MEXICO CITY — It was a scene straight out of a gang-infested town in provincial Mexico. More than 1,000 Mexican marines and federal and local police moved in on a rough corner of the national capital on Thursday to capture accused drug cartel boss Felipe de Jesús Pérez Luna — nicknamed “El Ojos,” or “The Eyes” — who was then killed in the ensuing shootout.
In response, underlings in the Cartel de Tláhuac — named for the semi-urban southern borough where it was based — subsequently hijacked and burned buses and transport vehicles, the first time such “narcobloqueos,” or roadblocks set up by drug traffickers, had been unleashed in Mexico City.
The sight of buses burning in the streets shattered the capital’s image as an island of relative tranquility amid the country’s decade-long drug war, which has plunged swaths of Mexico into endemic cartel violence and cost more than 200,000 lives.
Even as the killings and other cartel activities, including kidnapping and extortion, consumed adjacent suburbs and nearby states, Mexico City maintained relative calm and seemed immune to the worst of the mayhem plaguing other parts of the country. Now security experts and residents alike express concern that the calm is coming to an end.
“What’s happening in Mexico City reflects the national outlook,” said Francisco Rivas, the director of the National Citizen Observatory, a group monitoring security issues, to Reuters. “We have a crisis of organized crime.”
Mexico recorded 13,726 homicides over the first six months of 2017, an increase of 32.9 percent over the same period last year. Crime has also increased in Mexico City, where 206 murder investigations were started in May and June — the city’s busiest two month-period ever, according to Reuters.
“There are plenty of situations where you want to report something and they just ignore you,” said Alejandro Rojas, owner of a mom-and-pop shop in the sprawling borough of Iztapalapa. Rojas said he tried reporting drug use and petty crime near his store via an anonymous tip line, but police never responded — and the person taking the call asked for plenty of personal information. “It wasn’t very anonymous," he said.
But Mexico City’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, has downplayed the problem. In the days prior to the operation against El Ojos, Mancera traveled to the troubled state of Chihuahua to give away patrol cars to city governments confronting rising crime — suggesting Mexico City had such security it could spare the resources.
Then, on Friday, he insisted that the Cártel de Tláhuac is a network of small-time drug dealers and that major powers such as the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels do not operate in Mexico City.
“A cartel is a much bigger organization and is a federal responsibility,” he told the Televisa network. “We would not intervene if it were a cartel.” He then made a prediction: “You are going to see what happens with the crime rate in the area. It’s going to go into decline.”
Two days later, a shootout at an itinerant market in southern Mexico City killed two and injured 10.
Some people dispute Mancera’s insistence that no cartels operate in Mexico City. More than 1,000 people attended the funeral of "El Ojos" on Monday, including associates openly packing heat — a scene reminiscent of the lavish final respects paid to capos in the provinces.
“The organized criminal groups in Mexico City have a structure and economic means, use large-caliber weapons, and hundreds of violent crimes are linked to them,” said Ramón Bernal, a former Mexico City detective and the president of an organization promoting labor rights for police officers. The newspaper El Universal reported that Mancera himself said “El Ojos” paid spies 2,000 pesos (roughly $110) per week — five times the Mexican minimum wage — to monitor police movements and suspicious activities.
“Tláhuac: acts like a cartel, controls and kills like a cartel, organizes funerals like a cartel … but it’s not a cartel?" tweeted Carolina Rocha, a Mexico City reporter.
Of course, downplaying crime is not unusual in Mexico, where politicians with presidential aspirations often try to treat violence as a public-relations problem, according to analysts. Mancera, who was the chief prosecutor in Mexico City before becoming mayor in 2012, has promoted his security record as he prepares for a probable presidential candidacy. Analysts say he risks losing sight of the situation at home.
“Mexico City has been under control. Now that control is loosening a little, and Mancera looks distracted with other things,” said Adrián Rueda, a local politics columnist with the Excélsior newspaper. “His cabinet is paralyzed because he has not said who will replace him when he leaves. No one wants to make a misstep, and there’s a void and criminals are stepping over the line.”