1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Mexico fighting endless war against cartels

Astrid Prange
November 7, 2014

Is Mexico's drug war endangering the country's modernization? The Iguala massacre has sparked a debate on the close relationship between the state and organized crime, and its lasting effect on Mexico's development.

Protest signs show the faces of the missing students in Mexico
Image: Reuters/H, Romero

"Over the next few days, I will be calling representatives of the Mexican state, political parties and social organizations to sign off on a national pact for security," announced Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Tuesday in the "El Universal" daily newspaper.

Pena Nieto said that all parties should commit to fundamental changes and guarantee the country's rule of law. "Events such as the massacre in Iguala should not be repeated," he said.

On the night of September 26, 2014, 43 students from a teachers' college disappeared in the town of Iguala, in the southern state of Guerrero. Officially, they are still considered "missing." Investigators have since uncovered 28 charred bodies in six mass graves, but these remains don't seem to be those of the missing students.

On October 9, four more pits were found containing human remains. To date 58 suspects have been arrested, among them police officers, municipal security forces and criminals known within the drug scene.



Brutal execution

More than 150,000 people have been killed since Mexico's war on drugs began eight years ago. On Tuesday, Mexican authorities announced an additional two victims: General Ricardo Cesar Nino Villarreal and his wife.

The high-ranking official, responsible for security in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, was executed in his car, shot more than 100 times. Due to its shared border with the US, the region is highly contested among Mexico's drug cartels.

In the Iguala case, authorities have now been able to report an initial success: Early Tuesday, the town's fugitive mayor and his wife - Jose Luis Abarca and Maria de los Angeles Pineda - were arrested in a house in Iztapalapa, a working class borough of Mexico City.

Abarca is said to have ordered the arrest of the 43 students in order to prevent any disruption to a speech given by his wife, who had hoped to succeed him as mayor. After the arrest, the students were apparently handed over to alleged members of a local drug cartel, and disappeared shortly thereafter.

Jose Luis Abarca and Maria de los Angeles Pineda
Jose Luis Abarca and his wife have been arrestedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"It's incomprehensible that, although 58 suspects have already been arrested, these students are still missing," said Abel Barrera Hernandez, founder of the Tlachinollan human rights center in Mexico. Barrera Hernandez, who was awarded the 2011 Human Rights Award from Amnesty International Germany, has been advising the families of the victims.

Figurehead mayors, controlling mafia

The shock of the Iguala massacre has once again sparked a debate on the close relationship between state institutions and the world of organized crime. In her 2008 book "La reina del pacifico" (The Queen of the Pacific), former Mexican drug dealer Sandra Avila Beltran revealed that in some states the drug mafia controls up to a third of the mayors in office.

Since the 2012 inauguration of President Pena Nieto, Mexico's drug war has only worsened. The arrest of many mafia bosses has led to the weakening of established cartels. Local fragmentation of the major crime syndicates has only served to intensify the fight for lucrative routes.

"The makeup of the cartels is constantly shifting, leading to perpetual conflict and battles for control over certain territories," said Günther Maihold, deputy director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). "In Mexico, these disputes are much more visible than in other countries."

Abel Barrera Hernandez
Activist Abel Barrera HernandezImage: dapd

Power of cartels waning?

Nevertheless, there has been some good news in recent years. "As the cartels are ground into smaller, more autonomous cells, their power is likely to become more limited in the medium term," wrote Mexico expert Sandra Weiss, a columnist with the journal "Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft" (International Politics and Society), in a recent article.

If these developments were to be accompanied by a massive expansion of governmental influence - not just in security, but also through investments in education, health and recreational activities for young people - the state may be able to regain control over most of the areas it has lost to the cartels.

But this prospect has brought little consolation to the families of the disappeared students and murder victims. On Monday, they started a protest march from Iguala to Mexico City, planning to cover the nearly 200 kilometers (125 miles) on foot. They expect to arrive on Sunday, and will once again call on the government to explain the massacre.

"More than 26,000 people have disappeared in the fight against the drug mafia," said Barrera Hernandez, who is taking part in the march. "The government wants to modernize our country, but the close relationship between the state and organized crime has not changed. How can we have modernization with a corrupt foundation?"

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

A resident with her pets being evacuated on a boat from a flooded neighbourhood in Kherson, Ukraine
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage