Mexico has seen a dramatic resurgence in gang violence since June 2023 despite the quiet of the last two months
Cartel violence in Mexico has shown a dramatic increase since mid-late June 2023 from the low numbers of reported crime in April and May 2023. The scale has also reached city-wide levels of violence that were seen in January 2023 following the escape of ‘El Chapo’s’ son. The violence has been widespread across the country. Many of the recent cartel attacks have targeted Mexican law enforcement, such as the abduction of fourteen state police officers in southern Mexico on Tuesday 27 June, a stark contrast from the more common rival gang violence or civilian targeted violence. There has been no confirmed reason for the targeting of law enforcement, however, the timing of the resurgence in cartel violence suggests that the increase is likely in response to the Mayor of the Mexican border city of Tijuana, Montserrat Caballero, deciding to live at an army base for her own safety on the 14 June after receiving threats made by drug cartels in the region. It is likely that the cartels became emboldened by this perceived retreat and increased their activities on both scale and against law enforcement. The violence has further demonstrated President Obrador’s lack of success in curbing cartel violence. Therefore, despite cartel violence having declined once again as of August 7 2023, further resurgence can be expected within the near future unless significant measures are taken against them.
The cartel violence has increased in both scale and target-scope. City-wide levels of cartel violence are not a new phenomenon and have been seen in the past. On January 6 2023, following Ovidio Guzman’s escape and subsequent recapture by Mexican military, Sinaloa’s state capital, Culiacan was filled with roadblocks and gunfire. City-wide violence most recently occurred on the 11 July when an unidentified drug cartel set off a series of explosives in Tlajomulco killing four officers and two civilians. This appears to be the first time a Mexican cartel has used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to target and kill law enforcement personnel. This was the latest example of the increasing open, military-style challenge posed by drug cartels against law-enforcement. The targeting of law enforcement personnel has seen an increase across the last two months. One of the most open attacks against law enforcement personnel occurred on the 27 June when armed men abducted fourteen state police officers in southern Mexico on the highway between Ocozocoautla and Tuxtla Gutierrez. Fortunately, all officers kidnapped were released a few days following the kidnapping, however, the kidnapping of so many law enforcement officials in one attack was the first highly open challenge to law enforcement personnel that has occurred this year. The increase in targeting of law enforcement and timing of the attacks suggest that the cartels have gained increased confidence in targeting law enforcement.
The decision of Motserrat Caballero to live at an army base on the 14 June for her own safety after receiving threats is somewhat likely the reason for increased cartel activity against law enforcement as they have possibly perceived this as a retreat. The need to seek safety in such a manner coupled with the increase in cartel attacks on law enforcement, as well as their advancement in techniques (e.g. use of IEDs) has further exemplified President Obrador’s failure at tackling the cartels in Mexico. 2023 has seen a decrease in Obrador’s credibility and strength in tackling cartel violence. In March 2023 he denounced a US Republican-led push for military intervention against cartels in Mexico following a high profile abduction of U.S. citizens earlier that month. Furthermore, cartels were able to increase their influence during the immigration crisis throughout January-May 2023, providing smuggling services for $200 each. The continual failure of President Obrador and his government to curtail cartel activities has therefore likely attributed in increasing the targeting of law enforcement as they have had little repercussions in response to the attacks.
At the start of Lula Da Silva’s term in office, observers feared that there would be great political instability due to the fracturing of society between the left and the right, which proved to be the case. However, the ousting of Jair Bolsonaro at the end of June has weakened the right, which is now forced to find a new leader to lead the opposition. Among the left-wing president’s domestic challenges is the protection of the Amazon, which includes both environmental protection and indigenous populations, as well as the fight against crime. This aspect has been taken seriously by the government, and the first results are being felt. It is highly likely that Brazil will maintain these efforts over the next 6 months.
On 1 January 2023, Lula Da Silva, figurehead of the Workers’ Party (PT), was sworn in as President of the Republic of Brazil for the 3rd time, after having served two consecutive terms from 2003 to 2011. These presidential elections were won against the outgoing president of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), Jair Bolsonaro, with just 50.90% of the vote, in what was the closest presidential election in Brazil’s history. The electoral campaign had been marked by a polarisation of debates between the left, represented by the current President, and the right coalescing around Jair Bolsonaro. Shortly after taking office, President Lula Da Silva was confronted with spectacular rioting in the capital on 8 January, reminiscent of the US Capitol storming 2 years earlier. The pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators stormed the National Congress, the Planalto presidential palace and the Federal Supreme Court, located in the capital’s Three Powers Square. Amid suspicions of collusion between certain members of the security forces and the rioters, the authorities reacted by making major arrests (more than 1,500 were arrested and questioned at the time) and sacking senior members of the armed forces and the police, who were deemed to be too close to the far-right former president. While in Florida, US, Jair Bolsonaro did little to condemn the rioters and was even accused of seeking to stage a coup. Still popular with right-wing voters, the former soldier finally returned to Brasilia on 30 March to resume political life. However, Jair Bolsonaro had to deal with 16 different cases, including that of wanting to foment a coup d’état, attempting to illegally bring back jewelry from Arabia while he was travelling in the region, and later falsifying the health data of certain relatives to allow them to travel to the US, while anti-Covid measures were in place, to name but a few. Although all these affairs undermined some of his credibility, the former president remained surprisingly popular on the right. As a result, the first 6 months of Lula Da Silva’s term were marked, domestically, by struggles against the right-wing coalition that was being organised around Jair Bolsonaro. But on 30 June, the far-right politician was sentenced to 8 years ineligibility for spreading false information about the electoral system. The court’s decision prevents him de jure from standing in the next presidential election, and de facto reduces his political weight in the country. Since then, several politicians have sought to emerge and present themselves as credible leaders, including the wife of the former president, Michelle Reinaldo, but no single politician has been able to assert himself. This sidelining has created a vacuum in the opposition, giving some breathing space to Lula Da Silva’s government, even though institutions such as Congress are still tilted to the right.
One of the points of divergence between Left and Right concerns the treatment of Amazonia. This immense territory, which is difficult to control, covers an area of 5,500,000 sq km and is home to 40% of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest. It is vital for biodiversity and the global climate balance thanks to its great capacity to absorb CO2. Several indigenous peoples also live in the region, perpetuating their own cultures and ways of life. On 8 August, following a census carried out by the Brazilian authorities, their number was estimated at 1,693,535. One of Brazil’s largest communities, the Yanomami, has been the regular target of attacks by criminal groups, whose activities had intensified in the Amazon due to a lack of concern on the part of the government of Jair Bolsonaro, in power from 2019 to the end of 2022. This lack of protective policy had enabled criminal groups to develop illegal activities linked to deforestation, timber trafficking, illegal gold panning and cattle farming, to name but a few. On 29 April, the left-wing president decreed six new indigenous reserves, covering an area of nearly 620,000 hectares, prohibiting mining and restricting commercial agriculture. However, on the same day, an attack by armed criminals aimed at driving out the Yanomami to take over their land and exploit it, resulted in the death of 3 natives. The government responded by launching special operations. Since then, nearly 80% of the 20,000 gold miners who invaded the reserve have reportedly already been evicted, and 300 mining camps have been dismantled as well as 20 planes and a helicopter destroyed. On 10 July, the number of criminals to be expelled was estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000 out of the 20,000 present in the Yanomami reserve, according to Humberto Freire, Brazil’s federal police chief for the Amazon. These encouraging results should not mask the difficulties. On 1 June, Alexandre Saraiva, former head of the federal police, said that the Amazon could become a backyard for heavily armed criminal insurgents, noting a resurgence of mafias and illegal timber, gold and drug trafficking in the region during his tenure from 2011 to 2021. Attacks remain frequent. On 17 May, the Brazilian Environmental Institute (Ibama) recorded an increase of almost 90% in environmental offences since 1 January. On 9 June, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the country’s largest coalition of indigenous groups, asked the authorities for help in protecting them from criminals. In addition to these difficulties, the Brazilian Congress, which is predominantly right-wing, is complicating the government’s maneuvers. For example, on 24 May, the Congress approved a bill that would strip the Ministry of the Environment of control of the Rural Environment Register, a key tool in the fight against illegal deforestation, land grabbing and water resources. But despite these problems, the authorities continue to fight against illegal activities and to protect the environment. According to data collected by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and published on 3 August, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by almost 66% in July. According to the same institute, deforestation has fallen by a third since Lula Da Silva took office in January, raising hopes that these improvements will continue in the medium term. As proof of his political commitment, on 13 June, Lula Da Silva met European President Ursula von der Leyen to sign a number of investment projects, including forest protection, including $21.5 million to Brazil’s Amazon Fund. On 8 July, the Brazilian President met his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro in Leticia, near the Brazil-Colombia-Peru triple border, to discuss the Amazon and the fight against the illegal activities that have intensified there in recent years. On 4 August, Flávio Dino, Minister of Security and Justice, stated that the government intends to increase the strength of the security forces in the region with the opening of a Command Centre in Manaus, in the north of the country. In addition, Brazil hosted the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organisation (ACTO) summit in Belem from 8 to 9 August, bringing together senior officials from countries that share a border with the Amazon or have an interest in preserving it, raising hopes that measures will be launched. The stakes are high for the Brazilian population itself.
Protecting the Amazon is a major issue for Brazil, both for its environmental aspects and its medium- and long-term security. The authorities, under the impetus of President Lula Da Silva, have decided to reinvest in a field that had been abandoned by former right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro when he was in power. It would appear, from the data recorded over the last 6 months, that this new policy is already bearing fruit.
Voters went to the polls on 25 June for the first round of the presidential election, organised every 4 years. The second and final round, scheduled for 20 August, will determine the next President of the Republic after Alejandro Giammattei. These elections took place in a climate of mistrust or disinterest among voters, frustrated by the corruption of the elites, insecurity, social inequalities, and the inability of politicians to act. Several candidates were denied the right to stand on sometimes spurious legal pretexts, tainting the democratic conduct of the country’s most important elections. Nevertheless, the surprise second-place finish of left-wing candidate Bernardo Arévalo, against all the odds, could revive interest in the elections. However, it is difficult to say how likely it is that he would be elected, given the surprise result. What’s more, among the candidates who were allowed to run, several made the fight for security a leading argument, referring to El Salvador and the state of emergency declared more than a year ago by President Nayib Bukele. This hardening of tone is likely the sign of a future shift towards a more security-oriented society.
On 25 June, Guatemala, the Central America’s largest economy with a GDP of 86 billion dollars in 2020 and the region’s most populous country with almost 17.8 million inhabitants, held the first round of presidential elections in a climate of voter mistrust over institutions and politicians. This context is explained by a highly unequal society, with 60% of the population living below the poverty line and 56% affected by food insecurity, the numerous cases of corruption among the elite and a shift in power towards greater authoritarianism.
Several candidates were refused the right to stand for election. The most notable are left-wing indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera and Jordán Rodas, and Carlos Pineda, centre-right-wing candidates. Thelma Cabrera and Jordán Rodas, of the Popular Liberation Movement (MLP), had been excluded from the lists for the elections on 25 March for procedural irregularities. This news worried some observers and led to demonstrations. Centre-right candidate Carlos Pineda, of the Citizen Prosperity party and Guatemala’s leading presidential candidate with 23% of voting intentions, was disqualified on 26 May, just a month before the first round of the election. This decision came when a few days earlier, on 23 May, the Guatemalan Electoral Observation Mission (MOE-GT), in charge with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to monitor the democratic conduct of the elections, expressed its concern about the fraud and irregularities underway during the presidential election, including the fact that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is alleged to have made numerous errors during the process of accepting or rejecting candidates. One third of the country’s 9 million voters are not registered to vote and the results of the first round quickly gave way to a number of demonstrations and scuffles with the police, although no major damage was caused. The only surprise was that a left-wing candidate, Bernardo Arévalo, member of the Movimiento Semilla, who obtained 12% of the vote, whereas some polls had predicted 3%, just behind former First Lady Sandra Torres, member of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), who obtained almost 16% of the vote. However, the no-vote came in first with around 17%, indicating voter fatigue.
Sandra Torres, who is leading the polls and is the centre-left favourite, could seek to attract the votes of right-wing conservatives against her left-wing opponent, by toughening her security proposals and taking as a model the President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who in March 2022 introduced a particularly strict and repressive state of emergency, the aim of which was to put an end to the influence of gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18, endemic not only to the country but also to Central America in general. These repressive measures in El Salvador have been met with a favourable response in neighbouring Guatemala, and it is likely that security policy will be tightened after the elections.
Although the presidential elections in Guatemala in June did not go smoothly due to irregularities and the exclusion of candidates, Bernardo Arévalo was a surprise candidate in the second round. His candidacy may well be an opportunity to rekindle the interest of some voters in the elections. What is certain, however, is that the many promises and election speeches made by candidates referring to the state of emergency in El Salvador are likely to be fulfilled afterwards.
The five-day clashes between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip last May can be considered a tactical success for the Israeli side. The fighting and subsequent ceasefire also affirmed Egypt’s crucial mediating role and Hamas’ reluctance to directly confront Israel. Still, since Israel’s Palestinian adversaries retain significant capabilities and none of the root causes of Israeli-Palestinian tensions have been addressed, while the security situation in the West Bank keeps deteriorating, a new round of fighting will almost certainly break out again in the coming months.
On 2 May, Khader Adnan, a senior member of the militant Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group, died in Israeli custody after an 87-day hunger strike. PIJ and other armed groups in Gaza retaliated by firing more than 100 rockets into Israel, which responded by shelling and launching airstrikes against targets in Gaza. Then, on 9 May, Israel started a new operation against PIJ, with surprise airstrikes that killed three top PIJ commanders. This triggered a new major confrontation between Israel and PIJ. From 9 until 13 May, Gaza-based militants fired 1,469 rockets against Israeli targets, while Israeli forces struck 371 PIJ targets, eliminating three more PIJ leaders. On 13 May, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire through Egyptian mediation. Overall, 33 Palestinians died during the fighting, including 18 PIJ operatives, while 2 people in Israel were killed due to rocket strikes, one of whom was a Palestinian worker from Gaza.
This was the third round of fighting between Israel and PIJ, the previous two taking place in November 2019 and August 2022, respectively. Like the ones before, it lasted for a few days before a ceasefire was agreed. Examining this latest clash, four observations can be made:
First, Israel’s operations once again demonstrated the strength of its offensive and defensive capabilities. The opening strike killed three of the most high-ranking PIJ operatives within minutes. With three more subsequently killed, an Israeli report said that the “backbone” of PIJ’s structure in Gaza was significantly weakened. As for defense, Israel’s Iron Dome and (for the first time) David’s Sling air defense systems intercepted 439 rockets or about 91% of those heading for populated areas. The rest either landed in open areas without causing damage or fell into the Gaza Strip or the sea. According to Israeli officials, the campaign’s goal was weakening PIJ, an objective they said was achieved. Although PIJ and other Palestinian armed groups, such as Gaza-ruling Hamas, as well as their supporters Iran and Hezbollah, also praised their efforts as successful, it is hard to see how that was the case. According to reports, during Egyptian-mediated negotiations, PIJ set several conditions for a ceasefire, including an Israeli commitment to stop assassinations of its members and the release of Adnan’s body for burial. But the final ceasefire agreement was a mutual promise to stop firing and it came without any other conditions, as Israel demanded. Thus, the operation can be considered at least a tactical success for Israel.
Second, as in the past, the ceasefire negotiations again affirmed Egypt’s crucial role in mediating Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt has been a critical partner for Israel. Apart from Cairo’s role as a mediator, Egypt and Israel work together on jointly blockading the Gaza Strip, as Egypt’s ruling regime shares Israel’s fears about subversive forces in the region. On the other hand, cooperation with Egypt is indispensable for Gaza-based Palestinian armed groups too, since Cairo controls the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s only entry and exit point not controlled by Israel. It has also been a major aid contributor, while Egyptian intelligence has good working relations with armed factions in Gaza. Its mediating role makes Egypt a critical partner not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but also for other states and organizations involved in the region. After the ceasefire was agreed, Egypt’s mediation efforts were praised by Israel, PIJ, Hamas, the US, and the United Nations.
Third, Hamas stayed out of the recent fighting, as it did in August 2022, showcasing its reluctance to directly confront Israel. Although Hamas officially coordinates with PIJ and other Gaza-based armed groups, its assistance to PIJ was limited to statements of support. This is mainly due to the different perspectives and responsibilities of PIJ and Hamas. PIJ does not participate in politics and is solely focused on military confrontation with Israel, seeking to eliminate the Jewish state and replace it with a Sunni Islamist entity. On the other hand, Hamas is the de facto ruling government of Gaza, having expelled its rival Fatah and seized control of the enclave in 2007, and is thus held responsible for its population’s safety and well-being. During its fourth and so far last conflict with Israel in May 2021, Hamas suffered severe casualties and Gaza was devastated. If the group was dragged into the latest PIJ-Israel clash, the fighting would have significantly escalated, inflicting much more misery on Gaza’s population and risking important Israeli concessions to Hamas, such as its permission for Qatar to transfer $30 million to Gaza every month, or Israel’s work permits for around 20,000 Palestinians from the area. By staying out of the fighting, Hamas achieves multiple objectives. It focuses Israel’s attention on PIJ, letting Israel weaken a potentially dangerous rival and thus strengthening its own grip on power. It presents itself as a more responsible political force in the context of its competition with Fatah. And finally, it keeps its own capabilities in Gaza intact while more discreetly operating against Israel through its cells in the West Bank. It can be argued that Israel’s strategy of powerful deterrence and economic incentives has constrained Hamas to a certain extent. As long as Hamas behaves in a restrained way, Israel actually prefers that it stays in power in Gaza, since its weakening would bolster the more extremist PIJ.
Fourth, despite being tactically successful, the campaign likely didn’t significantly change the overall balance of power, nor did it eliminate the root causes of the conflict. PIJ very likely retains its capability to renew fighting at a later stage, with its total force estimated at around 10,000 militants. Israeli reports have said that PIJ’s leadership structure was seriously hit due to the loss of six commanders, but they concede that PIJ was not dealt a catastrophic blow. Hamas’ force of approximately 40,000 fighters remained intact, while the much more powerful Hezbollah lurks across the northern border in Lebanon. The threat from Gaza, and Israel’s concerns about encirclement from pro-Iran forces in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon, remain. More broadly, Israel’s tactical success did not address the fundamental drivers of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Israel’s far-right nationalist government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expanding settlements in the West Bank and inching toward a de facto annexation of the territory, while government members indulge in inflammatory rhetoric against Palestinians. The security situation in the West Bank continues to deteriorate, with hundreds of Palestinian terrorist attacks already in the first four months of 2023. Israeli forces continue their near-daily operations in the occupied territory, with at least 160 Palestinians killed since the start of the year. The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) led by President Mahmoud Abbas is rapidly losing popularity among the West Bank’s Palestinian population and its security forces are weakening, enabling PIJ and Hamas cells, along with numerous other armed groups, to proliferate and establish a presence in the region. And the Palestinians remain hopelessly divided between the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank and Hamas’ regime in Gaza, unable to speak with one voice.
It is thus almost certain that a new round of fighting will break out in the coming months. Diplomatic talks between Israel and the Palestinians have seemingly reached a deadlock, with neither side being willing nor capable to reach a negotiated settlement. In these conditions, escalation followed by crisis management seems the most likely course of action.
The removal of ‘Title 42’ has decreased the severity of the migrant crisis that has been continuing throughout 2022 and early 2023, however it has now become more dangerous for migrants to move through Mexico to reach the border.
The end of the U.S COVID-era border policy ‘Title 42’, which allowed border officials to expel migrants back to Mexico without giving them the chance to request asylum, came to an end on 12 May 2023 and many feared that this would lead to a mass influx of migrants attempting to cross the border and thus an increase in detentions of those caught attempting to cross the border illegally. However, the expected influx of migrants never came. In contrast there has been a decline in the number of immigrants attempting to cross the border. The decrease in attempted illegal crossings can likely be attributed to the consequences for attempting to cross illegally becoming harsher as well as not being able to seek asylum. This has made attempting to cross illegally less favourable compared to crossing legally. However, the replacement for Title 42, the Circumvention of lawful pathways rule, severely restricts access to asylum for migrants, requiring them to meet one of a handful of criteria before obtaining asylum. As a result, illegal crossings may see another surge in the future. The dangers of crossing through Mexico have increased however, as the removal of ‘Title 42’ and incentives to cross the border legally has impacted the smuggling trade. A bus carrying 50 migrants was taken control of by smugglers leading to the kidnapping and ransoming of the migrants on board. It is likely that this will increase in the future as smugglers attempt to make up for the loss in income. Therefore, ‘Title 42’s’ removal has led to less pressure across the border, but an increase in risk for migrants travelling through Mexico.
On 12 May, ‘Title 42’, introduced under the Trump administration came to an end. The end of the policy led some to anticipate a high influx of migrants crossing the border and severe issues with border control. On the same day as the policy’s end, New York Governor Kathy Hochul asked for federal government assistance with constructing and operating temporary shelters in anticipation of several thousand migrants arriving in New York. The migrant crisis that has persisted throughout 2023 certainly gave credibility to this concern. However, in contrast to people’s beliefs the number of migrants illegally crossing the border has decreased, with the number of migrants intercepted by border patrol whilst attempting to cross being down seventy percent, and the situation along the border has dramatically calmed down. The Biden administration’s new policy has likely had some effect on migrants’ decision to cross the border illegally. The new Circumvention of lawful pathways rule, which has been introduced by the Biden administration as a replacement for Title 42, has increased the severity of punishments for those who cross illegally as well as made it more difficult to obtain asylum for migrants entering the country. Migrants now must meet one of a handful of criteria before obtaining asylum as opposed to the larger number of criteria prior. Despite asylum being more difficult to obtain for migrants, the Biden administration has created avenues to incentivise entering through legal means. An expanded parole program for migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Haiti now allows for up to 30,000 people a month from these countries to apply for asylum should they apply from outside the U.S. Furthermore, migrants who cross the border illegally will now face a 5-year ban on applying for asylum in the future, further incentivising entering through legal measures.
The dangers of crossing through Mexico have been heightened with the ‘Title 42’s’ removal. The incentivisation and increase in punishments of being caught crossing illegally have led to migrants relying less on smugglers to cross the border. This has led to a significant impact to their income. On 16 May, a bus heading to the border holding fifty migrants disappeared near Matehuala, San Luis Potosi. The smugglers who kidnapped the migrants called the bus company ransoming each passenger for one-thousand dollars. The migrants were eventually all found and rescued however the smugglers are still at large. A large-scale kidnapping such as this does not come without many risks, and the timing of the kidnapping suggests that the smugglers business has been heavily impacted by the removal of ‘Title 42’. It is likely therefore that more attempts such as this will be made by migrant smugglers in attempts to make up for lost business.
Overall, the removal of ‘Title 42’ will likely lead to an increase in migrants crossing the border, primarily through legal means. It is unlikely that this will lead to violent incidents along the border which we have been seeing throughout 2023 as there has been a dramatic decrease in such incidents since the policy was removed. There may be some attempts to cross illegally as the new measures introduced still make it difficult for all migrants to cross. It will be more dangerous for migrants crossing through Mexico as smugglers will now resort to new measures to obtain money to make up for lost business, this will likely appear in the forms of kidnappings and ransom.