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Bodies are piling up in Mexico’s drug war because El Chapo is gone

by Duncan Tucker
Jul 12 2017, 11:01am

Alejandro Pesqueda was driving home from a party at 3 a.m. on Saturday when a corpse nearly crashed through his windshield.

At first, Pesqueda didn’t realize the large green plastic bag that thumped onto the ground next to him contained a body. But after he stopped his car, he looked up and saw another human-shaped bag hanging from the overpass he’d just driven under.

“If I’d been driving two meters to the right, it would have hit me,” the 29-year-old radio host said of the falling body he encountered in the city of Guadalajara. “You see this kind of thing in movies or on the news… but this scene made my blood turn cold.”

When he saw police lights approaching, Pesqueda parked across the road. “Two police officers came over with their pistols raised,” he said. “I held my hands up and they asked me what I was doing here. They checked my ID and told me to get out of there because the situation could be misinterpreted. I left feeling really scared.”

But not before he filmed the gruesome scene on his phone and uploaded it to Facebook.

“The cleanup has begun,” the messages said. “We’re coming for all of you.”

More than 188,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since the Mexican government declared war on organized crime in December 2006, and more than 30,000 people have disappeared. There were 2,186 homicides in the country this past May alone, the most violent month since records started being kept 20 years ago.

Police found nine bodies dumped across Guadalajara Saturday night, six of them wrapped in plastic bags, with similar messages pinned to their chests. They were signed by the Jalisco New Generation cartel, the region’s dominant criminal organization, and accused the dead of stealing cars, phones, and watches.

“The cleanup has begun,” the messages said. “We’re coming for all of you.”

Cartels often use such language to improve their public image and paint themselves as populist crime fighters, but local authorities have described previous acts of extreme, vigilante-style justice as the result of internal disputes within criminal gangs.

Founded about seven years ago, Jalisco New Generation has expanded aggressively across the country, attacking rival gangs, police, politicians, and the army. Its rapid rise has been a significant factor in Mexico’s soaring murder rate.

The cartel is an offshoot of the now-defunct Milenio cartel and the larger Sinaloa cartel, whose former kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was arrested last year and extradited to the United States in January.

“It’s very easy for things to descend into a greater level of violence.”

That in turn led to a “vicious cycle” of violence, says Patrick Corcoran, a security analyst for Insight Crime. Guzmán’s absence fueled a power struggle between different factions within the Sinaloa cartel, he explained, while emboldening rival organizations to contest its territories.

The Sinaloa cartel has been at the center of several massacres this month. The first came on July 1 when police in Mazatlán shot dead 19 alleged cartel members. No officers were killed and none of the suspects were arrested or wounded, raising suspicion that the police had carried out unlawful executions. (Accusations of extrajudicial killings by security forces are not uncommon in Mexico.)

A ferocious shootout between factions of the Sinaloa cartel and La Linea, a local drug gang, left at least 14 people dead in the northern state of Chihuahua last Wednesday. The two groups have fought for years for control of the lucrative smuggling route through Ciudad Juárez.

The next day, 28 inmates were killed after fighting broke out in a maximum-security prison in Acapulco. Local media reported that the victims were praying to Santa Muerte, Mexico’s folk death saint, when they were attacked by members of a rival gang aided by three prison guards. Four of the victims were reportedly decapitated.

Much of the current violence stems from changes in Mexico’s ever-shifting criminal landscape. Corcoran said recent midterm elections in volatile states like Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Veracruz may have disrupted existing pacts between local politicians and the cartels, leading to power struggles.

“The equilibrium that the collective underworld abides by is pretty fragile,” he said. “It’s very easy for things to descend into a greater level of violence.”

Corcoran says that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in 2012, has never had a coherent strategy beyond a “PR gambit” to draw media attention away from cartel violence. With presidential elections coming up in 2018, Corcoran says the next government must search for longer-term solutions.

“Mexican officials don’t think nearly long and hard enough about how they can attack social problems that feed poverty and encourage a lot of youths to think that crime is the only way to have a prosperous life.”

Still stunned by Saturday’s grisly encounter, Pesqueda is also concerned about how the worsening violence will impact future generations.

“How do we explain situations like this to our children?” he said. “It’s becoming normalized for them. We must not get used to seeing these things.”