MS Risk Blog

Violence in Mexico Reaches Tourist Areas

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The recent string of Cartel violence in tourist areas in Mexico suggests that the weakening of the Sinaloa Cartel and Mexico’s decreased willingness to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement agencies are causing Cartel’s to become more emboldened and operate more frequently.

Over April, there has been a string of incidents related to cartel violence in the coastal state of Quintana Roo, especially the tourist sites of Cancun and Tulum. Cartel violence in Mexico is increasing and has been over the past year. Whilst the victims of the violence have not been in extreme numbers, the frequency of the attacks have been increasing. The latest statistics available show that the homicide rate in 2021 was 28 homicides per 100,000, with around 90 percent never reported. The increase in cartel violence is likely a result of the U.S. government indicting 28 Sinaloa cartel members, including three of ‘El Chapo’ Guzman’s sons; Ovidio Guzman Lopez, Jesus Alfredo Guzman Salazar, and Ivan Archivaldo Guzman Salazar. The charges against the members have weakened the Sinaloa cartel’s power, which appears to have driven them to increase activity and rival cartels to challenge their position. Mexican President Lopez Obrador’s criticisms to the U.S. charges exemplifies the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. The cartels have likely taken advantage of the deteriorating relationship which has decreased the DEA’s ability to operate in the country.

On 14 April, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges against twenty-eight Sinaloa cartel members in response to the growing fentanyl crisis. The U.S. saw a rapid increase in the amount of fentanyl overdoses in 2021, with around 70,000 people dying from overdoses in 2021, almost a four-fold increase over five years. In 2022, the DEA seized more than fifty million fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl along with more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder. The indictments were aimed at hitting the cartel’s global network; a complex manufacturing and supply network including Chinese and Guatemalan citizens supplying chemicals required to make fentanyl, as well as running suspected drug labs in Mexico.

Mexican President Lopez Obrador’s response to the U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement may have emboldened cartels to act more freely. On 17 April, Lopez Obrador criticised the Sinaloa investigation by the Drug Enforcement Association (DEA), claiming it was “abusive, arrogant interference that should not be accepted under any circumstances.” The increased hostility towards the U.S. was highly likely a result of U.S. allegations of corruption in Mexico back in March, which furthered the already souring relationship between the two countries. The Mexican government has imposed restrictive rules on how agents can operate in Mexico, and slowed down visa approvals for a time since the return of General Salvador Cienfuegos who was on U.S. charges of aiding a drug gang in 2020. The continued deterioration has aided in leading to a dramatic increase in cartel violence as the reduction in ability for the DEA to move against the cartels appears to have emboldened them giving them freedom of movement.

The spread of cartel violence to tourist towns supports the theory that cartels are increasing their span of influence. On April 26, authorities discovered eight bodies dumped in the tourist city of Cancun. Whilst not unusual for bodies to often be found dumped and mutilated by the cartel, they are rarely found in Cancun, which is the heart of Mexico’s tourism industry on the coast. This also coincides with the fighting for territory between cartel’s, which is likely a result of the recent decrease in the Sinaloa cartel’s power with the capture of Guzman’s sons. The cartels often use violence to send a message to those who would challenge them. Whilst the bodies have not been identified, it is likely that they were either dumped there to send a message to those who would challenge the currently weakened Sinaloa cartel, or as a message to challenge the Sinaloa cartel by either the Gulf cartel, the New Generation Jalisco cartel, or Grupo Regional, all of whom have been identified as operating in the area. The most likely of the three being the Jalisco cartel as they are well known rivals of the Sinaloa cartel.

With both the limitations imposed on U.S. operatives in Mexico by the Mexican government as well as the weakening of the Sinaloa cartel, who are considered the most powerful in the world, it is likely that cartel violence will continue to increase unless drastic measures are taken. The increase in trends in both fentanyl smuggling and cartel violence over the past few years are indicative of this argument.