Turf wars played out in massacres

Nine civilians were found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo. (Raul Llamas, AFP)

Nine civilians were found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo. (Raul Llamas, AFP)

Last weekend’s discovery in Mexico of 49 headless, handless and footless bodies dumped next to a country road just outside the northern industrial hub of Monterrey was the worst event of its kind, but it was far from the only one.

On May 9, 18 mutilated bodies were found in abandoned vehicles near the country’s second-largest city, Guadalajara. The week before that nine bodies were hung from a bridge and in another case 14 severed heads were left in ice boxes outside the local government office in the northeastern border city of Nuevo Laredo.

The federal government issued a statement following this latest spate of mass murders that blamed the cartels for “unleashing inhuman and inadmissible episodes of irrational violence in their criminal dispute”.

Independent observers, however, question the portrayal of the horror as mindless. They tend to put the massacres firmly in the dynamic of the inter-cartel rivalries that form a core part of the violence that has killed more than 50000 people since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against the cartels in December 2006.

“I don’t think they are irrational. They are psychopaths, sure, but I believe there is method in this madness,” said Alejandro Hope, a security expert and former member of the government intelligence agency.

Spate of massacres appears
Hope said the display of mutilated corpses tended to contain messages for rival groups, the authorities and the population. “They are fighting to defend their reputations [with] brutality and [an] image of control in the territories they claim.”
The recent spate of massacres appears linked to the rivalry between the Zetas drug cartel and the Sinaloa cartel, which is allied to the Gulf cartel. It is a long-running campaign of violence that involves a number of other cartels.

The 23 bodies displayed in Nuevo Laredo at the beginning of the month looked like an incursion into the Zeta cartel’s most important stronghold by the Sinaloa cartel, led by the infamous capo, Jaoquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The subsequent massacre in Guadalajara looked like a Zeta retaliation on Sinaloa turf; at least, that is what messages left behind with the corpses claimed.

As well as displays of bravado, both events could also be seen as efforts to calentar la plaza, or heat up the turf, of their rivals: mass brutality tends to trigger announcements from the government that it will increase troop and police numbers in the area.

According to that logic, the Dantesque scene outside Monterrey could be interpreted as an attempt by the Zetas to reaffirm their control of the area, which is already heavily militarised. 

Vague promises
Analysts tend to discount a direct link between the intensification of the violence and Mexico’s presidential elections, seven weeks away. Security has been a constant issue, but not a particularly contentious one. All the candidates make vague promises to be more effective bringing down the violence, but avoid getting into serious debates about the problem.

Even so, the drug war and drug violence provide a backdrop to the political campaign and the public’s sense that Mexico is struggling to keep control.

The feeling of powerlessness increases with evidence that many of the victims of the violence have no obvious links with the cartels. It has made it difficult for either the federal or local governments to imply that they brought their fate on themselves, as was common in the past.

Criminal underworld
After the latest massacre outside Monterrey, the authorities suggested the mutilation of the bodies was a strategy to make identification difficult. They noted that a number of the torsos were tattooed with images associated with the criminal underworld, such as the figure of the Santa Muerte or Saint Death, but also accepted that the victims could be unconnected people who had disappeared from elsewhere in Mexico, or perhaps Central American migrants trying to get to the United States.

Alberto Islas, a security expert who heads a consultancy company called Risk Evaluation, said that the Zetas were prone to pick their victims randomly because their networks were  unsophisticated.

But Islas stressed that the force driving the violence did not lie in the criminal organisations, but in the failure of the federal government to investigate the crimes or pursue those carrying them out. He said it meant the levels of violence required to shock was increasing. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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