Organized Crime Shows Social Muscle among Poorest Classes Months before Elections

El País

The narcos reinvent themselves bringing thousands of people to the streets and forcing the State to negotiate their demands

The narcos have turned Mexico into a pit of quicksand where the country has been sinking without remedy for three six-year terms of office. With its head almost going under, it needs an outstretched hand so as not to succumb to a criminal power that has diversified the business into any sphere where there is money, from north to south, from east to west. In recent weeks, counting the victims was a Sisyphus-type task: when the fire was extinguished in a market in the center of the country, bombs exploded in Jalisco; in Nuevo León, a firing squad left six corpses against a wall, the judges of Colima took refuge in their homes and Guerrero, one of the states where the sand is already at the neck, burned between murdered taxi drivers and cut off highways. In this territory, three days of blood and fire brought the authorities to their knees and left an strange image that shows the power of crime to reinvent itself: with a click of their fingers they mobilized thousands of citizens this week who marched along the highway to the heart of the state government, scared off the police, stole an armored tank, took a dozen agents and workers hostage, and forced politicians to negotiate their demands. Such a display of social muscle among the poorest rural communities still has the country in shock.

The narcos have not only expanded their businesses, from the avocado to fishing and lumber industry, tourism, taxis, markets for counterfeit products, chicken shops, beer or water distribution; it is also testing new weapons, from bombs to drones; and its penetration in the political sphere is no longer satisfied with putting pressure on the elected rulers, but rather places its own people at the head of the Town Halls. It is what is usually called a Narco-state. At the turn of the century, cocaine was the most powerful section of the business, and even today, be it fentanyl or whatever, drugs remain the great source of profit. So-called protection money, that is, extortion from anyone who sets up a store, sets up a street stall or is in a wheelchair selling loose cigarettes, is the second most profitable business, the main one in some regions, recalls Eduardo Guerrero , Security consultant, one of the great experts in this field. “Fuel theft has been reduced a bit with this government, but they have sought new sources of income, such as migrant smuggling, trafficking in women, with which the many disappearances of young people in tourist centers are explained. And of the latest generation, there is clandestine logging or illegal fishing of marine species that find a good market in Asia”, sometimes for the exchange of fentanyl, says Guerrero, also director of Lantia Intelligence.

At local level, in some parts they have taken over the construction business, cement, bricks, and food sectors: they force purchase of chicken or tortillas from their suppliers. Counterfeiting and sale of all kinds of brand names, from watches to mattresses, is another of its strengths. As Luis Astorga, PhD in Sociology and one of the great experts in Mexican criminal networks, recently mentioned to this newspaper, you would have to buy a fishing rod and sit patiently on the seashore to be sure that what you are putting into your mouth has not fattened the coffers of crime. To say narco now is to say little, or perhaps, to say everything.

In May 2008, after the arrest, months before, of one of the big bosses, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, the war broke out. He wasn’t going to be the only one. Where before three or four criminal leaders were arrested in six years, with the government of Felipe Calderón there were almost 40. With each blow to the head, the gangs split into smaller factions that spread throughout the country, each one in search os their business. The large cartels of the North, violent and focused on the transfer of drugs to the United States, are now a hydra with a thousand heads, an enormous family tree of parents, brothers and partners that are taking over each territory. They are no longer just lords of the skies or the underground tunnels between borders. What emerged as a phenomenon concentrated in large cities is now national and with a broad impact in rural areas. The harassment of agricultural, livestock and mining companies in the time of Peña Nieto (2012-2018) gave rise to self-defense groups, the civilian population that armed itself to resist criminal attacks. But the narcos engulf everything and today it is no longer very well known whether or not these small squads are under the control of organized crime. One of the most famous from the self-defense groups, Hipólito Mora, highly threatened, was shot to death in Michoacán at the end of June. 25 hitmen fired more than 1,000 bullets at their target.

But the narcos always walked through the hills and mountains, they were their places of cultivation and the paths of safe passage. “They have been amassing a social base, they invested money in rural communities so that they would take care of drug trafficking routes and the houses where they kept weapons, money, or even kidnapped people, such as migrants,” says Guerrero. Recently, there have been more manifestations. In the middle of the pandemic, the distribution of food and household appliances was reported in various parts of the country to alleviate the deficiencies of a very poor, extremely poor population, and one tired of waiting for a State that never arrives. “There were even cases in which they offered jobs to young people who had lost their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis,” recalls the Security consultant. Crime was buying empathy, solidarity and loyalty. And the common people responded by notifying them of the movements of the Army in those lands. “The gangs show themselves to these populations in a benevolent way, they need them, they are strategic,” says Guerrero, the same one who compares the situation in Mexico with quicksand where the country is sinking more and more. The searching mothers, who comb the territory in search of the remains of their relatives, are now reaching agreements with the drug traffickers to dig without being attacked, while in the State they do not always find an echo for their requests.

From time to time, criminal gangs broadcast videos that look like military parades: tanks, weapons, and uniforms. It is their way of saying that they own this or that territory. This week, the parade was different. The show of force in Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero, brought together thousands of campesinos and transport workers who came down from the mountains armed with stakes and machetes and blocked the highways leading to Acapulco and Mexico City until they had their way. The issue poses a new transformation of crime, with the capacity to mobilize entire towns, like a political party that brings citizens to fill its rallies. “It’s painful, with a leftist government whose priority should be to weaken criminal recruitment centers based on social programs,” laments Guerrero.

In fact, this has been the message that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been sending throughout his term of office, which he summed up in the phrase “hugs, not bullets.” It is a matter, the president always says, of strangling poverty, of multiplying scholarships and social aid so that young people do not consider the alternative of crime as an advantageous way out. But one only had to look at the rough sandals and dusty feet, the faces wrinkled by the sun, the broken teeth of many of the peasants who came with their bamboo clubs to the capital of Guerrero. Poverty is far from extinct. And what’s more, the leaders of the demonstration camouflaged their demands, which the government summed up in the release of two detained gangsters, with a list of social improvements in their communities: sewage drainage, asphalt streets, educational improvements and security on the roads. No one has any doubt that this is also necessary. But the absence of the State has been giving way to drug trafficking, little by little, election after election.

The 2024 elections are already on the horizon, where municipal presidents, governorships, deputies and senators will be elected, and a new president for Mexico. This electoral proximity also has to do with the outbreak of fire that has been taking place in recent days, crime is taking positions, putting their own people in place, putting pressure on those close to them and others, playing at destabilization. “The social mobilization, the muscle that they have shown these days is a message to the political class,” says Lilian Chapa Koloffon, a senior analyst at the World Justice Project. “They behave like political players, what they are saying is not only that they can put their own people in place, but also mobilize voters or destabilize elections. Stealing an armored vehicle and taking hostages at the gates of the Government Palace in Chilpancingo is an enormous demonstration of lack of respect for the authorities without any fear of sanction. The authorities have sat down to negotiate with the agents held overnight”, says Chapa Koloffon. The narcos are the interlocutor and each new ruler who rises to power feels their breath on their neck.

“I strongly feel that Mexico is not going to be able to get out of this alone. The agreement of other countries is needed, a great security treaty for North America, with the United States and Canada, not ridiculous little programs, standardize laws and, of course, progress in new technologies for security and the training of human resources. That could come together in 10 or 15 years,” says Guerrero, “but society has to push hard on that idea.” In his opinion, the collaboration agreements should extend to Spain and Italy on the European side, and to Chile and Colombia in the Latin American region. “If they don’t do it now, the risk of crime rising to state governments and a de facto Narco-state.”

Original article by Carmen Morán Breña at
Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

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