TENANTLA, Mexico – Whoever wins Sunday’s presidential election will have to face not only Mexico’s drug cartels, but a new kind of crime involving whole neighborhoods defying police and military personnel.
It was on display in the Jalisco state town of Ciudad Guzman — a stronghold of the Jalisco New Generation cartel — in early June, when a crowd of men and women gathered around two pickups carrying armed Mexican marines.
They taunted the troops, throwing rocks and water bottles at them and kicking one repeatedly as he was helped away by two comrades.
Purportedly protesting a young man’s disappearance, the crowd later spray-painted the cartel’s initials on a bashed-up marine vehicle.
Such “socialized” or “mass” crimes are spreading in Mexico as entire communities empty freight trains of merchandise or steal hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel from pipelines.
“The logic of the people is that they see politicians and officials stealing big time … and they see themselves as having the same right to steal as the big-time politicians,” said Edgardo Buscaglia, an international crime expert and research fellow at Columbia University. “You begin to create an ethical code in which, ‘If the upper-class people can steal and get away with it, we can steal, too, with complete justification.'”
In May, armed men broke the locks on two supermarkets in the southern city of Arcelia in Guerrero state and allowed local residents in to loot them. Police didn’t show up for hours.
Guerrero security spokesman Roberto Alvarez said the stores’ owners had refused extortion demands from a local splinter of La Familia cartel and the looting was punishment for not paying.
Meanwhile, an average of 42 illegal taps are being drilled into pipelines across Mexico every day and transporting, storing and selling the stolen fuel often represents a major source of employment in some rural communities.
“These criminal groups are inserting themselves in society. They have put women and children on the front line,” Interior Secretary Alfonso Navarrete Prida said in late May.
Stung by complaints from business groups that such crimes are threatening jobs and investment, the Interior Department blamed the increasing use of local populations by gangs.
“Much of the explanation lies in the diversification of criminal organizations that started out trafficking drugs, and now have interests in fuel theft,” the department said. “What also plays a role is that in a number of cases they have encouraged or forced members of many communities to block police actions to detain those involved in train and highway freight robbery.”
Political scientist Jesus Silva Herzog compares it to the emergence of piracy in Somalia, where the central government doesn’t have control over much of the country.
“This is the type of scene you see in failed states, where you don’t just have organized crime, but you have an organized criminal population with an extensive social base,” Silva Herzog said.
Buscaglia said such mass crimes occur in parts of Nigeria and Afghanistan, but are absent in places where there are “social controls” such as councils of elders in Afghanistan.
“Mexico doesn’t have social control mechanisms except in some very defined (indigenous) ethnic communities … so Mexico is, unfortunately, in the worst of both worlds,” he said.
In the first quarter of this year, six times a day on average, robbers blocked tracks or loosened rails to stop trains, leading to dangerous derailments. In such cases, thieves open up grain hoppers or freight cars and people swoop in en masse as police or soldiers stand by outnumbered and overwhelmed.
In one incident witnessed by The Associated Press last year in the central state of Puebla, police pointed out locals acting as lookouts — posing as farmers or gazing from a highway overpass — as people in dozens of pickups filled plastic tanks with fuel pilfered from a gas pipeline running through a cornfield.
Police stood just 100 yards away, holding off on intervening until soldiers could provide backup. But the army — stung by a previous encounter where troops were ambushed by townspeople — didn’t arrive.
Perhaps the most widespread “social crime” in Mexico is drug growing. As one farmer who grows opium poppies in the Guerreo hamlet of Tenantla said: “There is no other work. If there was, we’d do it.”
Untrained and unwilling to take on civilians, the military often just stands by. When it does intervene, sometimes rights abuses result.
On March 25, marines were ambushed three times as they left their base to patrol in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, attacks that killed one marine and wounded several.
A marine helicopter called in for support fired from the air and hit a civilian family’s car, killing a woman and two of her children. In the weeks around that attack, complaints were filed about 28 people who went missing in Nuevo Laredo, some allegedly hauled off by marines.
Javier Oliva, a political science professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the military is unprepared to handle “the process of social breakdown we are experiencing.”
“They will continue to do the job because there is no one else to do it,” Oliva said. “Because if they don’t do it, we are going to be left defenseless against criminal activities.”
Buscaglia said that without a real move to punish criminality and corruption from the top down, mass crimes may continue to rise.
“This situation is cancerous. It is going to spread more and more with all the political and social instability that come with it,” he said. “If today you have hundreds of thousands, it could become millions who think like this.”