The drug war worsens during an election year
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Miguel Angel Luna Munguia, a congressional candidate in the central Mexican town of Valle de Chalco, was inside his campaign headquarters when three gunmen stormed in and shot him to death.
The June 3 slaying was the kind of event that’s all too common during election years in Mexico. Political candidates who run afoul of criminal syndicates end up on the wrong side of the gun. Luna Munguia — of the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party — was one of 19 victims of political assassinations this year in Mexico.
Mexico’s homicide rate is also rising for the first time since 2011. April was the bloodiest month — in terms of homicide — in a year.
Which is bad news. At the same time, Mexico’s security forces are now fighting an all-out war in the state of Jalisco. There’s mid-term elections coming up on June 7. And candidates are dropping dead.
The political assassinations are — of course — happening because of the elections. Organized crime groups bribe candidates and kill them if they don’t accept. This phenomenon is at its worst in the country’s most violent states.
In some places, such as Guerrero state, competing cartels fight each other over who can bribe candidates. Even when a candidate takes a bribe from one cartel, a rival criminal group can target them for death.
Making matters worse is that few homicides result in an arrest — and even fewer result in a conviction. This means most people who engage in killings go unpunished, making murder a relatively consequence-free way of settling disputes.
In March, a criminal group beheaded Aide Nava Gonzalez, a mayoral candidate in Ahuacuotzingo, Guerrero. “This is what happens to all fucking brownnosers and politicians who don’t want to join,” a note beside her body threatened.
Her killers are still unknown.
Pres. Enrique Pena Nieto is not up for re-election — he’s half-way through a single six-year term. But hundreds of mayors and congressional representatives are running, along with nine governors.
What’s less clear is why homicides across the country are rising.
Mexico’s homicide rate exploded in 2006 — what we now call the beginning of the Mexican drug war — rising from 13 murders per 100,000 to more than 21 in 2012. But the violence was not evenly distributed. In the deadliest cities such as Ciudad Juarez, the rate increased to perhaps as high as 148 homicides per 100,000 people during the end of the decade.
The rate fell since then, with the deadliest cities falling the most. Now it’s rising again, according to the Mexican government. The reasons for this are at best guesses — and might not have anything to do with the election.
Northeast Mexico — near the Texas border — is still one of the country’s most dangerous regions. But violence has escalated in the southwest, such as in Guerrero, Michoacan and Jalisco.
One theory is that demand for cocaine and methamphetamine in the United States is falling, but demand for heroin is rising. American cops are also cracking down on black market prescription drugs. That’s opening up competition for a growing criminal market.
“As a result, many users of Vicodin, Oxicontin or Percocet seem to be shifting to heroin,” Alejandro Hope, an expert on Mexican security policy, wrote in El Daily Post. “That could be sending ripples down to Mexico. There is some (inconclusive) evidence that poppy cultivation and opium production is on the rise, particularly in the state of Guerrero.”
Then there’s the war in Jalisco, where the government has launched an offensive against the Cartel Jalisco de Nueva Generacion. The CJNG ambushed a police convoy — killing 15 police officers — and shot down a government helicopter in recent weeks.
After the clashes, dozens of cartel members had apparently taken refuge at a cattle ranch in the state of Michoacan. According to Mexican media reports, they told nearby residents to avoid the ranch if they didn’t want any trouble.
On May 22, the Mexican army retaliated. A Black Hawk helicopter flew over the ranch and opened fire with its machine gun as government troops surrounded the area. Forty-two people died at the ranch — many of them seemingly caught in the open as the helicopter’s gun swept the ranch.
But the violence isn’t exclusive to the southwest. The border cities of Matamoros and Reynosa have experienced dozens of public shootouts this year, with cartel members burning vehicles in the streets and trading automatic weapons fire.
Videos posted to social media depict some of these terrifying moments.
Analysts point to an increasing fragmentation of the country’s largest cartels as bosses die or go to prison. Two of the largest cartels — the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas — are barely recognizable as coherent groups today. Instead, smaller gangs are taking their place and fighting for scraps of territory.
“Up until now, whenever a crisis hit in Michoacan or Guerrero or Tamaulipas or Jalisco, the [Pena Nieto administration] could always label it a localized event and point to improving national statistics,” Hope wrote. “But what if that option is no longer available?”