Mexico Security Update - 7 November 2019
AMLO fights his critics more than the cartels; US citizens killed in Sonora; Michoacan and Jalisco likely to heat up
On security issues, Mexico’s president finds himself responding to events and deflecting criticisms including comments from retired military officials.
The recent massacre of nine US citizens in Sonora highlights a potential three way battle among criminal groups in the region, even as the government has placed few resources for security in that area.
The cartel rumors posted online hint at alliances forming to fight the CJNG and further violence in Michoacan.
Even as the media focuses on the attacks in Sonora, the state of Jalisco is the next likely hotspot that will challenge the Lopez Obrador government.
AMLO is fighting his critics instead of the cartels
Since his election, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has turned to the military for many civilian security and bureaucratic tasks, but failed to provide leadership when it comes to building a real security strategy. Recent public statements by retired military officials hint at a significant level of discontent among Mexico’s armed forces. Mexico’s military does not want to take the blame for rising violence or failed operations. It does not want to be drawn into conflicts where it may find its personnel the target of violence and bribery.
While AMLO remains broadly popular among the Mexican public, he’s taking criticisms from both sides of the political pundit elites who shape the national debate. One side criticizes AMLO for his ridiculous “hugs, not bullets” strategy that fails to go after criminal groups. The other side accuses AMLO of failing to demilitarize the security situation as he promised, blaming the increasing violence as a result of AMLO’s inability to change the overall strategy from the Calderon and EPN eras.
Lopez Obrador has responded to the negative media coverage and criticisms by former military officials with an over the top statement rejecting a potential coup in the country. Those pundits who demand better security are labeled conservatives by the president. Pro-AMLO social media bots have gone after journalists and analysts who have criticized Lopez Obrador’s security policies.
AMLO thrives amid political conflict and is desperate to set up strawman critics he can easily defeat rather than address the growing concerns from a broad swathe of Mexican society.
The Mexican government has not responded to any of the recent massacres or security setbacks that have occurred. After every attack, AMLO repeats his refrain that his government is dealing with long-term socio-economic causes of violence. He occasionally claims security is getting better when neither the data nor the headlines agree with that statement.
It’s fairly clear that the Mexican government is facing several short term security crises. Long term investments in education and social services are good, but they need to be complemented by investments in police and judicial efforts to prevent crime and prosecute criminal activity today.
How does AMLO respond to the Sonora attacks on US citizens?
At least nine US citizens were killed in an attack in Sonora this week.
Following massacres around the country and the government’s embarrassing setback in Culiacan, the tragedy in Sonora draws US media coverage and political debate back to the violence in Mexico right as AMLO finds himself under pressure. What makes Sonora different than the recent violence in Michoacan, Veracruz and Guanajuato is that it involves US citizens.
The Mexican government struggles to answer basic questions about the Sonora attack, speculating that the attack might be a case of mistaken identity while not being able to name the attackers nor who those attackers thought they were shooting. As Alejandro Hope has written, the government has sent fewer than 5,000 National Guard forces in Sonora and Chihuahua combined. That contrasts with nearly 7,000 personnel deployed along the southern border to deal with the wave of Central American migrants. The AMLO government seems more interested in responding to media crises than figuring out who was responsible for violent acts and prosecuting them.
As the graphic at this article from El Universal shows, the region along the Sonora-Chihuahua border has been the location of numerous homicides, though the numbers are down from their peak a decade ago. This region has long been believed to be under the control of the Sinaloa Cartel. The Juarez Cartel and its allies in La Linea have disputed parts of the territory for a number of years. The shootout this week was likely a result of the rivalry between those two groups. More recently, the CJNG has been forming alliances with local groups to disrupt the Sinaloa Cartel’s control (the CJNG has also moved into southwest Sonora and been involved in recent violent incidents there). In addition to the rival groups, several local factions of the Sinaloa Cartel have clashed with their parent criminal group, increasing violence.
Rumors point to a growing cartel war
Even before the massacre of a Morman family near the US-Mexico border in Sonora, the recent violent incidents across Mexico put the rumor mill regarding cartel activity into overdrive. Individual rumors should be taken with plenty of caution and doubt, but the totality of the rumors leads to four key conclusions:
Criminal groups understand the threat of the CJNG expansion and are considering alliances to halt it.
The CJNG is responding by targeting the alliance of cartels against it.
Michoacan is the center of gravity for the national fight. While there are other states with significant cartel vs cartel violence (Guanajuato, Baja California, Tamaulipas). Michoacan is where all the various groups are converging and feel that they cannot back down.
The criminal groups view the Lopez Obrador government as weak and know they can move the president’s policy with acts of violence.
The fight in Michoacan is likely to move to Jalisco
As the massacre in Sonora shows, the cartel war is taking place in numerous states across the country. However, as the violent fight increases in Michoacan and groups form alliances against the CJNG, the next likely move is into the state of Jalisco.
Since its earliest days as the “Matazetas,” the CJNG has made a name for itself by conducting offensive operations deep in their rivals’ territories. To do real damage to the CJNG, the opponents of the group must move into Guadalajara and the surrounding area and force the group to play defense on its home turf.
Government forces are unlikely to deter this cartel war in Michoacan and potentially Jalisco. The federal, state and local governments have been hesitant to take on the CJNG in its home territory because the criminal group has given a clear plata o plomo message. They’ve bribed local politicians, judges and police forces. When operations have moved against their leadership, they’ve used significant acts of violence to respond.
Rival cartels moving into Jalisco will drive up violence in one of Mexico’s most populous and economically important states. Foreign businesses operating in the state are likely to see operations disrupted and increased violence in the coming year. The attack against US citizens in Sonora may get more media coverage, but increased violence in Michoacan and Jalisco is much more likely to impact US businesses and Mexico’s economy.
Thanks for reading
A big thanks for paying subscribers for supporting this newsletter. Paying subscribers have gotten several exclusive Mexico-related updates in recent weeks such as this one on the Sinaloa Cartel's negotiation strategy and this one on the violence caused by the CJNG expansion. I’m sending this update to everyone because of the interest in the recent events in Sonora.