Mexican security experts have warned that local authorities are at risk of losing control of certain parts of the western state of Jalisco amid mounting attacks on security forces.
Five police officers were murdered in two separate gangland-style shootings in Jalisco in the past week, while a local mayor survived an assassination attempt on Tuesday for the second time in the last six months.
The first attack took place on February 24, when a team of gunmen shot dead three municipal police officers in their patrol car on a busy road in Tlaquepaque, a popular tourist district within the state capital Guadalajara.
Cellphone footage showed the assassins firing off at least ten rounds before driving away, leaving a thick trail of blood streaming from the police car. The Tlaquepaque police chief and his deputy both resigned the next day, citing personal safety concerns.
Five days after that attack, assailants armed with assault rifles killed two state police officers in their car in Guadalajara. The pair's baby daughter survived the attack with minor injuries from shards of broken glass.
The next evening, on March 1, the mayor of Ahualulco, a small town to the west of Guadalajara, survived an assassination attempt when gunmen opened fire on his bulletproof vehicle. They also shot at the town's police station, causing material damage but no casualties.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for any of these attacks but the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG, has been implicated in the assassinations of dozens of police officers and public officials across the region in recent years. These include the murders of the Jalisco tourism secretary in 2013 and a federal congressman in 2014.
State authorities have blamed the latest wave of attacks on long-standing municipal-level corruption, or sought to cast it as organized crime kicking back against their successful operations.
Jalisco's governor, Aristóteles Sandoval, implied the killings were the result of corruption within local police forces — a problem that he stressed predates his time in office. When his term began in 2013, he said this week, "we clearly identified that in terms of security Jalisco's greatest vulnerability was the infiltration of organized crime in its security apparatus."
Although he did not point to a specific culprit, the governor urged constant vigilance against "the presence of a criminal group in all of the state" — an allusion to the CJNG, and the dominance it exercises over illicit activity in the region.
Jalisco's attorney general Eduardo Almaguer said the shooting of the two state police officers was probably a response to his office's efforts to combat organized crime. That same day his office announced that state police had incinerated almost 90,000 marijuana crops at a clandestine plantation in northern Jalisco.
Founded as an offshoot of the larger Sinaloa Cartel about six years ago, the CJNG has since grown into one of the country's most powerful criminal organizations in its own right. The group's initially low profile evaporated last Spring when it carried out a series of major attacks against the authorities.
Gunmen associated with the cartel ambushed state and federal police patrols, simultaneously blockaded dozens of roads across Guadalajara and in surrounding areas with burning buses, and even shot down an army helicopter with an RPG.
Those attacks temporarily turned Jalisco into the government's top priority, though it appears to have rather faded from the federal agenda in recent months. Federal forces have captured several figures who they say are top CJNG lieutenants in the past six months, but this has done little to halt the continued deterioration of the security situation in the state.
According to the federal government 831 cases of extortion were reported in Jalisco last year, more than in any other state.
José Antonio Ortega, the president of Mexico's Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, told VICE News that Jalisco is at risk of descending into the same chaos that has enveloped the notoriously lawless western states of Michoacán and Guerrero.
"If the authorities don't take appropriate actions to combat impunity and corruption Jalisco is going to move closer to becoming a failed state," Ortega said. "It's not a failed state yet, but it's getting closer."
Ortega believes that by attacking state security forces the CJNG are "marking their territory" and sending "a clear warning to the authorities not to mess with them and to let them work."
Although the cartel could not survive an out-and-out conflict with the military, Ortega argues that its spectacular defiance could discourage Mexico's publicity-conscious authorities from escalating the conflict. Jalisco is an important economic player that sells itself to foreign investors as "Mexico's Silicon Valley."
Last year Ortega presented the Jalisco governor with a 208-page report he authored on the threat posed by organized crime in the state. He urged the authorities to not just focus on capturing the cartel leadership, but also to "break up the structure of the organization and punish the government officials who have protected and taken money from them."
Darwin Franco, a local journalist who specialises in investigating organized crime and enforced disappearances in Jalisco, believes the latest outbreak of violence is linked to the recent arrests of several of the CJNG's top regional leaders.
He says that the bloodshed is unlikely to be direct retaliation for the arrests. Rather, he believes, the weakening of the CJNG leadership structure has sparked a turf war by encouraging opportunist rival gangs like the Beltrán Leyva organization to dispute the territory.
The attack against the Ahualulco mayor likely stemmed from cartel efforts to exert their influence over him, Franco said. The mayor had previously survived another assassination attempt days before taking office last October when gunmen had opened fire on his house.
Franco told VICE News the CJNG is known to shake down mayors in remote towns across Jalisco, particularly in the south of the state where it has a strong presence. New mayors are often forced to respect existing pacts established by their predecessors, he noted, yet they are also sometimes pressured to forge new deals with the rival gangs that move in to dispute the area.
"There are some areas where the mayors don't necessarily have any option but be co-opted because their lives are at risk," Franco said. "They have to learn to deal with this because there's a very strong criminal presence in these towns. The people there tell you they see groups of armed men cruising around the central plazas on a daily basis."
While Franco does not believe that all of Jalisco is in danger of becoming a narco state, he warned that "there are areas that are no longer controlled by municipal or state powers".
Even in Guadalajara, Mexico's second biggest city, he noted, "there's more and more evidence that a criminal group can kill police officers and leave without absolutely anyone stopping them."
In a bid to safeguard the state, the Jalisco government introduced the Fuerza Unica, new branch of the state police force, three years ago. A new attorney general was also appointed last year.
Yet Franco says this has not brought about any reduction in the level of violence.
"The problem is that the authorities are in denial," he said. "Their security measures only cover up the situation. They're political, media-friendly measures but they don't resolve the problem of the violence."
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