Mexico’s Gang Epidemic: the Deadly Outbreak Threatening to Overwhelm Society

Image by Eneas

When the Mexican President, Manuel López Obrador, ascended to the highest office in the land, he promised to deliver resounding political and social change. “We will end the corruption and impunity that impedes the rebirth of Mexico, he declared upon assuming his position in late 2018.

Elected with 53.3% of the popular vote — more than 30 percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor — his campaign came at a time when Mexico was tackling a wave of crime, poverty and corruption.

Fed by failed security strategies and social uncertainty, homicide rates in the country had been precipitated by a growing number of organised crime groups. This disconcerting reality contributed to the success of López Obrador and was reflective of a nation reeling from devastating social conflict.

Mexico registered its highest homicide rate in history in 2018,  recording a 12% increase from 2017. That year’s local elections offer a microcosm of the profundity of the problem; murders of non-elected officials rose to above 500, accompanied by the killing of 37 mayoral and ex-mayoral candidates. Some 98 years after the Mexican Revolution, the country seemed still to be at war with itself.

‘Hugs not bullets’

It is against this backdrop that the administration of López Obrador looked to forge its legacy. Promising to shift the paradigm of security policy, it pledged to prioritise a strategy of ‘hugs not bullets’, which entailed focussing on the social causes of crime in order to ease societal conflict.

Yet, although López Obrador was parachuted into office by a tide of popular optimism, the stark reality of Mexico’s crime problem soon dampened the spirits of even the most idealistic of presidents. In his first full year in office, despite successfully slowing the average rate of murder, the number of homicides continued to climb.

It would seem, too, that the security mechanisms of the state have been paralysed, as murder rates in the country’s most policed area per capita, Mexico City hit a 25-year record peak in 2019. The government’s incapacity to police crime has only become more worrying during the COVID-19  pandemic. Drug cartels accelerated drug production and money laundering schemes designed to further corrupt the already tentatively balanced Mexican economy.

Far from seeing a return of justice and lower murder rates, Mexico under López Obrador has been further tangled up in the perfect storm of a pandemic combined with gang-fuelled anarchy, corruption and intensified societal anxiety.

COVID-19 and corruption

To fully comprehend the magnitude of the gang problem in Mexico,  it is important to acknowledge the extent to which corruption affects the nation’s political system. Unlike previous forms of institutionally ingrained duplicity, the ‘new corruption’ present in the North American state is driven by a polarizing force of competing gang interests, ones so strong that they undercut the ability of the state to counteract the corrosive influence of impunity.

Incentivised by the “distraction of public health”, criminal organisations have succeeded in avoiding governmental control and reinstating their influence over the most vulnerable communities. Unable to counter the dynamic strategies of such groups, López Obrador further stifled liberties by permitting a “heavy-handed” state-led policing crackdown — a damning contradiction of his previous rhetorical guise of ‘hugs not bullets’.

The weakening of an already corrupted judicial system  further contributed to criminal activity and, emboldened by the ad-hoc labour rights of many of Mexico’s informal workers, gangs have lured poorer citizens into the perilous black market. All the while, the country’s death figures from COVID-19 continue to grow.

López Obrador’s hopeful sentiments and promises to remediate the most profound problems in Mexico appear all but lost.

Spiralling homicide rates

Just like in 2019, murder death rates were on track to hit historic heights in 2020. The murderous whims of the Sinaloa Cartel, located in Culiacán, embody much of the ruthless nature of the gangs behind this worrying trend: “they found a municipal officer murdered… they practically beheaded him”, crime journalist, Ernesto Martinez, told Vice.

This is scarcely reserved for Culiacán; the murderous audacity of gangs continues to brutalise communities across the country, seemingly unimpinged by the still wildly diffuse coronavirus. Aided by the reticence of the authorities, these two greatly preoccupying epidemics — coronavirus and gang violence — continue to exert an irrepressible grip on national civic life.

Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), principally located in the western Mexico state of Jalisco, epitomises the territorial aggression of mobilized gang culture in the country. Through heavy-handed attacks on local police authorities, CJNG has established an iron grip on Guadalajara, the state’s capital, by scuppering the influence of state officials and other territorial gangs.

The consequences have been harrowing; even at the peak of Mexico’s coronavirus epidemic, the metropolitan district of Guadalajara saw 1,369 murders, a clear indicator of the severity of the gang war taking place in the city. Although a small sample of the national picture, Jalisco’s social ruptures emphasise the severity of the contemporary Mexican struggle.

Accompanying the problem of criminal impunity in Mexico, are severe economic inequalities. With whole communities deserted by the ideological and economic hegemony of neoliberalism in government, poverty-inflicted insecurity is widespread.  Estimations have placed poverty as affecting 53% of the entire population.

Organised crime is, in many respects, a symptom of such societal rot. An unbalanced welfare system; a debilitated institutional structure; a lack of political and economic rights; inequality of opportunity; the absence of hope, are all enabling conditions. The coronavirus pandemic has only served to aggravate these deeply-seated disparities, with a high case per-capita incidence strongly correlating to low social development.

Gang impunity, the result of a fractured society, embodies a broken body politic.