Does 'cutting off the heads' of Mexico's cartels really work?

A violent weekend in the state of Jalisco, where federal troops did battle with heavily armed cartel fighters, suggests that it doesn't.

Alejandro Acosta/Reuters
Men stand next to the wreckage of a tractor-trailer set ablaze by members of a drug cartel in Guadalajara on May 1. Violence in Jalisco, one of Mexico's most important states economically, has become an increasing problem for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office pledging to pacify the country following years of brutal drug gang violence.

Mexico has scored dozens of drug-war “wins” over the past several years, with cartel kingpins apprehended anywhere from secret tunnels to bustling restaurants, and paraded in front of news cameras as a sign of progress.

But a confrontation that unfolded in and around the western state of Jalisco last weekend – complete with cartel-manned rocket-propelled grenades and a felled military helicopter – shows that the battle against drug traffickers here is far from won. Violence erupted in 20 municipalities and spilled into four states, killing at least seven people.

The recent ascendance of the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG), which orchestrated the weekend mayhem, has some questioning the strategy President Enrique Peña Nieto inherited from his predecessor Felipe Calderon: Sending in federal troops to cut off the head of a cartel and hoping that the rest of the organization dies.

The first part has been carried out efficiently. Of 122 “priority” cartel targets identified by President Peña Nieto’s administration some 90 have been “neutralized,” according to the government. But while there may be celebratory headlines when a “most wanted” is caught, many drug trafficking organizations that have lost leaders are still active.

“The government doesn’t have a lot of options” in the short term, says Jorge Chabat, a security analyst at Mexico City's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics. “The administration has limited resources and can’t attack all organizations at the same time.”

That inevitably means that while attention is focused on a state like Guerrero, where cartels are widely known to be in cahoots with local police, groups like the CJNG can flourish.

The government needs a much deeper approach than simply sending in the troops, argues Alejandro Hope, a Mexico-based security analyst. What has been missing from the anti-cartel strategy is police training at the local and state levels and judicial reform.

“The problem that plagued Calderon for six years has been plaguing Peña Nieto for the past three: How do we get [state and local] governments to do their part?” Hope says.

Violent weekend

The latest confrontation in Jalisco kicked off May 1 when the military tried to capture the leader of CJNG, Nemesio Oseguera, known as “El Mencho.”

Cartel members were quick to mobilize in response, an indicator that the cartel’s structure is strong and fully intact, says Hope. CJNG set up nearly 40 blazing roadblocks across the state, and burned banks and gas stations, including in the tourist beach town of Puerto Villarta. It became the first cartel to successfully shoot down a military helicopter.

Mauricio Lara was at home on Friday when he started getting alerts on Twitter about fires and blockades around Guadalajara. His brother was on his way out of town for the long weekend, and called to say he was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but didn’t know the cause.

“There seemed to be a lot of commotion: news of trucks in the street burning, buildings burning,” says Mr. Lara, an industrial designer in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state and Mexico’s second largest city. “We didn’t really know what was going on or what to believe.”

He adds that he was shocked the narcos would be brazen enough to act so close to a major city. “It seems the only people organized in this country are the delinquents,” Lara says, referring to the cartel’s seemingly well-oiled response.

Not a resurgence

The New Generation Jalisco Cartel was originally an armed wing of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, but it split off on its own in 2010.

The organization wasn’t exactly flying under the radar – CJNG members killed 15 Jalisco state police officers in April using assault rifles and grenades, and Mexican authorities tried to capture El Mencho once before in 2012, when they were met by similar roadblocks and counterattacks.

But national attention has focused on other troubled states in recent years, like Guerrero, Tamaulipas, and Michoacán, where vigilante self-defense groups took up arms to battle the powerful Knights Templar drug cartel in what they felt was the absence of government action.

“You can’t call [what happened in Jalisco] a resurgence of violence or a spontaneous growth of a cartel,” says Erubiel Tirado, a security expert at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. “For decades the government has prioritized reacting to cartels … without breaking apart the networks of complicity,” Mr. Tirado says, pointing to corrupt government officials, business communities, or police that can play a part in keeping cartel activity afloat.

The relationship between the state and federal governments is something Mexico still has yet to solve, says Hope.

The decision to go after cartel leaders and send in the troops has had a number of repercussions: “Why, from a state perspective, should you invest in the police when at the end of the day, the federal government will simply send in the cavalry?” Hope asks.

Chabat agrees, “the only option is to strengthen institutions against corruption. There is a judicial reform in process and [background checks] for police. But these things take a long time.”

Before it went into recess last week, Congress failed to pass police reforms that would establish a single command structure for state police forces. Anti-corruption legislation was passed, but still has to work its way through legislative ratification and presidential approval, which could take months.

Reform in Jalisco?

Despite a belief that events like last weekend’s attacks aren’t new and are likely to happen again, Hope says there is some good news for Jalisco.

“I see Jalisco going more the way of Ciudad Juarez or Monterrey,” two Mexico success stories, Hope says. He pins that hope on Jalisco’s active civil society, business, and university communities. Such groups were key in the state of Nuevo Leon, where Monterrey is located, in pushing local and state governments for reform.

Already citizens in Guadalajara are trying to move beyond last weekend’s violent events, organizing a march on May 9 to “reclaim” the city.

“It’s sad to live this kind of thing,” where people are afraid to leave their homes because of the threat of violence, says Lara, the industrial designer. “We can’t stay at home alone, we have to go out and recuperate our streets.”

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