The Role of Mexico’s Drug Cartels in the U.S. Fentanyl Crisis

 

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

05/13/19- (written by Aitanna Ferrez) The surge of opioid overdoses in the United States has killed tens of thousands of people in recent years and, according to the New York Times, has become the leading cause of death for U.S. citizens under the age of 55.  In particular, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and has been a major contributor to the crisis. Fentanyl is often used by drug traffickers and dealers as an additive to enhance the effect of other drugs, including heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and even counterfeit prescription drugs. In recent years, numerous opioid deaths have been attributed to the proliferation of fentanyl, because even small variations in quantity can lead to overdoses.

 

Historically, fentanyl has been predominantly manufactured in China and often directly shipped to the United States. Mexican drug cartels have predominantly functioned as intermediaries in the distribution of fentanyl. Following an April 1st decision by the Chinese National Narcotics Control Commission to regulate fentanyl and all chemically similar variants as a class of controlled substances, it is possible that Mexican cartels will now become more important suppliers of illicit fentanyl. According to an InSight Crime report focused on the severity of Mexico’s contribution to the deadly rise of fentanyl, Mexico has become not only a major transit country, but also a key production point for fentanyl and its chemical variants. Furthermore, Insight Crime’s investigation shows that Mexican traffickers appear to be playing a role in the distribution of fentanyl within the United States, with Mexico’s two largest criminal organizations—the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG)—being the two most prominent purveyors of the drug. According to the report, these and other Mexican criminal organizations continue to transport and distribute fentanyl using the same routes employed for other illicit drugs.

 

According to the Insight Crime report, the Mexican government “does not see fentanyl as an important issue yet and has not devoted significant resources towards finding the principal drivers of the trade inside its borders.” This is a serious concern given the degree to which fentanyl is dramatically reshaping the illicit drug trade. Simultaneously, this is having disastrous effects in Mexican drug producing regions, according to a report produced by the Wilson Center, NORIA, and Justice in Mexico. This report emphasizes that with “the upsurge in fentanyl use, the demand for Mexican heroin has sharply fallen,” causing village economies to “dry up” and “out migration” on the upward trend. Altogether, the report highlights the how a modernization of Mexico’s drug policies would solve problems to a wealth of unanswered questions and help bring marginalized regions into the country for good.

 

The new paradigm, created by the rise of fentanyl, may require Mexico and the United States to move away from past approaches dealing with drugs. As fentanyl begins to atomize the market, it will be more difficult to identify and arrest major traffickers like Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, a practice that has not been particularly effective in preventing drug use. According to Insight Crime founder Steven Dudley in a contribution to Foreign Affairs Magazine, “Dealing with illicit drugs requires a holistic approach dedicated to understanding the complexity of drug use and its ripple effects on everything from the rule of law to democracy.”

 

Sources:

Dudley, Steven, et al. “Mexico’s Role in the Deadly Rise of Fentanyl – Investigation.” InSight Crime, Wilson Center: Mexico Institute, Feb. 2019

Dudley, Steven. “The End of the Big Cartels.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 4 Mar. 2019, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/mexico/2019-02-27/end-big-cartels

Hassan, Adeel. “Deaths From Drugs and Suicide Reach a Record in the U.S.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Mar. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/07/us/deaths-drugs-suicide-record.html

Le Cour Grandmaison, Romain, et al. “The U.S. Fentanyl Boom and the Mexican Opium Crisis: Finding Opportunities Amidst Violence?” Wilson Center, 12 Feb. 2019, www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/the-us-fentanyl-boom-and-the-mexican-opium-crisis-finding-opportunities-amidst-violence.

 

 

 

 

 

Mexico’s crime and violence vis-à-vis the New Criminal Justice System

Map of Mexico with Baja California highlighted

Crime and violence in Baja California increased in 2018. Source: Justice in Mexico.

01/10/19 (written by kheinle) — Mexico experienced another record-breaking year in 2018 with high levels of crime and violence. According to data from the National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP), 27 of Mexico’s 32 states and Federal District saw increases in crime and violence, particularly homicides, in 2018 from 2017. That does not include data from December, notes Vanguardia. Including estimates for December’s projected results, however, SNSP predicts 2018 will close with 34,000-35,000 homicides nationwide. This punctuates the end of former President Enrique Peña Nieto’s sexenio (2012-2018) and the transition to new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2018-2024) on December 1, 2018.

Several states saw particularly high levels of violence in 2018, including Guanajuato, Quintana Roo, and Baja California. In the latter, homicides were largely focused in Tijuana, the border-city that has seen dramatic rises in murders the past few years. Initial estimates for 2018 show Tijuana having experienced 2,500 homicides, making it the city’s most violent year on record. As Vanguardia calculates, this equates to seven homicides every 24 hours. In 2017, Tijuana also surpassed Acapulco as the most violent municipality in Mexico, reported Justice in Mexico. This is largely because of an 85% increase in homicide cases over the course of that year. Whereas Tijuana saw 871 homicide cases in 2016, the number rose to 1,618 cases in 2017. Now with the estimated increase to nearly 2,500 homicides in 2018, it is expected to remain one of, if not the most violent municipalities in Mexico.

The New Criminal Justice System

Causes and effects of systemic issues like crime and violence are layered. One factor that plays a role, though, is the criminal justice system that a State has in place. Mexico made historic advances with the approval (2008) and implementation (2016) of the New Criminal Justice System (Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, NSJP). Although the goal of the NSJP was not to reduce crime and violence, it was and is expected to do so over time. As the judiciary is fortified and judicial processes become more efficient and effective, it is anticipated to have a positive ripple effect on public security.

Supreme Court

Mexico’s Supreme Court. Source: Supreme Corte de Justicia Nacional

Several voices, however, have recently questioned the NSJP’s role in unintentionally perpetuating insecurity. Attorney José Luis Nasar Da pointed out that the modernization of the public security sector did not parallel that of the justice system. The justice system advanced quickly, while public security has not, creating a gap between the two systems. Justice lags when police and prosecutors’ ability to execute an investigation in a case does not also respect and uphold one’s presumption of innocence. Meanwhile Attorney Carlos Ordaz Rodríguez noted that criminals are able to take advantage of the holes in the justice system. He specifically pointed to the freedom and liberties many accused persons are granted while awaiting investigation and judicial processing, which are tied in with the Attorney General’s limitations in opening and expediting cases.

This connects back with the reporting on increased homicides in Tijuana, Baja California, and Mexico as a whole. As Vanguardia reports, “State and municipal authorities [in Baja California] attribute 80% of homicides to drug trafficking cases and to the New Criminal Justice System.” It continues, “[This] creates a revolving door because it allows the accused to go free even when they were detained in possession of fire arms.”

Response to Critics

In a post from May 2018 titled, “Responses to the Critics of the Judicial Reform in Mexico,” Justice in Mexico discussed the counterarguments to such criticisms leveled against the new system. Quoting Karen Silva from the Center of Investigation for Development (Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo, CIDAC), “The [adversarial] system is not the problem; the problem is the lack of capacity among institutions.” Rather, she argues that the rise in violence can be attributed to a lack of knowledge and skill among criminal justice operators, including police, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges, which perpetuates high levels of impunity. In turn, impunity reinforces a precedent that violent crimes will go unpunished and not be investigated, and it deteriorates citizens’ faith in the judicial sector.

Hence, states across the country, including Baja California, have and continue to make significant advances in the procurement of justice under the new system. This includes the construction of new court rooms, the education and training of justice system operators, and the modernization of judicial procedures, among others to build the capacity of the institutions tasked with implementing justice.

Sources:

Gallegos, Zorayda. “Las autoridades mexicanas, incapaces de adaptarse al Nuevo Sistema de justicia.” El País. April 11, 2017.

Sánchez Lira, Jaime Arredondo et. al. “The Resurgence of Violent Crime in Tijuana.” Justice in Mexico. February 2018.

Calderón, Laura et. al. “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis through 2017.” Justice in Mexico. April 11, 2018.

“Responses to the Critics of the Judicial Reform in Mexico.” Justice in Mexico. May 21, 2018.

“Registra fallas el nuevo sistema de justicia penal.” El Diario de Coahuila. December 8, 2018.

“En el gobierno ya no hay ‘golondrinas en el alambr’: López Obrador.” Informador. December 19, 2018.

Animal Político. “Homicidios crecieron en 27 estados y en 15 alcanzaron niveles récord en 2018.” Vanguardia. December 28, 2018.

La Jornada. “Baja California vivió su año más violento: 2,500 muertos sólo en Tijuana.” Vanguardia. December 31, 2018.

“Usan los delincuentes hueco en código penal.” El Diario de Coahuila. January 3, 2019.

Portal de Obligaciones de Transparencia. “Estadísticas generadas.” Poder Judicial de Baja California. Last accessed January 6, 2018.

New Policy Brief: The Resurgence of Violent Crime in Tijuana

02/05/18 (written by David A. Shirk) — A new Justice in Mexico policy brief by Jaime Arredondo Sánchez Lira, Zulia Orozco, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk, entitled The Resurgence of Violent Crime in Tijuana, provides an assessment of the recent resurgence of violent crime in the Mexican border city of Tijuana in the state of Baja California. Drawing on the latest available information and statistics, the authors examine the varied trends in the major categories of violent crimes in Tijuana: homicide, assault, robbery, extortion, kidnapping, rape, and other sex crimes.

According to the Baja California State Secretariat for Public Security, the number of murders in 2008 and 2009 reached 1,094, which at the time constituted record levels of violence for the city. However, beginning in 2015, the city saw a gradual increase in the number of homicides in 2015 (612 with 674 victims), 2016 (872 cases with 919 victims), and 2017 (1,618 cases with 1,780 victims) that has now placed the city at the forefront of a national surge in homicides, with Tijuana accounting for close to 6% of all homicide victims in Mexico.

The authors find that the distribution of violence within Tijuana is uneven and reflects geographic, economic, and social divisions in the city. Examining neighborhood level homicide data, the authors found such violence to be highly concentrated in specific areas, primarily in three clusters that correspond to specific zones within the city: Eastern Tijuana (comprising the delegations of La Presa, La Presa Este, and Otay), the Sanchez Taboada delegation, and the Centro delegation. They also found that 20% of all homicides were concentrated in only 10 out of the roughly 850 neighborhoods in Tijuana. Of those, the three most violent neighborhoods accounted for 10% of all homicides in the municipality: Camino Verde (75), Zona Norte (49), Zona Centro (32).

Meanwhile, crime trends have been mixed for other forms of violent crime in Tijuana over the past few years. For example, armed robberies in public spaces have also generally declined since the peak in 2008-10, when was an average of over 300 reported incidents per month: in 2015-17, the average monthly incidence was down to roughly half that amount. However, there has been a sharp increase in the number of armed robberies in Tijuana’s commercial establishments in recent years, reaching as high as 300 incidents per month, and a surge of car thefts from the 7,655 cases reported in 2016 to 10,148 in 2017, an increase of 32.6%.

In an effort to explain these trends, the authors provide a general overview of the recent history of organized crime in Tijuana, with consideration of the role it has played in recent surges in violence. The authors find that there has been an important shift in organized crime in Tijuana, due to the arrest and extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who once controlled the Sinaloa cartel. Since his fall, a new criminal organization, known as the “Jalisco New Generation Cartel” has asserted its presence in Tijuana and has directly clashed with the remnants of the Sinaloa cartel. Amid the conflict between these powerful criminal organizations—and the leadership vacuum among the city’s criminal “shot callers”—there has been a lack of control over local gangs and dealers engaged in illicit drug sales and other illicit activities at the neighborhood and street-corner level.

To address the city’s recent crime problems, the authors provide a discussion of the public security responses and policy options available to address Tijuana’s current security crisis, with some general policy recommendations for addressing the city’s recent challenges. The authors present five overarching sets of policy recommendations:

  • Addressing Social and Economic Marginalization:
    1. Invest in social and economic development programs in Tijuana.
    2. Implement community policing in highly violent areas
    3. Improve public transportation and neighborhood accessibility
    4. More youth outreach and social development programs
    5. Recovery and creation of public spaces
  • Combatting Organized Crime:
    1. Reduce dependence on the Kingpin Strategy
    2. Re-enforce local law enforcement capacity amid shifting crime dynamics
    3. Focused deterrence of violence
  • Attending to Special Populations:
    1. Focus on preventing and stopping domestic violence
    2. Increase sensitivity to special victims in local policing
    3. Seasonal adjustments in force deployment and victim response efforts
  • Getting Smart on Drugs:
    1. Drug rehabilitation programs
    2. Drug prevention programs
    3. Binational collaboration on new marijuana regulations in California
    4. Evidence-based public health measures
  • Improving the Analysis of Crime and Violence
    1. Report precise geospatial coordinates of crimes
    2. Professionalize crime monitoring and analysis
    3. Strengthen criminological studies programs
    4. Dissemination of public information

 

 

Huachicoleros on the rise in Mexico

Policeman inspects barrels containing stolen fuel Source: The Huffington Post Mexico

05/20/2017 (written by Laura Calderon) – A new form of organized crime has become a significant problem for Mexican authorities in over 22 states of Mexico: thefts of petroleum. Petroleum thieves are commonly known in Mexico as huachicoleros, a name adopted by gasoline truck drivers to refer to the stolen hydrocarbon, or chupaductos (pipeline suckers). Although petroleum stealing has been spreading throughout the country over the last few months, most of this activity takes place in an area called the Triángulo Rojo (Red Triangle) which encompasses the municipalities of Tepeaca, Palmar de Bravo, Quecholac, Acatzingo, Acajete and Tecamachalco, all in the state of Puebla. The Red Triangle has the most huachicolero activity because it is a transit zone for 40% of the fuel distributed from Mexico City to the rest of the country.

On average, huachicoleros are stealing 5.5 million liters of fuel nationwide. Huachicoleros are stealing petroleum in a variety of products: raw oil, gasoline, diesel, and other hydrocarbons found in major pipelines throughout Mexico and property of Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX). Pipeline thefts became more popular as the gasoline supply in some areas decreased and prices drastically increased across the country. As a result, huachicoleros identified an opportunity to steal petroleum products and sell them in heavily transited highways for half the market price, costing PEMEX approximately 6 million pesos in losses from 2011 to 2016. Given these losses, foreign investments have become more difficult to attract to the Mexican government’s energy sector.

Social Impact

Groups of huachicoleros have managed to gain community approval and support in a variety of ways. First, they offer gasoline at significantly lower prices than official gasoline stations, benefiting from volume sales rather than pricing. Second, they take advantage of special holidays and events to give some of the stolen fuel and other goods to residents within strategic areas for fuel stealing and distribution in an effort to create stronger partnerships with the community. For example, every Mothers’ Day in San Salvador Huixcolotla (state of Puebla), huachicoleros give units of stolen gasoline and home appliances to residents in an effort to build rapport and ensure protection. Finally, local communities have adopted a new kind of huachicolero subculture reflected in a new character inspired by a Catholic saint “El Santo Niño Huachicolero,” to whom residents offer barrels of fuel as an offering and prayer for protection and abundance.

Violent altercations between huachicoleros and security forces

Huachicolero activities have not only had significant economic impact for PEMEX and local governments, but violent altercations have

Military officers seize stolen fuel from huachicoleros. Source: El Universal

ensued between huachicoleros and federal police and military forces in at least two different cities in Mexico.

On March 30th state and military forces and a group of huachicoleros were caught in an armed conflict in the city of Cuesta Blanca (state of Puebla). When officials were surveilling the zone and observed a group of huachicoleros with at least nine units full of stolen fuel, the huachicolero group began firing. The huachicolero group was identified to be part of the criminal gang headed by Roberto “El Bukanas”. Two people were wounded and arrested for being linked to the Bukanas gang, a gang presumed to be tied to the Zetas cartel.

Another shooting between military forces and huachicoleros occurred more recently on May 3rd in Palmarito Tochapan (state of Puebla). At least two military officers were killed and one wounded when they recognized several units of stolen fuel and were attacked by the huachicoleros who were reportedly shielding themselves behind women and children. However, this shooting is highly contested by the media and Mexican authorities due to security camera footage that captured the altercation. With the videos made public, there are now contesting narratives about the specific events during the shooting and number of casualties. As this event highlights, special attention must be paid to the extrajudicial execution of a presumed huachicolero by a military officer.

Government response

After the May 3rd attack, local, state, and federal authorities began to implement more strict surveillance operations in strategic areas, in an effort to deter huachicoleros from stealing more fuel. This increase in security measures has impacted the gasoline black market in two meaningful ways: First, given how much more difficult the extraction of petroleum has become for huachicoleros, the resale price of gasoline has increased 40% over the last couple of months. As a result, consumption of their gasoline has significantly decreased forcing huachicoleros to only provide their services for a limited number of days a week and to a privileged list of frequent consumers.

In addition, on April 28th the Mexican Congress approved a legislation reform that increases sentences for fuel stealing to up to 25 years in prison and fines up to 2 million pesos if found guilty. Congress approved this initiative with 321 votes in favor, 18 against, and 37 abstentions and is planned to become effective in September. However, the head of the Ministry of Treasure and Public Credit (Secretaría De Hacienda y Crédito Público), José Antonio Meade, recently appealed to Congress to expedite the reform’s effective date  given the gravity of the situation and to initiate further comprehensive reforms to address fuel stealing.

Huachicoleros have gained increased attention from the media after their recent confrontations with federal and military authorities. As they continue to challenge local and state measures, Congress will need to continue its search for more efficient measures to tackle the issue from its source in order to eliminate that practice and hopefully eradicate the violence generated by it.

 

Sources

“¿Quiénes son los huachicoleros?.” El Debate. 4 May 2017.

“Aprueban diputados aumentar penas por robo de combustible.” El Diario. 28 April 2017.

“Decomiso de combustible desata enfrentamiento en Cuesta Blanca.” El Sol de Puebla. 31 March 2017.

“El Bukanas, El Toñín y La Negra, los tres líderes huachicoleros de Puebla.” El Sol de Puebla. 15 May 2017.

“Mueren dos militares en enfrentamiento con huachicoleros en Palmarito Tochapan.” El Sol de Puebla. 3 May 2017.

“Perfil: el sanguinario capo del huachicol.” Diario Cambio. 13 March 2017.

Badillo, Jesús. “El Triángulo Rojo, mina de ‘oro negro’ de huachicoleros.” Milenio. 05 May 2017.

Flores, Leonor. “Pide Meade acelar reformas pendientes contra robo de gasolina.” El Universal. 16 May 2017.

Hernández, Gabriela. “Puebla: enfrentamiento con ‘huachicoleros’ deja dos integrantes de Los Bukanas detenidos.” Proceso. 30 March 2017.

Molina, Héctor and Torres Rubén. “En video, presunto choque con huachicoleros.” El Economista. 10 May 2017.

Pérez, Fernando and Xicoténcatl, Fabiola. “Huachicoleros aplican su ‘gasolinazo’; incautan 50mil litros en Tabasco.” Excelsior. 14 May 2017.

Justice in Mexico released its most updated data on crime and violence in Mexico

Justice in Mexico, a research and public policy program based at the University of San Diego, created in 2016 a Data Center to make publicly available data and analysis to evaluate trends related to crime, violence, drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico.

Updated data on crime and violence in Mexico.

Data used in the 2017 special report entitled, “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016,” and other datasets, such as the Justice barometer series are now available for download.

 

To visit the data click here: Visit the Data Center