EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The violence in Juarez that has claimed 16 lives in the past two days is neither surprising nor going to stop any time soon, security experts say.
Police reported the first in a string of 16 homicides shortly before midnight on Sunday, as two individuals broke into a home and gunned down a man who was sleeping. An attack at a gas station in the southern tip of the city left three men dead and two other people injured by gunfire on Monday afternoon. A body wrapped in a blanket was left on a sidewalk in the Aztecas neighborhood early Tuesday.
Juarez police have not disclosed a motive in any of the killings, which bring the number of homicides to 600 for the year. In nine out of 10 cases, they end up classifying the deaths as drug-related.
That’s not unique to Juarez. Drug-related massacres are becoming standard fare in a country that essentially allows drug cartels free reign in dealing with internal discipline – or killing each other off – in exchange for not targeting the general population, security experts say.
“If you leave certain things alone, we’re not going to mess with you. Don’t mess with the areas that are revenue-generating. It’s almost like a tradeoff. That’s the strategy of appeasement,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Mexico (in the 2000s) went after the kingpins, and it resulted in a lot of violence. This is almost the opposite approach.”
But those unwritten rules can be fragile, as violence is ramping up and at times affecting bystanders in cities bordering the United States and in tourist destinations such as Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Tulum, experts say.
The historic violence President Felipe Calderon’s failed “kingpin” strategy brought to Mexico has been eclipsed by the number of homicides during President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s “hugs, not bullets” tenure, according to the Mexican government’s own statistics.
And the cartels are no longer content with trafficking drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine to the United States. They have expanded into extortion, large-scale gasoline theft, illegal logging, migrant smuggling, kidnapping and, most notably, developing a domestic drug-consumer market that can imperil locals and visitors alike.
That’s why a Virginia-based security consultancy firm has classified Mexico as one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
Mexico, among the ‘most violent’ countries in the planet
“The drug war in Mexico is one of the most violent conflicts on the planet, with cartel activity permeating through many levels of the Mexican economy and society,” according to a report published this week by Global Guardian. “Cartel conflicts continue to drive violence across Mexico, including tourist areas previously less affected.”
Mexico is one of only three nations in the Western Hemisphere the firm has labeled as “high risk” because of ongoing criminal activity or civil unrest. The other two are Haiti, which Global Guardian labels a “failed state,” and Venezuela, where crime, political upheaval and corruption make the country off-limits to most Americans and foreign travelers. Only countries at war like Sudan and Ukraine received a higher risk rating.
“The gang warfare has gotten out of control […] no one group is in charge in Haiti. You end up with multiple actors competing for territory, control of revenue, criminal activities, drug and human trafficking,” said Michael Ballard, director of intelligence for Global Guardian. “In Venezuela, there is so much corruption, there’s so much lawlessness.”
In Mexico, drug cartels are in control of rural areas in states like Michoacan, Guerrero and Sinaloa and are fighting each other for smuggling routes into the United States. “Most of the violence is driven by competition for those drug revenues,” Ballard said. “Some groups may not own the actual meth, cocaine or fentanyl but they control the routes they are coming through and are able to extract a toll, so to speak, and maybe you have some folks who don’t want to keep paying this tax and that’s when you get the fighting and the shooting.”
This fight for control of drug shipments, crossing points and even highways from the border of Guatemala to the border with the U.S. is expanding to other countries.
Ballard agrees that areas previously thought of as off-limits to organized criminals are no longer sacred.
“We are starting to see some of these unwritten rules of engagement sort of being disregarded in some of these locations. Just a couple of years ago in Cancun there was a jet ski incursion on the beach with rival drug dealers targeting each other. One tourist was shot and injured. I don’t think anybody was killed but that was sort of a wake-up call that these cartels are not playing by the rules that they used to,” he said.
The cartels’ expansion into domestic drug sales are also making tourist areas a little bit more dangerous for tourists.
“You go to Cancun, you want to make sure you stay in the resort property. Tulum is the most obvious example where you see violence erupt as people are fighting for the street retail sales of the drug trade, folks who are selling drugs to tourists,” Ballard said. “That’s a change we’ve seen in the past couple of years. […] We are not saying don’t go to Mexico; we are saying, be careful if you do.”