authorities are battling are the same criminal organizations that put drugs on our streets and use violence as a tool of their trade. Through the Merida Initiative, the United States, Mexico and several Central American countries are confronting the shared threat of transnational organized crime. Announced by President Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón in October 2007, Merida grew out of President Bush's March 2007 visit to Latin America, where regional security figured prominently in his conversations with leaders in Guatemala and Mexico.

Kidnapping, including the kidnapping of non-Mexicans, occurs. Kidnapping-for-ransom is an established criminal activity. Unofficial estimates of kidnapping levels vary wildly, from 600 to 5,000 per year countrywide. In most cases, the ransom is paid, and the victim is set free. The usual victim practice is not to notify police authorities, as the popular belief is that the police may be involved or are unable to resolve the situation. Affluent residents in Tijuana often have bodyguards and armored vehicles for their families to protect them against kidnapping.

Despite a unified front, the counter-drug policies have by in large failed for a variety of reasons. The lack of economic opportunities for Mexico’s growing youth population provide strong incentives for cartel participation among Mexican youth. Additionally, the corruption of Mexican police undermines Mexico’s capacity to single-handedly counteract the cartels. Indeed, there is little evidence to suggest that the massive military efforts of the Calderón Administration have reduced the quantity of illegal drugs in Mexico or their flows to the United States.

The drug trafficking related violence in Mexico rapidly increased under the Calderón Administration because existing trafficking leadership was removed resulting in violent succession struggles. Between 2006 and mid-2011, the number of Mexican cartels increased from six to sixteen, seven of which played a major role in the drug-trafficking business and nine of which exercised less influence in the drug market.

More than 28,000 people have disappeared in Mexico in the decade since the country began its war on drugs, according to a report published 02 July 2016 by the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. Unlike the disappeared from Argentina's Dirty War, and other campaigns of state repression in Latin America during the Cold War period, the reason 28,161 people are listed in the Missing or Disappeared People National Registry is not necessarily tied to any leftist activism. But just as state officials in Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere were slow to investigate the disappearances, so too have Mexican officials been reluctant to account for the missing. The commission concluded that people who disappear, as if in thin air, has become an altogether "normal situation for many institutions."

Mexican government figures released July 21, 2016 said homicides rose 15.4 percent in the first half of 2016 from the same period in 2015. The 9,413 killings committed from January through June 2016 were also 6 percent higher than the number of homicides in the last six months of 2015. While the figures remained below those for 2011, the peak year for violence during Mexico's drug war, they marked a continuing rebound in killings. Almost all the progress that President Enrique Pena Nieto had boasted of in reducing Mexico's violence has now been erased.

The Mexican army has been fighting a war with drug traffickers since December 2006 when then President Felipe Calderon declared a “war on drugs.” On 09 December 2016 Mexico's defense secretary called for all troops fighting the drug cartels across the violence-ravaged country to return to their military headquarters and quit fighting a battle that should be handled by law enforcement. "We did not ask to be here, we do not feel comfortable here, we did not train to pursue criminals, our role is another and it has been distorted," said General Salvador Cienfuegos. "We would love the police forces to do their job ... but they don't." General Cienfuegos had always opposed the so-called war on drugs.

The Mexican army had been fighting a war with drug traffickers since December 2006 when then President Felipe Calderon declared a “war on drugs.” This period accounts for some of the bloodiest years that has left close to 200,000 people dead, at least 28,000 disappeared, and at least 8,000 cases of torture documented since 2007. This militarized drug war policy was continued by President Enrique Peña Nieto.

"Ten years ago it was decided that the police should be rebuilt, and we still haven't seen that reconstruction," Cienfuegos said. "To sum it up, there are a large number of deaths that shouldn't be happening ... This isn't something that can be solved with bullets; it takes other measures and there hasn't been decisive action on budgets to make that happen." Within the framework of international law, human rights organizations have accused the Mexican government of committing crimes against humanity due to the number of documented cases of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and torture. These crimes have been committed repeatedly since the Mexican government began its war with drug cartels.

The United Nation argued 14 December 2016 that the militarization of public security in Mexico was a “mistake” as the country marked 10 years since the government began to deploy troops in a drug war that has killed and disappeared tens of thousands of people. “We do not have this opinion simply because we want to make someone feel uncomfortable or because we are against the current legislation," said the chairman of the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances, or CED, Santiago Corcuera. "But the reality is that the militarization of public security has been a mistake in all parts of the world, and that is proven." The UN envoy stressed that it was necessary to reconfigure police forces, which need to be adequately trained in order to be able to tackle organized crime and take direct responsibility for all tasks concerning public security, as opposed to deferring to the military.



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