Tomorrow Mexicans go to the polls to vote for a new president in the middle of an increasingly brutal drug war. The hard-power approach applied by President Felipe Calderón during the past five and a half years has produced improvements, with homicide numbers declining in the first three months of 2012. That has been overshadowed, however, by an increase in the level of brutality through which cartels and smaller breakaway criminal groups pursue their turf wars. Despite the widespread assumption that organised crime belongs to a completely different category of threat, it has become clear that brutal violence in Mexico has many similarities to terrorism tactics. They serve as messages, through which small and large groups negotiate their positions in an overcrowded criminal space. Brutal violence is used to communicate warnings, threats and territorial claims.
Whereas high homicide rates are common side-effects of drug conflicts throughout Latin America, Mexico has caught the world’s attention due to the brutality that has come to dominate cartel tactics. The finding of 49 decapitated and dismembered bodies on a highway near Monterrey last month, connected to the rivalry between two of the most powerful cartels – Los Zetas and Sinaloa – reinforced the sense that disputes between criminal groups over territories and power drive a particularly grim style of violence.
Such bloody methods have become particularly frequent during the past few months. During May and June, 122 bodies, either decapitated or dismembered, were found in different areas of the country, a particularly gruesome period even for Mexican standards. At the same time that brutality appears to be on the rise, the country recently registered the first quarterly drop in homicides since 2007: a 6.2% fall between January and March 2012 in comparison with the same months of 2011. These trends indicate that, five and a half years after the launch of the ‘war on drugs’ by current President Felipe Calderon, brutal violence is on the rise even as overall homicide numbers are falling.
It is common for brutal acts to be accompanied by narcomensajes (narcomessages), usually banners left by the perpetrators in the crime scene, in a further demonstration of the politics that take place inside this criminal space. The messages are a clue to the strategic thinking behind the seemingly meaningless acts of barbarity: they help the group responsible for the atrocity to maintain power over specific territories and populations. Narcomensajes may contain warnings to enemies, claims over territorial control, threats against the media and extortions. In a style similar to actions by some terrorist groups, the most common aim behind these narcomensajes is to intimidate the public in a specific area or to compel authorities to change policies, according to a study by Carlos Martin from Georgetown University.
The criminal space has also given rise to a narcocultura – a value system glorifying brutal violence and adding a spiritual meaning to actions such as ritualized killings, beheadings and torture. Some cartel members have developed a spiritual interpretation of criminality, associating their methods with cults of folk saints not recognized by the Catholic Church, such as Jesus Malverde or La Santa Muerte (Saint Death). Decapitated bodies, heads burned in ritualised fashion and bowls of blood were found near shrines to La Santa Muerte in the past few years. In 2008, for example, eleven decapitated bodies were found near an altar dedicated to La Santa Muerte in the Yucatán Peninsula. Shrines to such folk saints are relatively common in Mexico, and are by no means exclusively associated with criminal activity. But in the past few years a large concentration of these shrines have been found in sites of drug activity along the drug route, even inside US soil. This religious symbolism was developed gradually but became more common in the past half decade of drug war. It represents an attempt to infuse spiritual meaning to brutal acts that became a mandatory tactic for violent groups seeking power in Mexico’s criminal space.
The persistent brutality of the drug war is linked to the proliferation of cartels, younger and smaller than their predecessors, vying for slices of the lucrative drug routes. Calderón’s security forces have been fairly successful in eliminating ‘top dogs’ during the past half-decade. Last February, Calderón announced that his security forces had arrested or killed 22 of the 37 most dangerous criminal leaders operating in Mexico. His government was less successful, however, in preventing other, smaller and sometimes more aggressive groups from occupying the vacuum.
Instability in cartel structures is a key driver of brutal violence. Some cartels have splintered into different and often rival groups. When Calderón took office, six major cartels controlled the landscape of drug trafficking in Mexico. By 2010, 14 Mexican cartels disputed the crowded market of drug trafficking, including the Zetas, a former arm of the Cártel del Golfo. Los Zetas were one of the first adopters of brutal violence as a communication mean. In order to wrestle territory and shares of the drug trade from their older and larger rivals, Los Zetas employed former members of the Guatemalan special forces, the kaibiles, associated with widespread cruelty and torture during the civil war in Guatemala.
The kaibiles were the backbone of the Zetas’ military approach. They also had an influential role in other small groups emerging in Mexico’s increasingly overcrowded criminal space. La Familia Michoacana, for example, an ally of the Zetas during the 2000s, chose to operate separately in 2006 and marked the occasion by tossing severed heads into a crowded nightclub dance floor. The Familia, on its turn, gave birth to another splinter group, the Caballeros Templarios, also known for its brutal techniques, including mutilated bodies.
The recent presidential campaign in Mexico has sparked some debate over security policies. The idea of concentrating law enforcement and military resources on the most violent groups, recently reinforced by a Woodrow Wilson Center report, might have an effect if it is accompanied by a long-term security presence in the areas affected in order to prevent smaller cartels emerging to fill a vacuum. On the other hand, brutal violence is not restricted to a handful of groups, such as Los Zetas. The latter may actually have stimulated the adoption of similar tactics starting in the late 1990s, but now a variety of other groups, large and small, new and old, have adopted brutal violence. It is scary to notice that such methods have now become the prevalent negotiation channel among drug groups in Mexico, as well as a widespread intimidation channel to the population and the authorities. Getting rid of it might take quite a while.
The author is an alumnus of King’s College London with a 2011 MA in Terrorism, Security and Society. Antonio now works a Research Assistant at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).