Mexico’s out-of-control criminal market remains not only terribly violent; the violence is once again becoming extraordinarily brazen. The ostentatiousness of Mexico’s criminal groups not only exposes its collapsed law enforcement capacity; it exacerbates impunity. The Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration finally needs to recognize how frail rule of law is in Mexico and to start taking meaningful actions against Mexican criminal groups.
On July 17, the same day the Mexican President visited Jalisco, the country’s most notorious and aggressive criminal group – Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG, which originated in the state) –put on an extraordinary show. It allegedly released a video over twenty armored vehicles and tens of uniformed gunmen with assault weapons celebrating the group’s leader, Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera – one of the world’s most wanted drug lords. The scene was like something out of a war zone – more flamboyant even than would be staged in most war zones. Neither the Taliban in Afghanistan nor al Shabaab in Somalia today would dare mass forces in such open fashion, since they would be subjected to air power destruction. Perhaps only the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at the height of its power would mount such a display and be able to get away with it. Even as Mexico’s Minister of Defense confirmed the video was the work of CJNG elite team, de facto admitting to a stunning intelligence lapse, the López Obrador administration downplayed the video and the President reiterated his approach of not confronting Mexico’s criminal groups with the full force of law enforcement, a strategy dubbed “hugs, not bullets.”
But regardless of the authenticity of the video, this was hardly the first extraordinary ostentatious display of brazenness and sense of utter impunity by CJNG. In 2015, the criminal group vying for dominance of the Mexican criminal market with the Sinaloa Cartel, shot down a military helicopter, killing nine officers. It has set buses and cars on fire in western Mexico and paralyzed the regional business capital Guadalajara. It has displayed a continued and steady escalation of brazenness and aggressiveness since the beginning of the López Obrador administration, burning police vehicles and killing police officers, launching a stunning attack to assassinate Mexico City’s secretary of public security in broad daylight in the most affluent part of the city, all with minimal and inadequate response from the Mexican government. Other groups, including its archrival the Sinaloa Cartel, have become more brazen in turn.
Following in the footsteps of the Zetas, another brazen Mexican criminal group, the CJNG has adopted a modus operandi of being more aggressive, more unrestrained, and more brutal than any other group in its efforts to intimidate the Mexican state, society, and rival criminal groups. Unlike the Sinaloa Cartel, CJNG has chosen to rule through brutality and intimidation above all, investing far less in building political capital among local populations. It fights the Sinaloa Cartel in a complex bipolar war that spans across Mexico and through Central America into Colombia and entails many unstable and unreliable local proxies, vassals, allies, and independent criminal groups.
The ostentatious brazenness serves CJNG’s purposes in many ways and further complicates the difficulty of pacifying the violent criminal market in Mexico:
First, it perpetuates sense of impunity for criminal groups and debilitates state and societal responses: The message the brazenness sends is that is easy to get away with murder – indeed any murder, however unnecessarily brutal, however large the collateral damage, and whatever high-government officials and facilities are the target.
Facing assassinations themselves and of their families, judges, prosecutors, police officers, government officials, political candidates, NGO activists, journalists, and anyone else depended on to defend free society, fold or start collaborating with criminals.
The more impunity, the more crime. The more crime, the easier it is to hide among other criminal groups while continuing to act with impunity. Many actors who would normally be deterred from crime are no more afraid to try their hand at it. Everyone can hide an extortion scheme under the cloak of an audacious criminal group, appropriating its label or making up its own brand: Thus, neighbors become tempted to extort neighbors, students fellow students.
Second, the impunity and ostentatious displays of power embolden the group itself to keep pushing aggressive wars and erode its willingness to settle for any turf division with rivals.
Yet the Mexican criminal market is so complex and fragmented that CJNG has no prospect for achieving unipolar dominance. So its aggressive pushes spiral into more and more violence. Since the video release, CJNG has already sent a smaller armed convoy attack rivals in Michoacán, as it has done before to invade rivals’ territory and temporarily invade and terrorize towns. Other criminal groups find it hard to resist mounting similar intimidation counter-displays.
Third, the failure of the state to stem the brazenness — or at least the most egregious behavior and spread of extortion — gives rise to militias. Mexico has struggled with the rise of anti-crime militias for a decade and has failed to adequately address them. Even if they at first succeed in pushing criminal groups back, their very existence of the militias further weakens and undermines the state. And they tend to go rogue, arrogate power and rule-making to themselves, and/or become coopted by criminal groups and engage in criminal acts themselves.
Fourth, the brazen crime-augmenting intimidation and extortion can have profoundly deleterious local economic effects. Legal economies can become dominated by criminal groups too. Unable or unwilling to pay extortion fees, businesses shut down and proprietors park their money abroad. Shuttered businesses compound local poverty and unemployment and increasing the potential recruitment pool for criminal groups – the very opposite of what López Obrador seeks to achieve with his “the socioeconomic root-causes” thrust of his anti-crime strategy.
The López Obrador administration cannot ignore the brazenness of criminal behavior and impunity in Mexico. It is not sufficient to silently round up some CJNG members under pressure from the United States while maintaining a narrative that violence cannot be fought with violence. Violence and impunity need to be stopped with smartly-designed, robust, and resolute law enforcement. And brazen egregious violence and criminality need to be met with the full, lawful, and human-rights and due-process-conscious might of the Mexican state.
* Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Twitter: @VFelbabBrown