Jalisco Cartel’s Rise Exposes Limits of Mexico’s Security Strategy
By Benoît Gomis, May 28, 2015, Briefing
On May 1, the first day of a military-led operation meant to restore peace in a region wracked by recent drug-related violence, Mexico’s western state of Jalisco suffered one of the deadliest days in its recent history. Across the region, a bold new criminal gang known as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel reportedly shot down a military helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, set 11 banks and 19 gas stations on fire and used flaming vehicles to put up at least 39 roadblocks. The attacks, apparently carried out by the group to prevent the capture of its leader, killed 15 people, including 6 soldiers and a government official. They came just over three weeks after the cartel, known by its Spanish acronym CNJG, ambushed a police convoy on a country road, killing 15 police officers and injuring five more. In March, the CNJG had killed five federal police officers.
Like similar groups in Mexico, the CNJG is often characterized as a drug cartel, but given the range of activities it is involved in, the term is a misnomer. The group has indeed made much money off of methamphetamine and heroin trafficking, largely thanks to Jalisco’s strategic location for shipping. However, they have also heavily relied on kidnappings and extortions, including within Jalisco’s famous tequila industry. An important part of the gang’s strategy has also been to portray itself as a partner of government authorities and self-defense forces in neighboring Michoacan, where it has killed members of the rival Zetas and the Knights Templar cartels—a clear departure from the traditional definition of cartels, as “a group of similar, independent companies which join together to fix prices, to limit production or to share markets or customers between them.”
The recent events in Jalisco serve as a reminder of the persistently high levels of violence in Mexico—and of the risks of abuses by the police. Last week, 42 people—all suspected CNJG members, according to the government—were killed in a shootout with police in Michoacan near the border with Jalisco. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has opened an inquiry into the shootout, in which only one police officer was killed, raising suspicions of another execution of gang members carried out by security forces.
According to Justice in Mexico, a research program based at the University of San Diego, between 15,649 and 20,670 homicides took place in Mexico in 2014. Although this marks a decrease of 9 to 15 percent from 2013, the historic low of 8,867 killings in 2007 remains distant. Of course, any figure on violence in Mexico should also be taken with precaution: In 2013, Mexico’s National Institute for Statistics and Geography estimated that 87 percent of crimes were in fact not reported, and 92 percent were not investigated. Violence has significantly decreased in cities like Acapulco, Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez, but other states, like Jalisco, have seen the reverse.
With a population of 8 million, economically successful Jalisco seems like an unlikely setting for the latest cartel battle. It routinely features in the top five of Mexico’s wealthiest states and currently accounts for 6.5 percent of the national GDP. Guadalajara, its capital, is the country’s third-largest economic center. Puerto Vallarta is a popular holiday destination, and the region between Guadalajara and Lake Chapala is home to the largest resident population of Americans outside the U.S.
Violence related to organized crime in Mexico has often been localized: A Mexican government report noted that 80 percent of “drug trafficking-related” homicides between December 2006 and July 2010 occurred in 162 of the country’s 2,456 municipalities—less than 7 percent. Nonetheless, this month’s violence suggests it may spread out to other relatively peaceful areas.
Still, it is important not to overplay the gravity of the situation. Jalisco is a resilient and well-equipped state with an integrated security force and an active civil society. It is also used to some levels of disruption from criminal organizations like the CNJG. Some of the CNJG’s tactics are also not new: In August 2012, again in reaction to the failed attempt by police to capture one of its leaders, the CNJG set up 22 roadblocks across Jalisco and the neighboring state of Colima.
The CNJG’s escalation in violence comes ahead of crucial national and local elections on June 7. For the first time since the 1920s, parliamentarians will be allowed to run for re-election, a move designed to boost their level of competence and productivity and to improve planning. This was just one of many reforms put in place by President Enrique Pena Nieto since he took office in December 2012. However, after getting those reforms through Mexico’s Congress, Pena Nieto has had a bumpy road so far, to say the least, from alleged army slayings and the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala to corruption scandals.
The unrest in Jalisco is just the latest challenge. Jerónimo Mohar of the Mexican risk consultancy Grupo Atalaya points to the progress made as part of Pena Nieto’s “top-down approach” to security, “taking out figures such as Joaquin Guzman of the Sinaloa Cartel, Nazario Moreno and Servando Gomez of the Knights Templar and the Treviño Morales brothers of the Zetas.” But while focusing on a high-value targeting strategy against criminal organizations in Mexico may reap short-term political and operational benefits, it is also likely to create more unpredictability and insecurity as others fight to fill the resulting leadership vacuum.
“What the rise of Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion also shows—as does the rise of self-defense groups last year—is that Mexico will find it hard to escape this wicked problem unless it also puts in the effort to complement the top-down approach with a bottom-up approach,” Mohar notes, namely building institutions at the state and municipal levels. That means “implementing programs in criminal justice, increasing the effectiveness of police agencies, but also the expansion of social programs such as job creation,” as Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, wrote last month.
Ultimately, no significant progress can be achieved without tackling the elephant in the room: corruption, which Mohar calls “a direct causal factor behind violence due to organized crime.” Corruption continues to pervade the Mexican economy, political landscape and society as a whole. Without any concerted effort at the local, regional and national level and pressure from civil society on the matter, no election, capture of criminal leaders or creation of law enforcement forces will be able to truly heal Mexico’s wounds.
Benoît Gomis is an international security analyst focusing on terrorism and organized crime. He is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a researcher at Simon Fraser University. He previously worked at Chatham House, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the French Ministry of Defense. He is the author of “Counterterrorism: Reassessing the Policy Response” (CRC Press, Taylor & Francis).