The years 2014 and 2015 have been hard for Guerrero, one of the poorest states in southern Mexico. After the headlines turned to the state following the kidnapping of the 43 Ayotzinapa students in September 2014, and the murder of many others during a protest, it seemed like chaos had engulfed the region. The governor was forced to resign, provisional governments were set up, the mayor of Iguala and his wife were arrested, and a new “special” security operation was announced for the state in which the Federal government would take complete control of the security institutions.
With all these changes and events, it is not surprising that Guerrero is seen as the most unsafe state in Mexico. The murder rate in Guerrero, as of October 2015, was of 41.5 per 100,000 people. Other violent crimes such as armed robbery and organized crime have also increased the levels of insecurity. According to the Index of Peace in Mexico 2015 collected by the Institute of Economics and Peace with 2014 data, Guerrero is the least peaceful state in Mexico. The recent capture of the famous drug lord Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera aka “El Chapo” has been paraded in the Mexican government as “mission accomplished.” But for Guerrero, and the rest of the country, the so-called “Drug War” is far from over and the capture of “El Chapo” will not improve the security environment.
The institutional breakdown of Guerrero in 2014-15 had an impact in the perception of security, but the problem of violence goes beyond the political instability. The latest UNODC World Drug Report shows Mexico as the third biggest producer of opium in the world, after Afghanistan and Myanmar. Most of that production is concentrated in the mountainous areas of Guerrero. Moreover, the consumption of heroin has increased in the US, and the numerous federal security interventions in the state have risen the price of the product in contrast with the price of marijuana. A farmer can expect to earn around $900 per kilo of opium paste in contrast with $17 per kilo of pressed marijuana. With a high demand and high prices, the control of the opium-producing region becomes attractive for any criminal organization.
But despite the size of the prize, the “big cartels” are rarely mentioned in the news reports on Guerrero. Instead, there is constant mentioning of relatively small-armed groups who terrorize the area such as “Los Pelones”, “Guerreros Unidos”, “Los Rojos” etc. These groups are not nearly as big or powerful as the Sinaloa or Gulf cartels. Nevertheless, it does not mean they are absent. These smaller units or gangs do not have the necessary international network to sell the product that grows in the region where they operate. Therefore, these groups are hired by the “big cartels” to control the territory and production areas, while the international drug organizations ship the product to the United States. The armed groups have increased the level of violence and lawlessness in the state. The problem then becomes more complex since these “alliances” are mostly loose and ad-hoc; many armed paramilitary groups (with more direct “oversight” than the current groups operating in Guerrero) have split from the “main” cartels and formed their own criminal organizations. Such is the case of the Beltran Leyva Organization, Los Zetas and others.
This situation, combined with the local political instability and institutional corruption, is not easy to deal with. More intervention and more seizures will only increase the price of opium, making it even more lucrative. There are no signs that the demand of heroin consumption will decline. According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the use of heroin increased 150% from 2007 to 2013. Allowing these armed groups to operate in the area will strengthen their position vis a vis their rivals and “employers”, which would make them more unpredictable in their use of violence.
Guerrero needs a comprehensive security strategy that also includes economic alternatives for the farmers in the state. These armed groups are able to maintain their business largely through the communication they have with the bigger cartels. If this link is disrupted, their finances will suffer severely. The problem will then be to protect the population from the possible increase in predatory activity that may be undertaken by these groups in order to finance themselves (kidnapping, extortions, etc.). Therefore, a stronger and institutionally consolidated Guerrero police will be needed, along with an economic development plan to provide real employment opportunities and incentivize the cultivation of products other than opium or marijuana. Of course, any solution to the Guerrero problem requires a great amount of effort and resources from all levels of government. But with the recent capture of El Chapo, the Penn-Del Castillo interview, and the decline of the peso versus the dollar reaching a historical low, the headlines have turned away from Guerrero once again without a solution to its ongoing problem.
Julio Bustamante is from Hermosillo, Mexico. He received his M.A. in Security Studies at Georgetown University and his B.A. in International Relations from the Instituto Teconologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey. His research interests have focused on Mexico, organized crime, and intelligence. Currently, he works as a consultant in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico.