Authorities in Mexico’s southwestern state of Michoacan say gunmen shot down a police helicopter this week in a remote area where narcotics traffickers operate. The pilot and three police officers died in the crash, the worst such incident in Mexico since a military helicopter crash last year that killed 10 people.
The incident Tuesday in Michoacan comes at a time of increasing violence in Mexico from drug cartels fighting each other as well as law enforcement groups.
Homicides on the rise in Mexico
While Mexico’s organized crime groups have always engaged in violence, there was a dramatic rise in murders after President Felipe Calderon assumed office in 2006 and began a war on criminal gangs. By the time Calderon left office in 2012, the murder count had gone well over 20,000 per year.
Under his successor, President Enrique Peña Ñieto, the murder toll began to subside, but still remains well above 18,000 per year.
Recorded homicides in Mexico during the first six months of this year represent a 15 percent rise over the same period last year. According to Mexico’s National Board of Statistics, the murder rate last year was 16.9 per 100,000. By comparison, the national U.S. murder rate is around 4.5 per 100,000.
Balkanization of drug cartels
Crime experts see various reasons for the uptick in violence, including the imprisonment of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, which has led to fighting to fill the leadership vacuum. But there are other factors as well.
Tristan Reed is an international crime expert who keeps a special watch on Mexico for Stratfor, a global intelligence company headquartered in Austin, Texas. In a VOA interview, he explained how Mexican crime organizations have become more tightly identified with certain regions.
“Fragmentation, what we call the ‘balkanization’ of organized crime in Mexico, is a trend that has been going on for decades now,” Reed said.
Before 1980, the most powerful organized crime group in Mexico was based in the city of Guadalajara, in Jalisco state in central Mexico. But it fragmented into a number of other groups.
Now, Reed said, smaller gangs have emerged in the states that produce most of the drugs being smuggled. In the area known as “Tierra Caliente,” (the hot land), in Michoacan state, these groups operate on their own, but exist under the same geographic umbrella, as do gangs operating in particular regions in other parts of the country.
“There are distinct organizations that may be fighting with each other, that may be allied with groups from different regions. But ultimately the groups within each umbrella are fairly tight-knit in terms of operations, and allegiances and rivalries can emerge overnight because of that.”
In the past these groups were mainly focused on producing heroin and marijuana, but Reed said they now have their own smuggling operations on the border, and have even set up distribution centers in Texas and other states.
Government efforts to stem violence
When Peña Ñieto came to power, Reed said, he promised a different approach to fighting organized crime, to reduce the violence plaguing innocent civilians in areas dominated by the criminal groups. Violence did subside for a time, but Reed said the president ended up essentially using the same tactics as his predecessor - mainly relying on the military.
Reed said this tactic has produced benefits, disrupting criminal groups by removing their top bosses and securing some areas, but it does not end the lucrative drug trade or end the rivalries between gangs.
“A simple deployment of troops can quell violence for a good period of time, but as soon as the military leaves you see violence resume,” Reed said.
Drugs' impact on the United States
Control of the border with Mexico has become a major issue in the current U.S. presidential election. Republican candidate Donald Trump promises to build a wall more than 3,000 kilometers long, covering the entire border. But even that would probably not deter drug smugglers, who have shown themselves to be very inventive, by tunneling under existing walls and fences and hiding drugs in legitimate shipments sent over the border.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, indicates that more than 46,000 people in the United States die each year from drug abuse, compared to around 35,000 deaths in automobile accidents and 33,000 deaths associated with firearms. The same report indicates heroin from Mexico is responsible for a large part of overdose deaths and that “Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States.”
The Mexican cartels’ once lucrative marijuana trade has diminished somewhat since several U.S. states legalized its use and allowed it to be grown. At the same time, the demand for opioid drugs in the United States has increased as a result of what many health experts say was over-prescription of powerful pain killers.
Over the past decade or so, according to U.S. officials, heroin smuggling from Mexico has doubled, and that dangerously addictive derivative of opium is now much cheaper and easier to obtain in almost all parts of the United States than are the prescription drugs that have made so many people dependent upon them.