Walls Cannot Contain Mexico’s Security Challenges
Print issue: December 2020
Although coronavirus news continues to dominate much of the media attention in Mexico, the country’s other security threats—many of which stem from the increasingly aggressive activities of Mexican criminal drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) known as cartels—continue to surge.
“The country faces an escalating security crisis,” wrote Evan Ellis in a recent report, Neighbor at Risk: Mexico’s Deepening Crisis, issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in September 2020. “As levels of violence have increased, Mexico’s largest criminal groups, including the Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) and Sinaloa cartels, have become increasingly assertive.”
And while these DTOs have been active in Mexico for several decades, some have more recently expanded their scope of criminal activity, according to June S. Beittel, an analyst in Latin American Affairs for the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and author of a recent CRS report, Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations.
“These organizations continue...to diversify into crimes of extortion, human smuggling, and oil theft, among others. Their supply chains traverse the Western Hemisphere and the globe,” Beittel wrote in the report, which was published 28 July 2020.
This year, CJNG reportedly expanded into new regions and conducted multiple high-profile attacks, raising significant concern among security officials.
“For sure, CJNG is growing in power and gathering more territory and gaining more influence in Mexico,” Jorge Septién, CPP, CEO and president at MSPV Seguridad Privada, tells Security Management. Septién is a former chair of the ASIS International Mexico City Chapter.
CJNG has evolved and grown since it first emerged from a leadership vacuum when a few Sinaloa Cartel leaders were captured or killed, experts say. A little more than a decade ago, the group began to attract more public attention when it pledged to hunt down and kill members of the Los Zetas Cartel. After one killing in 2009, CJNG left a message identifying itself as the “Zeta Killers” or Mata Zetas, according to press reports. CJNG then gained a reputation for mass killings and extreme violence. “Those people were really crazy,” Septién says. “They were cutting their enemies into pieces.”
By 2018, crime analysts said the CJNG had become one of the most powerful cartels in Mexico. U.S. Representative Chip Roy (R-TX) introduced legislation in 2019 that called for listing the CJNG as a foreign terrorist organization. Although U.S. President Donald Trump gave the proposal some brief public support, it was never passed by Congress.
This year, two bold attacks on Mexican officials that were attributed to CJNG stunned many Mexican residents. In June, a federal judge who had ruled in significant organized crime cases—including extraditing the son of a top CJNG leader to the United States—and his wife were killed in the central Pacific Coast city of Colima, Mexico.
Less than two weeks later, armed men ambushed Mexico City’s police chief and secretary of public security, Omar García Harfuch. García Harfuch was seriously wounded but survived; two of his bodyguards were killed. García Harfuch later accused the CJNG of launching the attack.
“Many analysts contend these attacks mark CJNG’s expansion across the country and willingness to go after Mexican government officials in a brazen fashion,” Beittel wrote.
The attack on García Harfuch seemed shocking because it took place in a stable and affluent neighborhood, with embassies, CCTV cameras, and plenty of police around, Septién says.
“Everyone was just really surprised, because no one thought it possible that the cartel would be operating here in this area of Mexico City,” he says. Some took the boldness of the shooting as a “big message” to the government, Septién adds.
On 8 July 2020, Insight Crime released an analysis on CJNG which found that that “despite the capture of certain top leaders, CJNG is now Mexico’s foremost criminal threat and it appears set to continue expanding.”
The report found that as of 2020, CJNG had a presence in 27 of 32 Mexican states. Within Mexico, CJNG now controls large parts of the marijuana, cocaine, and synthetic drug trade, according to the report. Internationally, CNJG has a wide reach of contacts in Australia, Bolivia, Canada, Central America, China, Colombia, Peru, and the United States, among other nations.
Moreover, CJNG asserts control over the ports of Veracruz, Manzanillo, and Lázaro Cárdenas, which has given the group access to precursor chemicals that flow into Mexico from China and parts of Latin America. This has allowed CJNG to respond to increasing U.S. demand for Mexican methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl by increasing exports of those drugs. As a result, Mexico continues to be a significant source and transit country for illicit drugs destined for the United States, according to the U.S. State Department.
Of course, illicit trade works both ways, and research has found that a majority of guns in Mexico can be traced back to the United States. For example, a U.S Government Accountability Office report published in 2016 found that 70 percent of guns seized in Mexico had a U.S. origin. Septién says that this general trend continues today.
Overall, Mexico’s security forces have been strained in trying to respond to the increasing threats, the CSIS report found. Some have been distracted by a recent government reorganization of the security sector; other forces have been reassigned to support the country’s pandemic response. Thus, the combination of increasing threats and decreasing security “threatens to significantly erode law and order in Mexico’s major cities,” Ellis writes.
Septién says that the range of threats in Mexico warrants the development of a countrywide security plan that involves all stakeholders and takes a holistic approach that includes components like economic development, so Mexican businesses can pay livable wages that would keep more young Mexicans from joining the cartels.
“We have not defined a real national security that brings together all the citizens and the government organizations,” he says.
Ellis recommends more assistance from the United States in supporting security initiatives that benefit both countries.
“The dilemmas confronting Mexico are grave. The choices available to Mexico and the United States to address the problems are neither easy nor cheap, but the cost of inaction is unacceptable,” he wrote. “The interdependence between the two countries is too great to be addressed by even the highest of walls.”
And Septién agrees that more U.S.–Mexico cooperation could be key.
“We need to work together as a team—or to work as two teams together—against the criminals,” he says.