MS Risk Blog

Assessment on US Travel Warning for Five Mexican States

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Key judgements:


The United States Department of State issued its travel recommendations for the entire globe on January 10, 2018. Although most of the states of Mexico have been part of the list, it is the first time in history that five of its territories have the highest degree of danger by the US State Department, 4 of 4, putting those regions at the same level of danger as countries at war like Afghanistan, Syria or Yemen. The recommendation of the US Government is to avoid visiting the five affected states, Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas.


The rise of these five states to the highest level of danger in the US travel recommendation system is due to a large increase in violence in these territories caused by confrontations between small criminal gangs and the territorial disputes between the existing large drug cartels and the remnants of extinct cartels. Since former President Felipe Calderón launched the “War on Drugs” in December 2006, which has lasted for two six-year periods, there have been more than 234,000 deaths, and led to the demise of most of the existing cartels at the beginning from the war. However, the elimination of the cartel’s leadership has not led to its dissolution, but to its decentralization, giving rise to hundreds of small criminal gangs with conflicting interests, which has triggered the levels of violence in Mexico.


To better understand the reasons that have led the United States to apply the highest degree of danger to five Mexican states, it is convenient to analyze each of the states separately.


Despite being the least populated state in Mexico, Colima has one of the most important ports in the Pacific zone of Mexico, Puerto Manzanillo, where two million containers pass through each year. This port is a strategic point for drug trafficking because it is a point of entry for cocaine and ephedrine from Colombia and China. Violence in Colima skyrocketed when the Sinaloa Cartel arrived to fight its former allies, the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG by its initials in Spanish) that controls the state, and dispute control of Puerto Manzanillo. This dispute is the reason for the increase in violence in Colima and the reason why this small state has the highest homicide rate in the entire country, with 70.6 murders per 100 000 inhabitants.


The state of Guerrero was once a tourist paradise, where the greatest stars of Hollywood summered and where the Kennedys celebrated their honeymoon, but the violence in the state raised when security forces killed the leader of the Beltrán and Levya cartel, which held control of the state, which led to its disintegration in more than a score of criminal gangs that today dispute the territory, some of them are Guerreros Unidos, Los Tequileros, Los Rojos or Los Ardillos. Guerrero is an opium production area, raw material to produce heroin, and its proximity to smuggling routes to the US border makes Guerrero a target for gangs and cartels.


Michoacán is a key state to understand the war against drugs in Mexico. The birth state of former President Felipe Calderón, with the beginning of the war against drugs, nearly 7,000 soldiers were sent to Michoacán to fight the dominant cartel in the region, La Familia Michoacana. Michoacán is the largest producer of methamphetamine for its subsequent export to the United States, and has the most important port on the Mexican Pacific coast, the port of Lázaro Cárdenas. Since members of La Familia Michoacana split up to form the cartel of Los Caballeros Templarios, impunity in the state has been widespread. The ineffectiveness of the Government in fighting the cartels led to the creation of the first self-defense militias in La Ruana, Tepalcatepec and Buenavista. These militias have been a problem for the Mexican government, due to the continuous clashes between them, the inability of the authorities to control them, and their refusal to disarm voluntarily. After the beheading of La Familia Michoacana and Los Caballeros Templarios, in Michoacán there are remnants of both cartels, the self-defense militias confronting each other, and the newly created La Nueva Familia Michoacana cartel, at war with the CJNG for the control of Michoacán and the port of Lázaro Cárdenas.


The original state of the famous Sinaloa Cartel, it is not the main producer of any drug, although it has extensive plantations of marijuana and opium. But what they specialized in the Sinaloa Cartel is in the organization of their smuggling routes, especially across the border with the United States. Since the extradition on January 19, 2018 of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo Guzmán”, an internal struggle within the cartel arose between the chief of security of El Chapo, Dámaso López Núñez, alias “El Licenciado” and the two sons of El Chapo. This internal dispute increased the rates of violence in the state of Sinaloa, and even after the arrest of Núñez, the sons of El Chapo still face obstacles to fully control the cartel.


The state closest to the United States, since it shares a border with Texas, is home to the oldest cartel in Mexico, the Gulf Cartel, whose founder, Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, trafficked with alcohol during the years of the Prohibition, later creating the cartel in the 1980s. In 1999, former military officer Arturo Guzmán Decena began working for the cartel’s leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, and began recruiting former special forces soldiers to create the Zetas, the armed wing of the cartel that would take care of the protection of leaders and territories, as well as executions and kidnappings. Eventually, and after an increase in its weight within the organization, the Zetas splintered from the Gulf Cartel in 2010 and began a bloody war against the same for control of the territory that lasts until today. Over the years, both the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel have suffered several internal fractures and there are diverse factions on both sides, which continue the war between them, mainly in the state of Tamaulipas, and to a lesser extent in Nuevo León and Coahuila. The irruption of the Northeastern Cartel has been key in the increase of violence in Tamaulipas, as it is an additional actor to those already existing. The Mexican security forces managed to shoot down the leaders of two of the most important factions in the area, Pancho Carreón from the Zetas Vieja Escuela, and Juan Manuel Loza, known as Comandante Toro, leader of the Gulf Clan.


In Colima, the incursion of the Sinaloa Cartel to dispute control of the Port of Manzanillo to the CJNG threatens to keep Colima as the deadliest state in Mexico, as the importance of this port for the entry of narcotics is of vital interest to the cartels. The growing hostilities between the two cartels will attract smaller gangs, which will suppose an increase in crime in the territory of Colima.

The increase in the demand for opium by the cartels to compensate their losses due to the legalization of marijuana in certain states of the United States, will make Guerrero the battle center of the cartels to control the production of opium, abundant in the state, thus it is likely an increase in hostilities in the state, and the incursion of more criminal gangs is highly probable.

To the already existing confrontations in the state of Michoacán, it is necessary to add the appearance of a new cartel, self-named La Nueva Familia Michoacana, which has declared war on the CJNG for the control of the territory, which will increase the rate of violence in the state.

Violence in Sinaloa is due to the internal struggles the Sinaloa Cartel experienced after the capture and extradition to the United States of El Chapo Guzmán. It is likely that once Guzman’s sons regain control of the cartel, the violence will diminish after a period of transition.

The irruption of the Northeast Cartel in the state of Tamaulipas was the reason for the drastic increase in violence in that region, but the beheading of the Zejas Vieja Escuela and the Gulf Cartel could diminish the activity of both in favor of the Northeast Cartel or, on the contrary, cause the disintegration of these factions in smaller ones that increase the conflict in the state.

None of the two major wars against drugs undertaken by the governments of Ronald Reagan in the United States more than 45 years ago, and by Felipe Calderón in 2006, have been able to stop the growing violence in Mexico. The war against drugs launched by Felipe Calderón had as its core mission to eliminate the cartels leaders, who had a hierarchy based on family ties, and promotions and rewards based on loyalty; something that led the authorities to think that, beheading the cartels, they would disappear. This did not happen, but led to the decentralization of criminal activity, leading to the creation of a multitude of small criminal gangs that adapted to the war the government maintained against them; now organized crime is not based on old blood ties, but is divided into different cells that collaborate with each other, but act independently and without showing loyalty to larger organizations, so the effect of losing a cell by police action does not affect the criminal network, and the amount of information that cell could bring to the police is less.

The irruption of the CJNG in the Mexican scenario has led to a drastic increase in violence, due to the open war with the only other major cartel standing, the Sinaloa Cartel, for the control of all regions of Mexico, which has led the war to places that have never witnessed the violence of the rest of the country like Cancun.

The proof that all these factors have triggered the violence in Mexico is that 2017 was the year with the highest number of murders registered, 23,101 in the absence of December data. Another scabrous fact is the number of journalists murdered in Mexico that in 2017 amounts to 81 deaths, less than the 120 in 2016, but which place the country as the most dangerous in the world to practice the journalistic profession.