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​​​​Illustration by Sara Gironi Carnevale​​

The Six-Year Reset for Security in Mexico

​2018 marked a year of symbolic change for Mexico. The country elected a new leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who won by a landslide in July and assumed office in December, promising a new approach to addressing violence and corruption. 

In November the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement was signed, which will replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) if approved by the countries’ governments and will increase trade and improve working conditions, especially for women and migrant workers. The trial of infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán kicked off in the United States, highlighting the flow of drugs through Mexico and the broken systems that allow cartels to flourish. And high-profile migrant caravans, along with ongoing rhetoric about security along the U.S.–Mexico border, shone a light on the flow of people between countries. 

Not all of last year’s changes were symbolic, though. Murders in Mexico rose by 33 percent in 2018—authorities opened 33,341 murder investigations, the highest number ever. That statistic from the Interior Ministry is accompanied by other sobering trends: a 19 percent increase in cargo theft throughout the country, and a similar increase in kidnappings. Oil and gas theft continues to be an issue as well, as evidenced by the January explosion caused by an illegally tapped gas pipeline north of Mexico City that killed at least 85 people. And El Chapo’s recent conviction on 10 counts of drug trafficking and money laundering serves as a reminder that Mexico’s drug cartels are continuing to evolve and operate without conventional leaders, groups, or regions. 

All of these changes have led to precarious times for corporate security in Mexico, says Roberto Atilano, CPP, the Mexico and Central America corporate security manager for consumer goods company Ferrero. 

“I have seen more kidnappings of businessmen in the past few months than over the past few years,” Atilano tells Security Management. “And they are happening in areas where it’s normally not an issue.” 

A reset in Mexico’s federal security programs, as well as the ongoing fracturing of cartels, increased localized crime. And according to Atilano and other experts, the recent rise in murder rates, kidnappings, and cargo theft is not going to stop any time soon.

Cartels. When geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor started documenting Mexican drug cartel trends in 2006, the dynamics were simpler—there were only a handful of cartels, each operating in its own region and under an established hierarchy. But following a sharp increase in cartel-fueled murders from 2010 to 2012 and the subsequent military crackdown, the groups began fragmenting, due to both pressure from the outside and competing factions inside the organizations. After a few years of declining murder rates, the splintered cartels have regrouped and are locked in bloody turf wars, contributing to the dramatic rise in murders in 2017 which continues today, Stratfor reports.

While the Sinaloa cartel suffered the loss of its leader El Chapo—as well as the airing of its drug-smuggling logistics during his trial—the group continues its dominance of northwestern Mexico and remains one of the last legacy cartel groups with clout. In central Mexico, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion—a splinter of Sinaloa—emerged as the country’s most violent drug-smuggling group.

“Its efforts to expand its area of control are largely responsible for the persistent wave of violence racking Tijuana, Juarez, Guanajuato, and Mexico City,” the Stratfor report​ notes.

Ongoing cartel infighting and the government’s attempts to control the drug trade brought violence into areas that have long been considered safe. 

“Most of the violence has been cartel-on-cartel or government-on-cartel, but with the cartels using automatic weapons and military ordnance, such as grenades and anti-tank weapons, bystanders are at considerable risk of injury or death,” according to Stratfor. 

Cartels are also diversifying their operations. While previous Mexican drug operations focused on pushing heroin and cocaine, the rise in popularity of synthetic drugs in the United States is a boon for cartels—the profit margin on manufacturing methamphetamine and fentanyl is much higher than peddling traditional drugs. Splintered cartels are also turning to non-narcotics operations for funding, accounting for the rise in kidnapping and cargo theft.

“It is no coincidence that the pilfering of cargo and fuel have reached historically high levels as balkanization blossomed over the past half-decade,” Stratfor notes.

A new administration. These trends in cartel violence may be exacerbated by the vacuum that the change in federal leadership creates every six years. Atilano points out that with a new administration come new security policies and approaches, but until those are established there is no one method to combat the growing numbers of murders, kidnappings, and cargo theft.

Indeed, advocates have been calling for the reinstatement of a national plan to combat kidnapping—there is currently no strategy because the last plan expired at the end of December.  According to the Mexican kidnapping prevention advocacy group Alto el Secuestro, at least 317 people were kidnapped within the first two months of López Obrador’s presidency, representing a 51.6 percent increase from last year’s rates. 

“Every president wants to take his own approach. But until new programs are set up, there are no protections in place,” Atilano says.

The differing approaches to violence and corruption in Mexico are evident when comparing confiscation of drugs and weapons under previous administrations. Under President Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa, who served from 2007 until 2012 and was known for his ruthless pursuit of cartels using the national military and intelligence arms, more than 163,000 weapons were confiscated from criminal organizations. When President Enrique Peña Nieto became president at the end of 2012, he focused more on reducing violence by establishing a National Gendarmerie instead of attacking the country’s cartels with military might. During Peña Nieto's six-year term, some 46,500 weapons were confiscated. The number of drug-related arrests and confiscations dropped in a similar manner.

López Obrador is expected to employ his own unique approach to the cartel violence. He campaigned to continue the demilitarization of law enforcement—undoing the controversial tacticsCalderón Hinojosa used to combat the drug war—and instead address the social issues that cause the violence. However, two months into his governance, López Obrador proposed creating a new 60,000-person Mexican National Guard that would replace the current armed forces fighting the cartels. 

Regardless of the president’s approach, it will be some months before a National Guard or other security measures are enacted, and Atilano says it’s important for corporate security leaders to foster the continuity of security best practices within their organizations and communities.

“We have been dealing with a lot of cargo theft, where criminals will steal or hijack our goods in transit,” Atilano says. “We were able to address it with armed escorts. We didn’t want to address fighting with fighting, but it was the best approach and now our cargo theft is down to zero.”

Atilano says he is emphasizing corporate security training to address the crime that has crept up following Obrador’s inauguration. 

“For corporate security, we’re working on our awareness programs; I’ve stepped them up over the past few months,” he says. “We are increasing our executive protection and kidnapping training.”

Atilano says he has been through this before—until a new national security approach is established, corporate security leaders have to fill the gap the best they can. The consequences of this trend were made clear in a recent report from Mexico’s Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública—between December 2018 and January 2019, the rate of kidnappings, extortion cases, and robberies all rose. The report also found that during this past January alone, 2,452 people were murdered, making it the deadliest January since the organization began collecting data in 1997.

“The statistics show that crime is getting worse over the past few months,” Atilano says. “I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon, until the new administration puts new security programs in place and they start working. Until then, we just have to enforce security best practices.”