For the last eight years, a war has been going on in Mexico. Not between states, but between the government and some of the richest, biggest and most violent criminal gangs in the world – the cartels. It’s not even as simple as ‘criminals vs. cops’, as the cartels and the state are intertwined at all levels. This was demonstrated in horrifying fashion this September, when 43 students protesting discrimination were arrested by the police, and handed over to a cartel to be murdered. Today forensic experts announced that burnt remains found nearby include at least one of those students. So how bad is the situation in Mexico that something like this can happen? And what does it say about the links between the cartels and the state?
Unfortunately for the country, the death of 43 people isn’t something new. Since the war started in 2006, when then-President Calderon sent soldiers up against the cartels in Michoacan state, it is estimated that up to 120 000 people have been killed and up to 25 000 are missing. This is comparable to any other war during the same period. While these figures include cartel members and soldiers and police, civilians have suffered terribly. Some of these were targeted in regular criminal activity, but others were killed in horrific massacres, such as the repeated killings of dozens of illegal immigrants on their way to the US, or the attack on a casino in Monterey. This unbelievable brutality is a calling card of many of the cartels. Like IS in the Middle East, they see extreme violence as the perfect way to silence their critics.
There has also been a strong effort by the cartels to undermine the strength of the Mexican state. One of the institutions targeted is the media, with journalists who write about drug violence being tortured and murdered. This has made Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and hindered freedom of the press. Many reporters will now avoid even mentioning drug crime for fear of retribution. Politicians too are targeted if they try to tackle the cartels, and even if they work with one they will be killed by another. Many of these are local politicians, and that is where the worst of the collaboration between state and cartel takes place.
After so many years of war, the links between the state and the cartels have only grown. Local politicians far from the capital have no choice but to protect the cartels if they value their lives, and this has led to a situation where corrupt officials can use their connections with crime to increase their own power and untouchability. This seems to have been what happened to the 43 students in Guerreo state. Their protests threatened a rally the mayor’s wife was holding in town, so the police were ordered to arrest them. The police then handed them off to a local cartel to make sure they disappeared – completing the chain of corrupt politicians, gang-like police, and state-like cartels.
As the state becomes more and more infiltrated by crime, the people supposed to be fighting the cartels have sometimes joined them. Calling the police to report a crime isn’t too useful when the police are on a first name basis with the criminals. Even when they’ve remained loyal to the state, the police and army ignore human rights, and contribute to an atmosphere of terror. There are no clear ‘battle lines’ and civilians have much to fear from both sides. Despite proposals to reform the Mexican police, President Nieto has been left looking completely impotent to deal with the war and corruption in his police. As protests across Mexico after the student murders show, that is something people are no longer inclined to accept.