Beyond the Border

Who's Killing Whom in Mexico and Central America?

By Stephanie Leutert
Wednesday, July 27, 2016, 10:00 AM

For every 100,000 citizens in 2015, 103 were brutally murdered in El Salvador, 57 slaughtered in Honduras, 30 killed in Guatemala, and 13 murdered in Mexico. These countries racked up a total of more than 36,100 violent deaths last year, or in other words, nearly 100 corpses every single day.

These rates are well above developed country averages, and even dramatically above that of the notoriously trigger-happy United States (which is closer to 5 per 100,000). So what’s happening in Mexico and Central America?

Let start at the beginning: the murderers.

In Mexico, the main culprits are the narcos.

Mexico has been home to drug trafficking organizations for more than a century, and violence has long been an essential byproduct of the business. It makes a certain morbid sense. Without courts or formal mechanisms to resolve disputes within illicit markets, murder is an effective way to settle things, discipline employees, acquire and defend market share, and limit new entrants to the markets. In this sense, the narcos are not all that different from American organized crime, or organized crime anywhere else.

Yet don’t confuse today’s narcos with Al Capone or Don Corleone. They aren’t even Pablo Escobar-style traffickers. These guys (and ladies) have a whole new set of rules.

In the past, Mexico’s narcos murdered rivals and their own members in sometimes bloody internal purges, but they kept the bloodiness largely within the business. They may have even tried to win over public opinion as modern Robin Hoods, or courted favor with local or high-up government officials. These were Mexico’s original drug behemoths, the old school Sinaloa, Tijuana, Gulf, and Juárez cartels.

But as Mexico began to intensify its security policies under President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), the changes drove tectonic shifts in the criminal landscape. The security policies aimed at plucking off cartels’ top leaderships (the kingpin strategy) left gaping organizational holes behind. Sometimes, these were filled through orderly leadership successions, but sometimes the ensuing power vacuums ripped groups apart. This was, in a sense, the point of the strategy. Mexico’s government was trying to deal the cartels enough blows that they would move from being a national security threat to being a manageable nuisance.

It didn’t go quite as planned.

As the giants fell and the groups fragmented, the new groups that emerged were more brutal, more violent, and more exploitative than anything their predecessors could have imagined. They may be smaller, but they are also more nimble and networked, and as their numbers grew, each group had more rivals to battle. Forget pursuing community support, these groups preferred to terrorize and exploit. Political negotiations were replaced with plata o plomo (silver or lead). And journalists too found themselves increasingly in the crosshairs, with dozens slaughtered with general impunity since 2000.

Today’s organized criminal groups also don’t always specialize in intercontinental drug trafficking. They resemble street gangs more than cartels, in some ways, and in fact only a few—perhaps only the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación—have the contacts and territorial grasp to be big-time players. The others have dabbled in new revenue sources to supplement their drug activities: extortion, kidnapping, resource theft, human trafficking, gun smuggling, and counterfeit industries (including CDs and DVDs). For the communities in which they operate, these activities are far more intrusive and damaging.

Yet go a bit to the south to Central America and the cartels are no longer the only big players on the criminal scene; there are also the gangs, which are quite different.

These gangs are not your small time street thugs. There are tens of thousands of gangsters (the United Nations estimates around 54,000) running prisons, pulling off coordinated attacks, extorting huge swaths of formal and informal businesses, innovating into increasingly sophisticated criminal activities, terrifying entire communities, and threatening their countries’ national security. These are the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and El Barrio 18—now split into the Revolucionarios and the Sureños—gangs.

These gangs are actually American in origin. Back in the 1980s, Salvadorans were fleeing their country’s civil wars, and many of the largely poor, war hardened, undocumented youth joined fledgling street gangs in Los Angeles. But as U.S. immigration policy hardened in the 1990s, the United States began deporting these gangsters back in record numbers and exporting a violent gang culture into the fertile grounds of post-conflict, weak institution states—often with little notice to or coordination with the receiving countries.

The gangs blossomed. They now control neighborhoods, laying invisible borders block by block, fighting the gangsters on the other side of the lines, and murdering those unlucky or intrepid souls that trespass on their turf. Their patchwork quilt of territorial control—at times only a few blocks long—dictates and terrorizes the lives of Central America’s residents.

For both the gangs and the narcos, the community reception has been ice cold. Unlike the Escobars of the world, who had a real constituency, these groups are deeply hated. People don’t just report this in surveys, there are also groups of citizens taking up arms. These community self defense groups (different from organized criminals who sometimes pose as community self defense groups) and paramilitary style anti-gang groups, have at times added confusing and murky layers to the violence.

And finally, fighting all these groups and perpetrating violence of their own are these countries’ police and armed forces.

It’s not easy to be a law enforcement agent in any country, and it's even worse in this region of the world. You are not only often outnumbered and outgunned, but you usually come from the same neighborhoods as the people you are fighting—making your day job a deadly liability. In El Salvador (a country of just over six million people), the gangs murdered some 85 police officers in just the last year and a half.

But, with that said, the police and armed forces have been repeatedly accused of committing their own massacres.

There’s no doubt that these forces play rough. In conflict zones around the world, the average death-to-injury ratio is one person killed for every four injured. For Mexico’s army, by contrast, that statistic is reversed—eight people killed to every one injured. And for Mexico’s elite Marines, it’s roughly thirty killed for every one left injured.

These numbers reflect the strong preference for the use of lethal force over arrests. The reason may lie in the difficulty of keeping those arrested locked up for any length of time. It also reflects genuine failures of rule of law policing. Whatever the cause, it leads to what happened in June 2014 in Tlatlaya, State of Mexico, when twelve alleged narcos were apparently executed after surrendering to the armed forces. Or consider the May 2015 case of Tanhuato, Michoacan, when forty-two criminals were reported to have died during a firefight with the federal police, but then their corpses also mysteriously showed signs of torture.

These types of incidents aren’t confined to Mexico. In just the first six months of 2016, El Salvador’s police killed (not arrested) 346 alleged gang members. And Honduras’ police have been accused not only of their own crimes in the line of duty, but also of working with drug traffickers to assassinate government officials.

This crossover makes it difficult to draw lines among the various groups. Sometimes, the differences among cartels and gangs feel slight. Sometimes, the armed forces or police are as knee deep in crimes as are the narcos and gangsters that they are fighting. And sometimes, a city’s crime doesn’t come from transnational gangs or narcos, but from street criminals and roving bandits. Each adds a layer of complexity and bloodshed to the mix.

Returning to the initial question of who is killing whom, here’s the answer: it’s the narcos, it’s the gangs, it’s the self defense groups, it’s the police, and it’s many other small-time players. Add them all up and Central America and Mexico have become one of the most violent regions in the world.