The merciless dogfight between Mexican drug cartels has produced its latest macabre spectacle with the discovery of 19 mutilated corpses – nine of them hung semi-naked from a bridge – in a city to the west of the capital.

The massacre, in Uruapan 250 miles from Mexico City, was claimed by the increasingly dominant Jalisco New Generation cartel which posted a large white banner beside the dangling cadavers of its victims.

“Lovely people, carry on with your routines,” it read, beneath the group’s capitalised red initials, CJNG.

At least 10 other dismembered and bullet-riddled bodies were reportedly found dumped in two nearby locations.

Michoacán state’s attorney general, Adrián López Solís, blamed the killings on a clash between rival cartels battling for control of the region’s drug trade. Troops were being mobilized to investigate the crimes and catch the killers, he said.

Falko Ernst, an International Crisis Group researcher who studies Mexico’s cartels, said this week’s slaughter was clearly intended to intimidate rival criminal groups, the families of their members, as well as Mexican authorities.

Ernst said the bloodbath was partly about the struggle for control of Uruapan’s local drug trade. But a more important motivation was the fight for the region’s billion-dollar avocado industry. “The big magnet here is avocados,” he said.

Ernst said at least three armed groups were currently battling for control of the city of Uruapan – the CJNG, the Knights Templar cartel and the Familia Michoacana, through a local group known as Las Viagras.

Stomach-churning displays of criminal might are not unusual in Mexico, which last year suffered a record 35,964 murders.

But the CJNG has become particularly notorious for its willingness to confront Mexican authorities with brazen public shows of brute force and firepower.

In May video footage emerged showing heavily armed cartel members parading through Zamora, another city in Michoacán, in cars marked with their group’s insignia. The cartel was blamed for a battle with local police that day that reportedly left at least four officers dead.

Uruapan boasts an unenviable place in Mexican drug trafficking lore. It was here, in 2006, that five severed heads were rolled on to a nightclub dancefloor by gangsters – a ghoulish attack that made global headlines and helped trigger then president Felipe Calderón’s catastrophic six-year war on drugs. That failed offensive against the cartels resulted in an unprecedented period of bloodletting, with murder rates soaring across the country almost ever since.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who became Mexico’s president last December, swept to power promising to rethink his country’s fight against crime. He created a new security force called the national guard and vowed to tackle the social roots of crime by offering scholarships to disadvantaged teenagers.

But eight months into López Obrador’s presidency there is no sign of improvement. Official figures show there were at least 17,608 murders in the first half of the year.

La Voz de Michoacán, a local newspaper, said that this year, as armed groups battled for supremacy there, Michoacán state had found itself at the eye of the storm with 963 killings since January.

Even Mexico City – long seen as a island of relative calm from the conflict – has seen a surge in crime this year.

Why did Mexico launch its war on drugs?

On 10 December 2006, Felipe Calderón launched Mexico’s war on drugs by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacán, where rival cartels were engaged in tit-for-tat massacres.

Calderón 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.

What has the war cost so far?

The US has donated at least $1.5bn through the Merida Initiative since 2008, while Mexico spent at least $54bn on security and defence between 2007 and 2016. Critics say that this influx of cash has helped create an opaque security industry open to corruption. 

But the biggest costs have been human: since 2007, over 250,000 people have been murdered, more than 40,000 reported as disappeared and 26,000 unidentified bodies in morgues across the country. Human rights groups have also detailed a vast rise in human rights abuses including torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances by state security forces.   

Peña Nieto claimed to have killed or detained 110 of 122 of his government’s most wanted narcos. But his biggest victory – and most embarrassing blunder – was the recapture, escape, another recapture and extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel. 

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

Under new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, murder rates are up and a new security force, the Civil Guard, is being deployed onto the streets despite campaign promises to end the drug war.

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 Calderón’s 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 Peña Nieto’s leadership was the recapture, escape and another recapture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, 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.


Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP


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