The United States’ neighbor to the south, Mexico, is in the grip of a national crisis. Two earthquakes, just 11 days apart, have claimed more than 300 lives and first responders, volunteers, citizens and the Mexican government face years of economic uncertainty and recovery.
Yet, amid the tragic natural disaster, an even darker cloud hangs over the country.
Earlier this year, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), named Mexico the most dangerous place in the world, second only to war-torn Syria.
Raging Mexican Drug Wars
This designation from the UK based IISS, a nearly 60-year-old think-tank devoted to armed conflict, was published in their annual Armed Conflict Survey, and is largely a result of Mexico’s decade-long war on drugs.
Much of the violence began around 2006 when then President Felipe Calderoń deployed some 41,000 to fight the country’s largest cartels.
In 2016, the IISS survey reports, the number of intentional homicides in countries battling both international and domestic conflict ranked as follows:
Syria – 60,000
Mexico – 23,000
Iraq – 17,000
Afghanistan – 16,000
Homicide vs. Mexican Drug Wars
The Mexican Government pushed back, releasing a statement that pointed to United Nation figures that the Mexico’s homicide rates were lower than Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia and Honduras. However, Dr. Anastasia Voronkova, editor of the IISS survey, explained and defended the organization’s research.
“…we look at a number of criteria to discern whether a country is in conflict, rather than suffering from high levels of violent criminality,” wrote Voronkova. “Firstly, we consider the duration and temp. Those in which the violence is sustained over many years and with consistent intensity tend to qualify; those with periodic spikes in violence do not.”
The Stakes Are Very High
Mexico’s largest legitimate foreign moneymaker is oil. Though, as Reuters reported, cartels made an estimated $60 billion off the U.S. from cocaine and methamphetamine in 2009 alone, far more than the proceeds from any oil exports.
Gaining control over the illicit drug smuggling markets is what leads to so much violence.
“The drug toll in Mexico’s conflict surpasses those for Afghanistan and Somalia,” CEO and director-general of IISS, John Chipman, said. “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.”
Mexican Drug Wars in Mexico City
Mexico City, the capital, has mostly been immune to the drug violence, with the mayor even insisting that the cartels do not operate within the city. That is starting to change, however. In July, Mexico’s marines engaged in a shootout with cartel boss Felipe de Jesus Perez, in which several people died, according to James Fredrick’s interview with NPR.
Fredrick reported that area taxi drivers formed a “narcobloques”, a tactic where drivers park their vehicles in bustling roadways and light them on fire to create confusion and chaos for authorities. According to his reporting, the narcobloques were a sign that law enforcement and military underestimated the support that Perez held in that area.
Cartel violence isn’t limited to law enforcement or government officials they’re battling. Mexico is among the worst countries to work as a journalist. Since 2000, 25 journalists are presumed dead after disappearing and an additional 104 were murdered outright. Last year, 11 were killed, making it the deadliest year for Mexican journalists on record.
By some estimates, the death toll of Mexico’s war with on the cartels claims as many as 200,000 lives in the last 10 years. Since there’s little sign that demand for drugs in the U.S. is in decline, the violence south of the border is likely to continue.
The road ahead is potentially bloody, most especially since President Peña Nieto, elected to office in 2012, is facing a bill before Mexico’s Congress that would return the responsibility of fighting organized crime to local, civilian authorities. In other words, the military wants out of the fight. Nieto is also pushing back against likely budget cuts in domestic security as well.
“If the government doesn’t have any money for security measures…it’s going to be terrible,” Leo Silva, who formerly commanded the Drug Enforcement Administration’s operation in Monterrey, Mexico, said to Reuters. “[The number of murders] is probably going to get the worst level it’s ever been.”