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A soldier stands near police officers guarding a crime scene following an assassination attempt of Mexico City's chief of police Omar Garcia Harfuch, at the upscale neighborhood of Lomas de Chapultepec, in Mexico City, Mexico June 26, 2020. REUTERS/Luis Cortes
Order from Chaos

Mexico’s spiraling criminal market

Editor's Note:

The June 26 attack on Mexico City’s Secretary of Public Security Omar García Harfuch shows just how out of control and brazen the Mexican criminal market remains, and the utter morass of Mexican law enforcement, writes Vanda Felbab-Brown. This piece was originally published by La Reforma's Mexico Today.

Despite some puzzling elements of the June 26 attack on Mexico City’s secretary of public security Omar García Harfuch, two elements shine through – just how out of control and brazen the Mexican criminal market remains and the utter morass of Mexican law enforcement.

On June 26, 28 men armed with assault weapons and grenades attacked Mr. García Harfuch’s armored vehicle at dawn on Paseo de la Reforma, one of Mexico City’s main boulevards in the exclusive Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood, home to various embassies and mansions. Although they killed three other people and injured Mr. García Harfuch, they failed to kill him. Mr. García Harfuch blamed the ultra-violent and aggressive Cartel Jalísco Nueva Generación (CJNG). Mexico’s law enforcement forces managed to arrest some dozens of the attackers and subsequently the alleged mastermind of the plot, José Armando “La Vaca” Briseño. What is not yet known (and may not be known for a long time) is the motive of attempting to assassinate Mr. García Harfuch.

What’s brazen about the attack? To start, the fact that any criminal group find it worthwhile to assassinate a high-ranking Mexican official. It certainly fits the pattern of CJNG shooting down helicopters of Mexico’s security forces and burning police vehicles and killing local police officials with impunity, but it was still a significant escalation — particularly, when taken together with a series of hits on government officials, including a recent killing of a federal judge and his wife. Equally brazen is the fact that the hit took place not just right in the center of the Mexico’s capital, but in the posh Lomas neighborhood where the Mexican elite has long believed that it can isolate itself behind high fortified walls and private security guards from the criminal violence shredding Mexico. Of course, criminal violence in Mexico City has been steadily escalating for several years; but the rise in street violent crime (including flash kidnappings) has not touched the country’s political and business elite in the city anywhere near the way it did in Cuidad Juárez, Tijuana, or Monterrey a decade ago, or continually in Acapulco.  Will this finally be a moment when Mexico City’s rich start paying attention to issues beyond USMCA which went into force July 1 and specifically to issues of domestic public safety?

Even more brazen is the nature of the attack – the plan, involving 28 armed men sent to the country’s capital for the assassination, inevitably meant that most would not get away and would be either killed or arrested. Such planning reveals how completely indifferent the leadership of Mexican criminal groups is to the attrition of its troops, assuming it has an essentially open-ended recruitment pool. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) hopes that his focus on “hugs, not bullets,” and socio-economic opportunities for young people in Mexico, will dry up the recruitment pool. But, even without Covid-19 further destroying the Mexican economy and impoverishing much of the population, that would take a decade or two. Meanwhile, AMLO does not have a functional law enforcement strategy.

The García Harfuch attack also dramatically highlights that Mexican criminal groups believe they  have essential impunity from law enforcement response. The in-your-face we-can-do-anything nature of the attack is on par with the Sinaloa Cartel’s blowing up Culiacán to force Mexican security forces to release El Chapo’s son and one of the leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, Ovidio Guzmán López. AMLO’s meek response to the Culiacán fiasco, and the failure to significantly pound the Sinaloa Cartel in response so as to drive home the message that no criminal group can get away with a war-like showdown in Culiacan, only fuels the utter sense of impunity of Mexican criminal groups.

And that is the essence of Mexico’s security problem: namely, that three decades ago, Mexico’s law enforcement lost essential deterrence capacity and has not been able to restore it since.

Also striking is the incompetence of the attack. The fact that 28 armed men still failed to kill Mr. García Harfuch highlights the problems with a business model of the CJNG (also previously of the Zetas, the Juárez Cartel, and many others, and increasingly also the Sinaloa Cartel) of hiring proxy groups for strategic warfare in completely expendable fashion and young men on the spot with minimal tactical skills (barely knowing how to use assault weapons) even for high-profile and high significance attacks. 

This plethora of short-term proxies with few skills and capacities, out of a seemingly unlimited recruitment pool, also exacerbates another characteristic of the Mexican criminal landscape: Both the largest groups and small ones struggle to establish any stable balances of power and negotiated deals that would allow them to reduce the level of violence. The criminal market is not just too complex, but out of control – with neither any criminal group or the Mexican government having the capacity to stabilize it at much lower levels of violence.

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Indeed, in the attack on Mr. García Harfuch, the incompetence of the AMLO government’s security apparatus was also on display. Presumably the AMLO government had advanced intelligence on the plan to assassinate not just one but several top-level Mexican officials. Although it apparently, took some protection measures, these were clearly not adequate, suggesting another tactical intelligence and operational failure à la Culiacán: The fact that Mr. García Harfuch fortunately survived does not obviate the tactical disaster. 

Will this attack finally wake up the AMLO administration to the realization that it must mount a much better law enforcement strategy than it has articulated? Or will it hope (as the Enrique Peña Nieto administration did) that the violence will somehow go away on its own? 

Criminal markets with extensive drug smuggling and other illegal economies can be peaceful– viz., drug markets in East Asia where  the Chinese druglord Tse Chi Lop and his criminal syndicate composed of former rival criminal groups runs methamphetamine from Myanmar to East Asia, Australia, and even to Europe with few bullets fired outside of Myanmar’s ethnic fighting. And when fighting among criminal groups does break out, it can be limited to a few hundred casualties total, with the police rapidly turning it off, such as in Indonesia a decade ago.

But such control requires that law enforcement forces build up their deterrence capacity by ending impunity for the middle operational layer of criminal groups – particularly for actions such as the Sinaloa Cartel’s blowup of Culiaicán in October 2019 and the CJNG hit against Mexican government officials. For that to even start happening, AMLO would have to recognize that his existing law enforcement “strategy” is insufficient, inadequate, and hollow. 

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