Although the rampant violence in Mexico is often ignored, the recent abduction and murder of 43 Mexican students has shed light upon its devastating consequences. The students are just the most recent chapter in a long story of drug cartels, poor governance, and corruption. The results have been devastating, with approximately 60,000 people killed in the last eight years.
While a large market for drugs in the United States and Europe has long fueled drug trafficking through Mexico, violence began to escalate around 2004. The government was in a transition period at that point, with the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) having lost power in 2000 after 71 years. 2004 saw the expiration of the US legislative ban on assault weapons, facilitating the flow of weapons to the cartels that control the black market for drugs. In 2006 new president Felipe Calderon decided to step up the fight against drug cartels. The US, which has always worked closely with Latin American countries in the War on Drugs, was heavily involved with the Mexican government through the Merida Initiative. This agreement enabled increased cooperation and intelligence sharing between the US and Mexico as well as the provision of billions of dollars to the Mexican government. 25 of the 37 most wanted cartel members were captured or killed by Calderon’s government and they seized huge quantities of drugs. However, the operation was in many ways counterproductive. After cartel leaders were arrested or killed, uncertainty led cartels to increase violence in an attempt gain power. The greater involvement of Mexican security forces also came with heavy consequences, with increased human rights abuses against civilians, disappearances with state complicity, and an increase in torture of 600% since Felipe Calderon launched his operations.
Throughout these operations there have been three main actors: the drug cartels, the Mexican government, and the US government. The cartels are focused primarily on profiting from the drug trade, and the massive demand for drugs in the US despite their prohibition creates huge business opportunities for cartels. Cartels participate in extensive and often gruesome violence in an attempt to intimidate local populations and the government. Beheadings and filmed executions are common tactics. The Mexican government has alternated between aggressive, incompetent, and corrupt. While it has led the fight against drug cartels, many officials also support cartels and accept their bribes. The US government has firmly backed the Mexican government and the War on Drugs despite its questionable success. The prohibition of drugs that creates a market for Mexican drug cartels also continues.
The kidnapping and murder of 43 students in the small southern city of Iguala has highlighted Mexico’s problems. The 43 men training to be teachers planned to hold a protest against the mayor of Iguala on September 26th but were detained earlier in the day. While the details are still somewhat unclear, it is believed they were then handed over to the Guerreros Unidos cartel that transported them to a landfill where they were burned to death. This seems to have been a result of the orders of the mayor and his wife, who have since been arrested along with 56 others by the Mexican authorities for their suspected involvement. While the news of a government official orchestrating murders with cartels was damaging enough, the national government’s seeming indifference in the weeks following the murders fueled anger. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Mexico City to demand changes from the government, including calls for current President Enrique Peña Nieto to leave office. The government has not yet committed to major reforms, and investigations continue into what exactly happened to the 43 students. One body has been identified, and in the search for the 43 men an unrelated mass grave with 38 bodies was also found.
The violence in Mexico may or may not qualify as a mass atrocity, although if cartel members are considered combatants then the death toll would certainly be high enough. As the massacre of the 43 men shows, the human costs on Mexico’s citizens have been enormous. The recent protests may lead to change, but unless that happens rapidly the students in Iguala will not be the last victims of Mexico’s violence.