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Mexico: When drug violence 'turns into terrorism'

Anabel Hernandez
November 15, 2019

The government has no strategy against drug cartels and society has come to expect escalating violence. There is no longer a line that separates terrorism and organized crime in Mexico, writes Anabel Hernandez.

Mexiko Culiacan Kartel Gewalt Schießerei Polizei
Image: Reuters/J. Bustamente

Mexico has three problems:

1. The drug war.

2. The corruption tolerated for decades by the ruling "Party of Institutionalized Revolution" (PRI).

3. A  society that seems to have become accustomed to everything as if it were a folkloric phenomenon.

Taken together, this destroys the social fabric and institutions of the Mexican state. Mexico can, in the meantime, serve as a deterrent example to other nations and societies.

For the past 18 years, things have happened in Mexico that would have been viewed as an open act of war by other countries — and would have been condemned by the international community in every other context. In other countries, civil society would have mobilized and demanded from its governments an end to violence and impunity.

But in Mexico, the complicity and inactivity of the authorities has led to the fact that the war between drug cartels, and against society, has long since shifted the boundaries of violence and terrorism.

Mexiko El Chapo Merchandise
Despite all the violence, drug lords enjoy cult status with many MexicansImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Pardo

Five rolling heads

When was this border exceeded? A key event was in September 2006, when five severed heads rolled across a dance floor at a nightclub in Uruapan, Michoacan province. A cruelty that international media also reported at the time. It happened as part of a war between two cartels, the organization La Familia Michoacana and the so-called Millennium Cartel.

The barbarism reared its new face to stir up fear — not only against the rival criminal group, but also against society. Never before had such a thing happened, even though the drug war between the various cartels in Mexico had been going on since 2002.

Two years later, on September 15, 2008, two grenades exploded in a public square in Morelia during a local festival celebrating the War of Independence. Three people died and more than 132 were injured. Many of the injured lost several limbs.

DW columnist Anabel Hernandez
DW's Anabel Hernandez

The violence thrust forward before the state and society, both motionless as it unfolded, continued with destruction until its ubiquity changed the social dynamics within the country. Life in fear became normal. The number of dead and disappeared fills the official statistics and the extraordinary has become normal.

In August 2010, the bodies of 58 men and 14 women were found. The victims were mostly Central Americans — but also Ecuadorians, Brazilians and an Indian — who were "handcuffed and beaten to death with a brutality otherwise known only to ISIS," wrote the Spanish daily El País on the massacre of migrants in San Fernando (Tamaupilas), which was attributed to the criminal group Los Zetas. To this day, no one has been charged for the crime.

In 2016, the Colegio de México, one of the most prestigious academic research institutions in Mexico, published a report confirming that in San Fernando at least 36 policemen worked for Los Zetas.

The police in the service of criminals

Organized crime in Mexico set a new standard of horror in 2014 when 43 students from the University of Raúl Isidro Burgos disappeared in Ayotzinapa in a joint operation by the military, federal police and local police. Thanks to the families of these young people and the immediate protests, the case kept the Mexican government busy for two years. The story of the  idealist student teachers moved the world until their unsolved disappearance, too, became the norm. The once enraged citizens have returned to the everyday life of their personal hell, while the government blurred all the clues that could help find and punish those responsible.

On October 17, 2019, a small group of the Sinaloa cartel in Culiacán took hostages and forced the Mexican government to release Ovidio Guzmán López's son, who had just been arrested and was wanted for drug trafficking in the US. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has now publicly admitted that the Mexican state was brought to its knees and that Guzmán Junior was released to "save lives."

Immediately after this admission, I drew attention to the fact that this surrender by the government will have grave consequences for Mexican society. All 120 million Mexicans are officially hostages of organized crime.

Mexico releases Ovidio Guzman
The government tries to explain the release of "El Chapo" Guzman's son, Ovidio Guzman Lopez, on 30 October.Image: picture-alliance/Zuma/B. Fregoso

The president all smiles at baseball game

The limits of what is commonly defined as "organized crime" are exceeded in Mexico. Violence has long become terrorism. On November 4, the shocking attack against the Mormon LeBarón family: three women and six children, including two babies aged of six months and four other young children, were massacred in northern Mexico — an area controlled by organized crime for more than 20 years. Eight other children escaped the massacre by running into the desert, some with bullet wounds in their backs.

The brutal everyday violence, the secret graves everywhere, the dozens of policemen killed month after month, and the arbitrary executions by police forces — all this has massively stunned society and the authorities. How callous you must be as Mexico's president — who has not been to the murder scene or met with survivors — to sit smiling at a baseball game two days after the massacre. How could a leader two days after the slayings embrace Mexican pitcher José Urquidy and describe him as an "awesome baseball player"?

The sole raison d'être of a democratic government is the enforcement of law and order. But the Mexican government has no strategy to protect its citizens. And society itself is under anesthesia in the face of brutal violence. So it is impossible to defy terrorism in the country.

Investigative journalist and author Anabel Hernandez has been covering Mexican drug cartels and corruption for many years. After receiving death threats, she was forced to leave Mexico and now lives in Europe. Hernandez won the 2019 DW Freedom of Speech Award at the Global Media Forum in Bonn for her work.