Mexico’s government continues losing pace with cartel threat

For years, Mexico has struggled with a deteriorating security environment as well-armed drug cartels have pushed the country’s homicide rate to perilous heights. A recent and sophisticated assassination attempt against Mexico City’s police chief highlights the growing challenge of organized criminal violence facing the country and the government’s failure to sufficiently address it. The coordinated attack in late June was carried out by a group of cartel hitmen on the streets of one of the most secure neighborhoods in the Mexican capital.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in late
2018 promising a new, development-based approach to violence and criminality.
However, his government’s approach has mostly translated into a mixture of neglect,
maintaining continuity with the inadequate measures of the past, and taking
high-profile steps of dubious efficacy, like the shuffling and rebranding of a
portion of Mexico’s security forces under the newly founded National Guard. 

Cartel gunmen are seen near a burning truck during clashes with federal forces following the detention of Ovidio Guzman, son of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, Mexico October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

The results have been predictable. 2019 brought nearly 35,000 homicides, setting a deadly new record for the country. By most accounts, the recent wave of violence and attacks such as the one on Mexico City’s police chief are linked to the rise of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, as well as anger over recent actions such as the extradition of cartel members to the US and increased enforcement against money laundering.  

However, the trend was already clear. Mexico’s criminal
landscape is growing more complex by the day with the proliferation of armed
groups, the diversification of illicit activity, and the innovative
exploitation of money laundering vulnerabilities. The number of criminal groups
has increased significantly in recent years, in part due to fragmentation of some
larger cartels, leading to more violence between competing criminal gangs.

Criminal organizations are also successfully diversifying their illicit revenue streams, incorporating opioids and fentanyl into their drug production chains, and expanding in a significant way into different sectors, even leeching onto Mexico’s prominent gasoline and avocado industries through theft and extortion. These opportunities also create important new battlegrounds for cartels vying for control of revenue streams.

The Mexican government has largely failed to keep pace with
these developments, allowing weaknesses in its legal frameworks, entrenched
corruption, and institutional weakness to handicap its efforts. Of course, López
Obrador is not solely to blame for Mexico’s deteriorating security environment.
Recent governments have failed to tame the rise of the cartels and the
corruption that facilitates their expansion. At the same time, the US has
failed to halt the outflow of weapons and stem the demand for illicit drugs
that help fuel violence in Mexico.

The recent attack on Mexico City’s police chief pales in comparison to some of the dramatic violence regularly carried out by cartels outside of the capital. However, the high-profile attack should mark a turning point for both the United States and Mexico and bring renewed urgency to jointly addressing weapons trafficking, the drug trade, money laundering, and corruption, as well as the true bolstering of the capacity of key institutions — particularly security forces, the police, and the judicial system.