Early morning Monday November 4 2019, the bodies of nine family members are scattered in a burnt out SUV. The location is on a road in the Sierra Madre mountains, northern Mexico. The youngest victims range in age from 8 months to 12 years. The mother is also dead. It’s here that the LeBaron family met their horrific end. A stretch of land occupied by warring cartels in an unforgiving terrain. The family were the latest victims of Mexico’s cartels.
The LeBaron family were Mexican-Americans who had long historical ties to this part of Mexico. A family history that includes the Mormon’s and the Church of the Latter Day Saints. However, this was not an isolated case. In January 2020, an American family travelling back to the U.S were attacked in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. A 13 year old was killed and others were injured. Almost fifteen years since the government of Felipe Calderon began it’s drug war, there appears to be little appetite lost for drugs, money and death.Embed from Getty Images
Same theatre, new politics
The current U.S administration under president Donald Trump, reacted quickly to the killings of the LeBaron family. Trump himself stated that the cartels would be designated as terrorist organisations. “They will be designated… I have been working on that for the last 90 days”, said Trump. Mexico rejected the offer for help and the announcement to designate the cartels as terror organisations. The Mexican government worried that any designation, and subsequent action by U.S forces, would violate Mexican sovereignty. By December, Trump had halted this process.
Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, welcomed the decision by Trump. But the designation of cartels as terror organisations would have consequences for the U.S. The majority of the guns used by cartels are smuggled in from the United States. Sales of firearms are illegal in Mexico. Gun stores are run by the military. The flow of drugs into the U.S is matched by the exchange of weapons into Mexico. Groups designated as terrorist organisations could implicate anyone, in this case U.S. gun store owners, as aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation.
Three U.S presidents have now assumed office since the Mexican Drug War began in 2006. Violence has surged with little signs of any policy bringing relief to embattled citizens. As of the beginning of this year, there has been a notable shift from Mexico. Extraditions of wanted drug lords are occurring at a greater pace than before. This included in February the extradition of Rubén Oseguera González, known as “Menchito”. He is the son of Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, 53, the fugitive leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
The war that never ends
With pressure from the U.S government, Mexico has begun to extradite not just in higher numbers but also high-profile individuals. The most notorious in recent years was that of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel. His eventual sentence and incarceration in the United States, was a rare relief in an often bleak and relentless war. However, the statistics highlight the scale of the Mexican drug war. Despite extraditions and presidential changes, death rates have soared.
The surge in violence is often traced back to the start of the Mexican drug war, under the then-president Felipe Calderon. Calderon’s tenure (2006-2012) marked a steep rise in homicide rates across Mexico. Whilst cartel confrontation had begun to bubble before Calderon’s drug war, the lid had truly been taken off once he had assumed power. The estimated number of drug related deaths in Mexico range from 50,000 – 120,000 over the six-year period.
Graph shows intentional homicide rates for Mexico, 1990 – 2017.
The sharp rise in homicide numbers from 2007-12 correlates with the start of the Mexican Drug War under president Felipe Calderon.
The successive years after Calderon’s tenure have not yielded any significant gains in reducing death rates. Under Enrique Pena Nieto’s presidency drug related homicide rates continued to rise, whilst the violent methods became ever more brutal. A report by the University of San Diego, saw record violence in 2018 with 28,816 homicide cases and 33,341 victims reported. Victims include family members, politicians and journalists. Journalists were three times more likely to be killed and politicians nine times more likely. The human effect on Mexico and its citizens has spread to almost every part of the country.
The key cartels
Though key players are now behind bars, or dead, there remains an ever-present willingness for new drug lords to emerge and cartels to form. Notorious cartels such as the Sinaloa still hold massive territory but new, and often more violent, groups are always emerging.
Map highlights some of the key cartels and territorial areas
The Sinaloa Cartel
Made famous by leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinaloa cartel controls vast territory in north-west Mexico. The Drugs Enforcement Agency has labelled the organisation as the biggest criminal threat to the United States. Led throughout the 90s and well into the 2000s by “El Chapo”, the Sinaloa cartel was feared across borders. Under his leadership, they became the premier supplier of illegal drugs into the U.S. Clashes with rival cartels were regular and marked by brutality. Guzman’s leadership saw the Sinaloa cartel form strategic alliances to keep rival groups at bay. Since Guzman’s imprisonment in the United States it is believed the group is now partly led by his son, Ovidio Guzman Lopez.
The group controlled vast territory in north-eastern Mexico and were, for a period, the kings of narcotics. Originally formed by corrupt ex-Mexican forces who split from the Gulf cartel, the group has lost leaders and territory over the years. Violence became a key feature of the group, often leaving decapitated bodies by roadsides or hanging heads from bridges. They became a key rival to the Sinaloa cartel which led to vicious battles, leaving scores dead.
The Gulf Cartel
One of Mexico’s older cartel groups . The group has amassed billions in the illegal drugs trade. Violence is also a key feature of the group, with it’s split from the Los Zetas faction creating a particular period of violent clashes. Due to the links to the Los Zetas, the group operates in the same region with a strong grip in the state of Tamaulipas.
The Jalisco New Generation (CJNG)
Formed around 2010, this group is regarded as the biggest rivals to the Sinaloa cartel. Money amassed from the illegal drugs trade is thought to amount up to $20bn. The group had been led by Ruben Oseguera, known as “El Mencho”. Rumors are that he had his own private hospital built as he did not want to venture away from the cartels territory. The group was responsible for a brazen plan to kill Mexico city’s chief of police. They operate in western Mexico and analysts consider the group to be the most aggressive currently operating.
Old lessons and new sacrifices
Mexico city, 2015 and archaeologists have discovered and excavated the remains of a skull rack. This skull rack was not from any cartel violence that had taken place over the decades. Instead, this was from the Aztec era. The rack was part of the human sacrifice practiced widely in Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico city). The rack was known as tzompantli and it became considered as mythical given the fact it had never been discovered. Some estimated that there were 130,000 skulls on the tzompantli. The practice of human sacrifice was eventually ended by the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, who tore down the tzompantli and destroyed Tenochtitlan before creating modern day Mexico city.
Today in the land of the Aztecs, the old deities have been replaced by drug lords. The new sacrificial victims are civilians, journalists, law enforcement and politicians. Images of bodies hanging from bridges, mutilated and decapitated are all too common. Then, there are the missing. Over 60,000 unaccounted for since the drug war began in 2006. For Mexicans the corruption in government has all too often held back any possibility of progress. The announcement by the government on the creation of an autonomous federal prosecutor and a national guard, is considered a step in the right direction. There is also the threat from president Trump to designate the cartels as terrorist organisations – and all the implications that would bring. Ultimately, the change must come from within.
The tzompantli findings are available for viewing at the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico city. The discovery and research have provided historians with greater understanding on the Aztec culture and how sacrifice was a key component of Aztec life. Unfortunately, for many Mexicans they need only to look at their recent history to know of the tremendous new sacrifices being caused at the hands of cartels.