Violent criminal groups are eroding Mexico’s authority and claiming more territory

A police officer in Mexico's Zacatecas city holds up caution tape at the scene of a shooting.

A police officer in Mexico's Zacatecas city holds up caution tape at the scene of a shooting.

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JUAN ALDAMA, Mexico — This time, the assassins came early. It was 8:30 a.m. when they surrounded the police station in this rural town. The pop-pop-pop of bullets echoed for blocks. By the time security forces arrived, Ricardo Barrón Guzmán lay dead, the second police chief gunned down here in 14 months.

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This sleepy town of 13,000, set amid the bean and corn fields of Zacatecas state, used to be known for the heroes it offered to the Mexican Revolution and the migrants it sent to the United States. The police chief’s killing in September reflected its new notoriety: Juan Aldama has become another front in an increasingly complex struggle by crime groups in Mexico to control territory.

The arrest this month of Mexico’s former defense minister stunned the nation, with U.S. prosecutors alleging he had helped a cartel send thousands of kilos of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine to the United States. But the crisis confronting Mexico goes far beyond the occasional headline-grabbing bust.

Organized crime here once meant a handful of cartels shipping narcotics up the highways to the United States. In a fundamental shift, the criminals of today are reaching ever deeper into the country, infiltrating communities, police forces and town halls. A dizzying range of armed groups — perhaps more than 200 — have diversified into a broadening array of activities. They’re not only moving drugs but kidnapping Mexicans, trafficking migrants and shaking down businesses from lime growers to mining companies.

“Zacatecas is in the hands of criminals,” said a schoolteacher who heard the attack on Barrón Guzmán and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “The state government isn’t in control.”

Bullet holes riddle a house and grocery store in Juan Aldama after an attack.
Bullet holes riddle a house and grocery store in Juan Aldama after an attack.

It can be easy to miss how much the nation’s criminal threat has evolved. Mexico is the United States’ No. 1 trading partner, a country of humming factories and tranquil beach resorts. But despite 14 years of military operations — and $3 billion in U.S. anti-narcotics aid — criminal organizations are transforming the Mexican landscape:

  • In a classified study produced in 2018 but not previously reported, CIA analysts concluded that drug-trafficking groups had gained effective control over about 20 percent of Mexico, according to several current and former U.S. officials.
  • Homicides in the last two years have surged to their highest levels in six decades; 2020 is on track to set another record. Mexico’s murder rate is more than four times that of the United States.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes to escape violence; the Mexican Congress is poised to pass the country’s first law to help the internally displaced.
  • More than 77,000 people have disappeared, authorities reported this year, a far larger total than previous governments acknowledged. It is the greatest such crisis in Latin America since the “dirty wars” of the 1970s and 1980s.
  • The State Department is urging Americans to avoid travel to half of Mexico’s states, tagging five of them as Level 4 for danger — the same as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Mexican government denies it has lost control of any part of the country. But in a little-noticed passage in its security plan last year, it likened crime groups to insurgents, with “a level of organization, firepower and territorial control comparable to what armed political groups have had in other places.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has created a 100,000-member national guard to reclaim areas with little state presence. It’s not clear that will make a significant difference. Years of Mexican and U.S. strategy — arresting drug kingpins, training Mexican police, overhauling the justice system — have failed to curb the violence.

To describe the crisis, politicians have reached for the language of armed conflict. When nine dual U.S.-Mexican citizens were massacred in Sonora last year, President Trump called for the United States to help Mexico “wage WAR on the drug cartels.”

[How Mexico’s cartel wars shattered American Mormons’ peaceful but wary existence]

But the arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister in Los Angeles this month illustrates the complexity of the situation. Federal prosecutors say Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos pocketed bribes from the H-2 cartel, based in Nayarit state.

“We don’t have in Mexico today an insurgent group that says, ‘We will topple the state,’ ” said Romain Le Cour, co-founder of Noria Research, which studies violence and political systems. “In Mexico, you have very, very violent groups which somehow collaborate with the system, because they need the system to actually survive and thrive.”

The fight for territorial control looks different in different parts of Mexico.

In the northwestern state of Sinaloa, the former turf of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a single cartel has prevailed for years. Even with the drug lord in a U.S. prison, the group’s grip is tight: When the military tried to arrest Guzmán’s son Ovidio last year, scores of gunmen besieged the state capital and authorities let him go.

In Guerrero, a state roughly the size of West Virginia, at least 40 armed groups skirmish for domination of towns and businesses ranging from heroin to logging, according to Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group. The situation illustrates the extreme fragmentation of organized crime in some areas.

Zacatecas exemplifies a third way. At first glance, the state seems peaceful. It’s dotted with farms and ghost villages largely abandoned by migrants to the United States. The state capital, also named Zacatecas, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed for its charming Spanish colonial plaza and pink-stone cathedral.

An empty home in Ojo de Agua, a farming community in Zacatecas. The state is dotted with farms and villages abandoned by migrants to the United States.

A woman in Juan Aldama prepares atole, a traditional hot corn- and masa-based beverage, at a celebration for Our Lady of Refuge.

A child sits during a photo shoot for her third birthday at the historic center of Zacatecas city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Police patrol the streets. But in many places, they’re outgunned or intimidated. One day this year, for example, a convoy of 60 heavily armed men in white pickups roared into the central plaza of the city of Valparaíso. “Jalisco cartel!” some shouted, as heard in videos on social media. Mayor Eleuterio Ramos Leal said there were only about 15 police officers on duty. Challenging the gunmen, he told The Washington Post, “could have ended in a massacre.”

It’s not that drug cartels are new to Zacatecas. For years, they hauled marijuana and cocaine along the roads to the U.S. border. Now the fight “isn’t over the control of a route,” said Ismael Camberos, who until recently served as head of the state security forces. “It’s control of a territory, to do all sorts of illicit activities.”

Four cartels battle for control of fentanyl routes through Zacatecas, while smaller groups rob and extort money from ordinary Mexicans. In northern Zacatecas, where Juan Aldama is located, a faction of the Sinaloa cartel led by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada has moved in. Gunmen in pickups have been seen cruising freely through the area, “MZ” emblazoned on their helmets or guns.

Criminals have threatened more than half of the state’s mayors, according to Gov. Alejandro Tello. The thugs often “condition” local officials to cooperate, said Alma Gloria Dávila, a state lawmaker. “They lock them in the car trunk, drive them around, torture them for a while,” she said. “And then they threaten their families.”

But the problem isn’t just armed groups intimidating authorities. In many communities, the cartels have captured the government from the inside.

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There’s perhaps no better example than Nayarit. The Pacific coast state is a magnet for Americans, from the elegant five-star resorts of Punta Mita to the surfer-hip village of Sayulita.

But away from the spectacular beaches, the Sinaloa and H-2 cartels battled for years.

Edgar Veytia brought the peace.

The state attorney general was the very image of a Mexican lawman, with a round, jowly face and thick mustache, a pistol shoved into his belt. In Nayarit, he declared, there was “no room for organized crime.” Homicides fell 75 percent in four years.

In fact, Veytia had simply chosen a side. The H-2 gang paid him monthly bribes, U.S. prosecutors said. In exchange, Veytia used his corrupt state police to protect the cartel’s shipments of heroin, cocaine and other drugs. His officers wiretapped, arrested and even killed the gang’s rivals, prosecutors said.

Veytia pleaded guilty last year to narcotics charges in New York. The case received little attention, overshadowed by the sensational trial of El Chapo Guzmán in the same Brooklyn courthouse. But news of Cienfuegos’s arrest this month brought Nayarit back into the spotlight. H-2 didn’t just buy off the state’s top lawman; it allegedly corrupted the head of the Mexican army. (Cienfuegos has not entered a plea.)

An image of Edgar Veytia is seen on a phone belonging to someone whose son disappeared in Nayarit state. U.S. prosecutors say Veytia took monthly bribes from a cartel there when he was attorney general.
An image of Edgar Veytia is seen on a phone belonging to someone whose son disappeared in Nayarit state. U.S. prosecutors say Veytia took monthly bribes from a cartel there when he was attorney general.

Drug corruption in Mexico has a long history, of course. During decades of authoritarian government, senior federal officials quietly refereed between cartels. State and local authorities fell in line, accepting bribes to look the other way as heroin or marijuana flowed through their states. Mexico’s democratization has changed the equation. Now, local governments are more autonomous. Crime groups increasingly are seeking influence at the municipal and state level, through threats or bribery.

The country’s precarious justice system has proved incapable of checking such graft.

[Former Mexican anti-drug official charged with taking bribes from ‘El Chapo’ cartel]

Criminals have received the message, said Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, an expert on Mexican security at the University of California at San Diego. “Impunity creates a sense you can do what you want.”

Mexico’s security crisis grew, in part, out of the very effort to subjugate the cartels.

Under the U.S.-backed kingpin strategy, Mexican forces killed or captured the leaders of several powerful groups: the Zetas, Beltrán Leyva, Juárez and Arellano Félix cartels. But far from putting them out of business, the approach caused them to splinter.

The Mexican government now recognizes 19 “high impact” crime groups, including two with national reach: Jalisco New Generation and the Sinaloa federation. The International Crisis Group has identified 198 cartels, gangs and regional bands, many of them subcontractors to bigger players. Eduardo Guerrero, head of the security firm Lantia Consultores, counts 231.

The smaller groups “no longer have the infrastructure necessary to dedicate themselves to the export of drugs,” Guerrero said. So they target Mexicans. They kidnap, extort, steal fuel, sell contraband cigarettes and peddle methamphetamine to teenagers. The big cartels have also expanded into such predatory activities, to pay their increasingly well-armed paramilitary wings.

“They don’t just want territorial control to move drugs, but to extract resources from the population,” said Ricardo Márquez, a former top Mexican security official.

[Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel blazes a bloody trail in rise to power ]

The drug business has diversified, too. In addition to producing heroin and marijuana, crime groups are manufacturing methamphetamine in “superlabs” and pressing fentanyl into pills. That requires territorial control. “They need more land to hide and mask these labs,” said a senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing matters.

Crime groups have also intensified their social control. Dávila says her hometown, Tacoaleche, is emblematic.

Alma Gloria Dávila, a lawmaker in Zacatecas state, says criminal groups often “condition” local officials to cooperate with them, sometimes by kidnapping them or threatening their families.
Alma Gloria Dávila, a lawmaker in Zacatecas state, says criminal groups often “condition” local officials to cooperate with them, sometimes by kidnapping them or threatening their families.

“It was all about the dream of the pickup truck,” the lawmaker said. Preferably a Chevy Cheyenne. That’s what migrants who had succeeded in the United States drove home to the town of 12,000, just outside the state capital.

More than a decade ago, Dávila says, gunmen from the Zetas cartel began turning up in fancy pickups. A few local families had money — cattle, bean farms, shops. But many young people felt they had only two options.

“They could either become a migrant and come back in their pickup,” Dávila said, “or get a pickup because they were criminals.”

Young men signed up as lookouts for the Zetas — and provided information on whom to kidnap. Dávila pointed out some of the victims: Dairy workers. Shopkeepers. Farmers.

After the government killed or arrested most of the Zetas leaders, local boys switched to other criminal groups, or formed their own. A similar pattern has unfolded elsewhere.

A pickup truck in the Zacatecas municipality of Guadalupe, where Dávila's hometown is located.

Dávila offers advice to two people after someone broke into their house.

A man in Guadalupe sells police gear from his pickup truck. Violence in the area has increased as cartels fight for control of routes for transporting fentanyl.

“Young people have unfortunately become an army of reservists for organized crime,” Mexico’s public security director, Alfonso Durazo, told The Post. López Obrador is so concerned that he has launched a job-training program for more than 2 million youths.

There are various reasons Mexico has failed to stem the violence. The government and its allies in Washington have at times misidentified the problem, analysts and former officials say.

Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018, said the country’s cartels were far more sophisticated than authorities initially realized — more akin to multinational corporations than crime gangs. Removing the CEOs wasn’t enough to destroy them.

“We and the Mexicans spent far too little time focused on the entirety of the corporate structure,” including financing and transportation systems, said Jacobson, who was the State Department’s top Latin America official from 2012 to 2016.

[Five reasons Mexico objects to Trump’s plan to designate its cartels as terror groups]

There was a second miscalculation: the belief that decapitating cartels would fracture them into gangs that could be handled by local police. “The problem is, in Mexico, there is no state-level capacity, no municipal capacity” for tackling crime, said Eric Olson, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

And the groups were often well armed and financed by local criminal activities: kidnapping, extortion, prostitution, migrant smuggling. Authorities “can’t wrap their hands around these organizations, that are to a large extent mini-armies,” said Steven Dudley, co-director of the research group InSight Crime.

Mexico has been unable to transform a justice system created to serve authoritarian governments during decades of one-party rule. Police are poorly trained and equipped. There’s a lack of prosecutors, forensic specialists and accountability mechanisms. The result? Only 1.3 percent of crimes in Mexico are reported and solved, according to the civic group Zero Impunity.

“You have to have a process of reconstruction of the whole chain of security and justice of the country,” said Guillermo Valdés Castellanos, a former head of Mexico’s national intelligence agency, CISEN. He estimates that could take a generation — and require a tripling of the budget for security and justice.

While Mexico has increased its spending in those areas, the amount still totals only around 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, much less than most industrialized countries. “Politicians don’t care,” Valdés Castellanos said. “They don’t understand it’s a problem, and that to solve it, you have to redo the institutions.”

The U.S. government has provided $3 billion in aid since 2007 through the Mérida Initiative. It has focused in recent years on institution-building, including training police and supporting an overhaul of the Mexican legal system.

“But it’s not connected to a process of integrated reform” led by the Mexican government, said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City. And many Mexicans say the United States hasn’t done enough to reduce Americans’ demand for drugs or stop the cross-border flow of illegal firearms.

Shortly before López Obrador took office in December 2018, the CIA concluded that drug groups controlled about 20 percent of Mexican territory, according to several current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a classified document. The agency declined to comment. Such studies are unusual; while the U.S. government has routinely mapped insurgents’ locations in such places as Colombia and Afghanistan, it’s more difficult to assess criminals’ quiet control of local economies and political systems.

López Obrador has emphasized social programs to address the poverty at the root of crime. Abrazos no balazos, he says: Hugs, not bullets. At the same time, he has relied heavily on the armed forces to respond to violence, along with a new, military-trained national guard.

Durazo, the public security chief, notes that the guard is triple the size of the now-disbanded federal police force. “I don’t think it’s valid anymore to talk about regions of the country with an absence of the state,” Durazo said. (Durazo announced this month he was stepping down to run for governor of Sonora state.)

And there have been some successes. The López Obrador government has drastically reduced theft from oil pipelines, and car theft has plunged by nearly 40 percent. The Finance Ministry has frozen around $525 million in suspicious bank accounts this year, twice as much as in all of 2019.

But homicides, already at historic highs, have continued to rise this year, despite the country’s coronavirus outbreak. Extortion is also up. U.S. agents say Mexico’s narcotics business is booming. “We’ve never seen this amount of meth being produced in Mexico,” said the senior DEA official.

The massive flow of drugs to the United States is just one consequence of Mexico’s loss of control over parts of its territory. Another is displacement.

Brandon, 9, pets the family dog on the rooftop of his house in Juan Aldama. His mother, Consuelo, has grown alarmed in recent years at the chaos in the town.

Consuelo, 35, and her three children sit in their bedroom. The family had attempted to flee to the United States to escape the danger in their town.

Consuelo's younger son plays with a curtain at their home.

Consuelo, 35, a full-time mother of three, had grown alarmed in recent years over the chaos in Juan Aldama.

In their neighborhood, there were robberies, disappearances and street-corner drug sales. Then, one night in July 2019, gunmen ambushed and killed the police chief. Officers vanished from the streets.

“My husband told me, ‘We have to get out of here,’ ” she said, speaking on the condition that her last name be withheld because of fears for her safety. “He told me, ‘Don’t you see there are no police? Don’t you see they’re frightened? Who will protect us?’ ”

She had heard that the United States was offering asylum to Mexicans in danger. The family stuffed some clothes into backpacks and boarded a bus for the 600-mile trip to the Texas border.

Francisco Javier Adame watched a growing exodus from the nearby village of Ojitos. Some people were leaving jobs that paid poorly, said Adame, the top official in town. But many were fleeing local kidnapping rings.

“Look, we have nothing,” he said. “They behead you if you don’t pay.”

More than 11,000 Mexican asylum seekers had trekked to the border by last November, according to researchers at UC-San Diego and the University of Texas. U.S. officials had never seen anything like it. But far from expanding the asylum system, the American government was actually tightening it. Many applicants were required to wait in Mexico. Consuelo’s family returned home.

The number of Mexicans seeking asylum abroad has slowed this year, as the Trump administration has effectively shut the process down during the pandemic. But the pause might be temporary.

Residents of Juan Aldama were startled by the news last month that another police chief had been gunned down. Barrón Guzmán had been on the job for just a month.

“I think people will continue leaving,” Consuelo said.

The bigger displacement crisis is happening within Mexico. In some states, such as Guerrero, entire communities have emptied as armed groups move in. In March, for example, gunmen forced 800 people out of their homes in three villages in the municipality of Leonardo Bravo.

In many other places, residents are departing quietly, one family at a time.

The government’s statistics agency estimates that more than 1.7 million Mexicans moved to escape crime in 2018, the most in nine years of polling data. The Congress is expected to soon approve Mexico’s first law to aid the displaced, reflecting a growing effort by civic groups and some officials to shed light on the extraordinary toll of Mexico’s security crisis.

In Nayarit, scores of people have poured out their anguish to a “truth commission” created by activists to document abuses during Veytia’s reign. Residents have accused him of using threats and imprisonment to force citizens to hand over property. Mothers demanding justice hold protests outside the attorney general’s office, thrusting aloft photos of their children, who they say were disappeared by Veytia’s masked police.

“A criminal group took over the institutions of the state of Nayarit for six years,” said Rodrigo González Barrios, spokesman for the truth commission.

Veytia is now serving a 20-year sentence; former governor Roberto Sandoval has been sanctioned by the U.S. government for allegedly taking bribes from narcotics traffickers. (He has denied wrongdoing).

To beleaguered residents of Nayarit, it seemed the picture couldn’t be any darker. Then the nation’s former defense chief was arrested.

The drug corruption, said González Barrios, seemed to go all the way to the top. “Who can we believe in?”

Thorny branches block the entrance of an abandoned building in Jerez, Zacatecas.
Thorny branches block the entrance of an abandoned building in Jerez, Zacatecas.

Greg Miller contributed to this report.

Methodology

The data in the homicide map of Mexico comes from the Registered Deaths statistics collected by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). The data does not distinguish between homicides committed by criminal groups and others. This data has been adjusted by population using INEGI’s Population Estimates by municipality.

The number of total homicides by year is from INEGI. The number of homicides committed by criminal groups is an estimate calculated by the security firm Lantia Consultores.

About this project

Copy editing by Frances Moody and Martha Murdock. Graphics by Adrian Blanco. Graphics editing by Armand Emamdjomeh and Tim Meko. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard. Design and development by Joanne Lee. Design editing by Brian Gross. Project editing by Courtney Kan.

Mary Beth Sheridan is a correspondent covering Mexico and Central America for The Washington Post. Her previous foreign postings include Rome; Bogota, Colombia; and a five-year stint in Mexico in the 1990s. She has also covered immigration, homeland security and diplomacy for The Post, and served as deputy foreign editor from 2016 to 2018.