11 years since the government launched a crackdown on cartels, violence continues, rule of law is elusive and accusations of human rights abuses abound

Sofa, a medical assistant in Reynosa, a scruffy border city in northern Mexico, has a regular morning routine.

She wakes at 6am and readies her son for preschool; then she reviews her social media feeds for news of the latest murders.

Updates come via WhatsApp messages from friends and family: There was a gun battle on X street, They found a body in Y neighbourhood, Avoid Z.

In today, choosing your route to work can be a matter of life or death, but Sofa compares the daily drill to checking the weather on the way out the door. It doesnt rain water here, she said. It rains lead.

It is 11 years since the then president Felipe Caldern launched a militarised crackdown on drug cartels deploying thousands of soldiers and promising an end to the violence and impunity. But the bloodletting continues, the rule of law remains elusive and accusations of human rights abuses by state security forces abound.

All the while, Mexico continues to race past a series a grim milestones: more than 200,000 dead and an estimated 30,000 missing, more than 850 clandestine graves unearthed. This year is set to be the countrys bloodiest since the government started releasing crime figures in 1997, with about 27,000 murders in the past 12 months.

Quick guide

Mexico’s war on drugs

Why did Mexico launch its war on drugs?

On 10 December 2006, president Felipe Caldern, launched Mexicos war on drugs by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacn, where rival cartels were engaged in tit-for-tat massacres.

Caldern declared war eight days after taking power a move widely seen as an attempt to boost his own legitimacy after a bitterly contested election victory. Within two months, around 20,000 troops were involved in operations across the country.

What has the war cost so far?

The US has donated at least $1.5bn through the Merida Initiative since 2008, while Mexico has spent at least $54bn on security and defence since 2007. Critics say that this influx of cash has helped create an opaque security industry open to corruption at every level.

But the biggest costs have been human: since 2007, around 200,000 people have been murdered and more than 28,000 reported as disappeared. Human rights groups have also detailed a vast rise in human rights abuses by security forces.

As the cartels have fractured and diversified, other violent crimes such as kidnapping and extortion have also surged. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by violence.

What has been achieved?

Improved collaboration between the US and Mexico has resulted in numerous high-profile arrests and drug busts. Officials say 25 of the 37 drug traffickers on Calderns most-wanted list have been jailed, extradited to the US or killed, although not all of these actions have been independently corroborated.

The biggest victory and most embarrassing blunder under Pea Nietos leadership was the recapture, escape and another recapture of Joaqun El Chapo Guzmn, leader of the Sinaloa cartel.

While the crackdown and capture of kingpins has won praise from the media and US, it has done little to reduce the violence.

How is the US involved?

Mexicos decade-long war on drugs would never have been possible without the huge injection of American cash and military cooperation under the Merida Initiative. The funds have continued to flow despite growing evidence of serious human rights violations.

Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP

Some of the worst violence in recent years has struck Reynosa and the surrounding state of Tamaulipas, which sits squeezed against the Gulf coast and the US border.

Tamaulipas state

Once in a while, a particularly terrible incident here will make news around the world, such as the murder of Miriam Rodrguez, an activist for families of missing people, who was shot dead in her home on Mothers Day.

But mostcrimes are not even reported in the local papers: journalists censor themselves to stay alive and drug cartels dictate press coverage.

We dont publish cartel and crime news in order to protect our journalists, said one local news director, whose media outlet has been attacked by cartel gunmen. Eight journalists were murdered in Mexico in 2017, making it the most dangerous country for the press after Syria.

The information vacuum is filled by social media where bloody photographs of crime scenes and breaking news alerts on cartel shootouts are shared on anonymous accounts.

In Reynosa, violence has become a constant strand in everyday life. Morning commutes are held up by gun battles; movie theatres lock the doors if a shootout erupts during a screening. More than 90% of residents feel unsafe in the city, according to a September survey by the state statistics service.

Signs of the drug war are everywhere: trees and walls along the main boulevard are pockmarked with bullet holes. Drug dealers can be seen loafing on abandoned lots; every so often, rival convoys of gunmen battle on the streets.

Video cameras look down from rooftops; spies are all around. They have eyes everywhere, said one woman. It could be the government or the cartels.

The violence here first erupted around 2010 when the the Gulf cartels armed wing a group of former soldiers known as Los Zetas turned on their masters.

Since then, wave after wave of conflict has scorched through the state as rival factions emerge and collapse.

Fighting erupts over trafficking routes and the growing local drug markets, but state forces are also implicated: earlier this month, soldiers killed seven people, including two women, in what was described as a confrontation.

Relatives
Relatives and friends of four people killed in a clash with soldiers participate in a funeral mass in Palmarito Tochapan, Puebla, on 7 May 2017. Photograph: Jose Castanares/AFP/Getty Images

Crime hit such alarming levels this year that the local maquiladora industry which pulls thousands to Reynosa every year to work in its export factories warned that companies might be forced to relocate.

Amid the mayhem, ordinary life continues: shopping malls fill with families trying to escape the oppressive heat. Cars full of young people cruise the streets at night, banda music blaring from open windows.

Life cant stop. We have to get out and enjoy ourselves a little, said Alonso de Len, a local caterer. But he added: The problem affecting us in Tamaulipas is the shootouts, this violence in any other country this would be called terrorism.

The government bristles at any suggestion that the country is at war. When the International Institute for Strategic Studies ranked Mexico as second-deadliest country in the world ahead of warzones such as Afghanistan and Yemen the foreign ministry responded angrily, pointing to higher murder rates in Brazil and Venezuela.

War or not, the bodycount keeps climbing.

And the violence is spreading: tourist areas have seen shootouts and decapitations, and even the capital has seen confrontations with armed groups. Earlier this month, the bodies of six men were found hanging from bridges in the resort city of Los Cabos.

All of which has been disastrous for the image of President Enrique Pea Nieto who took office in 2012 with an ambitious agenda to push through structural reforms and promote Mexico as an emerging economy.

Fighting crime seemed an afterthought.

He thought that security issues in Mexico were a problem of perception so he embraced a policy of silence, said Viridiana Ros, scholar at the Wilson Centre in Washington.

Pea Nietos government maintained the military focus of the drug war, and continued to target cartel kingpins. But analysts question the strategy, saying that it shatters larger criminal empires but leaves smaller often more violent factions fighting for the spoils.

Breaking up the cartels also has the perverse effect of encouraging crime groups to diversify, said Brian J Phillips, professor at the Centre for Teaching and Research in Economics.

The new groups are more likely to raise money by kidnapping or extortion since that doesnt require the logistics of drug trafficking, he said. And as long as demand exists in the USA, and supply is in or passing through Mexico, new criminal organisations will appear.

When the countrys most-wanted crime boss Joaqun El Chapo Guzmn was recaptured last year, Pea Nieto tweeted Mission accomplished but even that success has not caused any measurable reduction in crime: Guzmns extradition to the United States in January triggered a fresh wave of violence in his home state of Sinaloa.

Meanwhile rivals such as the Jalisco New Generation cartel a fast-growing organisation specialising in methamphetamines and excessive violence moved in on Sinaloa trafficking territories along the Pacific coast.

And the liberalisation of marijuana laws in some US states has prompted some farmers to switch to opium poppies, prompting fresh conflict around the heroin trade.

But despite the worsening violence, there has been little serious consideration of any fresh approaches. Earlier this month, Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador the frontrunner in the 2018 presidential election was widely condemned for floating a possible amnesty for criminals.

The proposal drew comparisons with the pax mafiosa before more than 70 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) ended in 2000, in which politicians turned a blind eye to drug-dealing in return for peace.

A
A woman cries over the corpse of her murdered family member while forensic personnel work at the scene of the crime at a shopping center in Acapulco, Guerrero, on 4 January 2017. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

But analysts say even that would not work nowadays as the drug cartels have splintered.

Its a useless endeavour, given the broken criminal landscape, said security analyst Jorge Kawas. Theres no group of leaders who can be summoned to discuss stopping the violence.

Politicians are nonetheless still perceived as allying themselves with criminals especially during costly election campaigns.

Mexico cannot stop dirty money going into the political system, said Edgardo Buscaglia, an organised crime expert at Columbia University. Thats the key to understanding why violence has increased in Mexico.

Such accusations are all too familiar in Tamaulipas, where two of the past three governors have been indicted in US courts on drug and organised crime charges.

Meanwhile, police departments are dilapidated, dispirited, corrupt and underfunded as state and national politicians pass on security responsibilities on the armed forces.

Earlier this month, congress rammed through a controversial security law cementing the role of the military in the drug war despite mounting accusations of human rights abuses committed by troops and marines.

In Tamaulipas, residents express exasperation with the flailing government response. But few ask too many questions about the violence around them: they just want the killing to end.

I dont care about organised crime, said one woman, known online as Loba, or She-wolf. They can traffic all the drugs they want so long as they dont mess with ordinary people.

Loba is one of the social media activists who report on cartel violence via Twitter and Facebook. Its a perilous undertaking: at least two citizen journalists in Tamaulipas have been killed, and Loba herself was kidnapped by the Zetas in 2011 and held for 12 days before her family paid a 10,000 ($13,500) ransom.

When asked why she runs such risks, Loba answered: Perhaps this can save someone from being shot.

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