By Sierra Juarez
QUERETARO, Mexico (AA) – The recent arrest and release of the son of notorious drug lord “El Chapo” Guzman in Culiacan, Sinaloa has raised controversy and prompted open dialogue across Mexico.
The crux of the conversations is that cartel groups continue to maintain a strong, lethal grip over the country.
The government under former President Felipe Calderon began aggressively fighting cartel groups in 2006. It hoped to squelch their influence by starting from the top and attacking the leaders.
In 2009, it was estimated that 45,000 military troops and federal and state police were fighting the “War on Drugs.”
Bringing down the ringleaders led to the fall of some cartels, splits in others and even new groups. Although the initiatives did result in the takedown of several high-profile drug cartel leaders, a new, larger problem surfaced.
“As soon as the drug war started, the rate of assassinations increased exponentially,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a scholar and expert on organized crime at George Mason University. “It was all a disaster…We didn’t see any improvements.”
Since the “War on Drugs” began, an estimated 200,000 people have died or disappeared due to cartel violence.
Who are the main cartel groups?
The cartel is known for being the most powerful and dangerous in Mexico.
It is estimated that it has operations in at least 17 of Mexico’s 31 states. It got its start in the 1960s and 1970s with trading contraband but eventually shifted to drug trafficking.
Its most famous leader, “El Chapo,” took control in 2008, and some of the cartel’s most violent acts took place under his leadership.
“El Chapo” is now in jail in the U.S., but his sons continue to run the cartel. Most recently, the cartel group caused mayhem in Culiacan, the capital city of Sinaloa and one of its strongholds, after the army attempted to capture one of his sons. Heavily armed cartel members took to the streets and began shooting, kidnapping army troops and burning cars.
The government decided to return the son to the group in exchange for peace in the city, which was applauded by some officials including Mexico’s Interior Minister Olga Sanchez Cordero.
“One of the principal objectives of this administration is to pacify this country, but it should not be at the risk of fathers, mothers and children. The most important thing is people’s lives,” she said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, security experts like Correa-Cabrera worry that the decision could create a human tragedy in the future. She said the incident shows just how weak the Mexican government is in the face of areas dominated by organized crime.
“Culiacan is basically the reflection of all the limitations and problems that [President] Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is facing – a lack of coordination, lack of communication between agencies,” she said. “This gives a horrible message to other criminal groups.”
Jalisco New Generation Cartel
This group is relatively new and splintered off from an older cartel.
It is based in Jalisco and reportedly has operations in around 22 states. The group is known for battles with the Zeta cartel and its public and extremely violent acts.
In 2011, the cartel claimed responsibility for the murders of 35 people in Veracruz. In 2018, it mistook three students for being members of a rival gang and killed them and dissolved their bodies in acid.
After, it was seen as the second most dangerous cartel in Mexico. The group has used social media and propaganda to try to appeal to civilians and the government by saying it will rid states of previous cartels like the Zetas.
Groups losing power
The government’s efforts to capture cartel leaders have often led to splintering and infighting between once-strong organizations. Despite being on the decline, these groups continue to operate in northern regions like Tamaulipas.
To survive, they engage in anything from stealing petroleum to kidnapping to managing stash houses on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“They’re diversifying their activities. We are no longer only talking about drugs,” Correa-Cabrera said.
It is one of the oldest cartel groups in Mexico, starting in the 1980s under its infamous boss Juan Garcia Abrego, who grew the cartel into a multibillion-dollar organization.
The cartel is known for its knack for getting the Mexican government to turn a blind eye to its operations.
At one time, the organization even paid off the Attorney General’s office. But it began to go into decline after the arrest of several top leaders. In addition, a group that it started, the Zetas, would overcome its predecessor.
The Gulf Cartel paid a group of soldiers to dissent from the government and work instead on protecting the cartel.
What once was a group of about 31 troops would become one of the country’s most powerful cartels. The Zetas officially splintered off of the Gulf Cartel in the 2000s to become its own group. The organization leaned on its military experience to intimidate and violently attack enemies instead of falling back on extortion and bribes. It eventually weakened because of conflicts with the Sinaloa cartel but remains operational around Tamaulipas.
What is the Mexican government doing?
After several years of violence under the “War on Drugs,” President Obrador vowed to change the narrative. During his campaign, he said the government should not fight “violence with violence.” Instead, he wanted to take a more peaceful approach.
“You cannot fight fire with fire. We do not want deaths. We do not want a war,” he said.
In practice, experts like Jorge Chabat, who researches drug trafficking and teaches at the University of Guadalajara, say that the current president’s policies do not seem to differ too much from previous presidents’ security policies.
Although he talks of peace, he still operates like previous presidents, said Chabat.
But experts point to the fact that he sent the army to capture a cartel leader and that he created a National Guard, an elite group of police, as evidence that he is aggressively fighting the cartels.
“I think not much has changed…In reality, the operation with El Chapo Guzman’s son was like previous operations [under previous presidents],” Chabat said. “The difference this time is that it was poorly done.”
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