The Tiny But Deadly Epicenter of Mexico's New Wave of Violence

The Tiny But Deadly Epicenter of Mexico's New Wave of Violence

Investigators mark the spot where spent bullet casings fell next to several bodies lying on a road in the town of Navolato, Sinaloa state, Mexico.

SourceComposite, Sean Culligan/OZY; Image, Getty

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It wasn’t an atypical series of events in Colima.

June 5, 2018 — another warm, summery day in that tiny Mexican state on the Pacific Coast.

First, the discovery that morning, on an unpaved street in the town of Coalatilla, of a male body hogtied with a chain, a single bullet hole in the back of the victim’s head, coup de grace–style. A few hours later, a group of armed men stormed a nearby restaurant, shooting a lone diner, leaving his lifeless body bleeding on the floor.

Two or three miles away, in Tecomán, Agustín Navas Cisneros, a former commissioner in the nearby town of Caleras, was found murdered, again execution-style, in front of a bathhouse. Early the next morning, June 6, two headless male bodies showed up on a street corner in neighboring Madrid.

At last, a final dissonant chord to this particular spate of violence: An armed group entered a recycling center in the port city of Manzanillo, 30 miles to the west of Tecomán, and mowed down three men.

The 24-hour tally: eight dead men.

[The current streak] will peak eventually, but we don’t know when.

Eric Olson, Wilson Center

Colima, barely the size of Delaware and once one of the quieter corners in the U.S.’ big, brawling southern neighbor, has become a deadly epicenter of violence in recent years. Driven by gang rivalries, much of the nation is right now in the midst of a paroxysm of murders, with record-breaking numbers being committed in 2016 and 2017, and with 2018 on a course to set yet again another record. Between January and September, there were more than 25,000 murders in Mexico, which, at that rate, should amount to almost 34,000 by the end of the year. Perspective: The recent murder rate in the U.S., with two and a half times the population, has been about half that.

But it is Colima, Mexico’s least populous state with about 700,000 residents, that has leaped out as the worst affected. In 2016, it produced the highest murder rate in the country (84.4 per 100,000 residents). In 2017, the state, once one of the safest, again led all of Mexico’s 31 states plus the Federal District with almost 100 murders per 100,000. And it appears to be continuing its homicide dominance this year, with top-of-the-list 58.8 murders for each of its 100,000 in the first nine months of the year, outpacing even border states like Baja California and Chihuahua, with their grim murder factories in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.

Which is to say, bodies are hitting the ground here like bowling pins. While all murders in Mexico are not cartel-related, as many as half of them bear the hallmarks — headless bodies, execution-style victims, commando-style attacks in public places — of deadly gang rivalries, authorities say. The level of homicidal violence in Mexico, whether it applies to one of the big cities where the drug cartels take root or to the nation as a whole, tends to spiral out of control for years at a time before it suddenly eases off, longtime observers say. So for many Mexicans, waiting for the violence to die down is like watching helplessly as a very sick patient battles a high fever.

The current streak “will peak eventually, but we don’t know when,” says Eric Olson, head of the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program in Washington, D.C., and an expert on Latin American organized crime. “Maybe it will peak in 2019.”

I first went to Colima as a boy more than 60 years ago. Friends of my parents had discovered a small, idyllic beachside hotel just outside of Manzanillo. The water lapped against the shore there, though across the bay — Santiago Bay — there was a beach where perfect, glassy, 6-foot waves rolled in. The hotel was a one-story wooden building with a long terrace, where we could hear the splash of leaping fish in the evening.

The bad luck for law-abiding citizens of Colima, however, was suddenly finding the main highway on the methamphetamine trade route plowing right through their state. The drug cartels established Manzanillo, a busy commercial port handling 2.5 million containers a year, and the smaller Lázaro Cárdenas port to the south as the prime destinations for the meth precursor chemicals shipped mostly from China.

From these two ports, the chemicals — benzyl chloride, ephedrine, hydriodic acid, methylamine and more — get shipped up Highway 54 to Guadalajara and its environs, where a network of meth labs convert them to supply a burgeoning demand from Texas to California. At the same time, two major cartels, the Sinaloa cartel and the New Generation, are vying for huge profits from the meth trade. With Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán out of the picture now, there are contending groups angling for control of the Sinaloa cartel. The Jalisco New Generation cartel has tried to fill the vacuum, but the Sinaloa cartel is believed to be working to splinter its new rival. The result? More violence all around.

The so-called “kingpin” strategy — employed since 2015 — with law enforcement focusing on arresting top leadership in the cartels, may disrupt supply lines for a while, says David Shirk, a University of San Diego professor and director of the Justice in Mexico Project. But it increases the level of violence. “It leads to greater internal infighting,” he says. “There are these new rivals saying, ‘I want to be the new Chapo.’”

And the soldiers in the war for drug profits come from the deep ranks of Mexico’s unemployed. Their weapon of choice is the assault weapon, secreted across the U.S. border in small caches – its “trafico de hormigas,” ant traffic, says Shirk, from gun shows in McAllen and Laredo to gang central in Guadalajara — with a pistol for those back-of-the-head executions and a razor-sharp machete for efficient dismemberment.

Murders may be fueled by the cartels’ own product line of psychotropics, but cartel-related violence is neither senseless nor gratuitous. “There’s always an instrumental purpose,” Shirk says. “In the most heinous cases, you’re communicating a lesson on how horrible you are and people shouldn’t mess with you.”

Precision in targeting may be the cartels’ saving grace. Murders may be committed nearby, but here’s some dark, cold comfort for the easily perturbed traveler: The violence seldom affects innocent bystanders like tourists. “Criminal groups respect the protected areas,” Olson says.

But the last time I went back to Colima, the wooden hotel had been replaced by a pink, hivelike monstrosity. A natural island of stones and coral within swimming distance of the beach had been flattened and paved, with a concrete causeway now running to the shore. I didn’t see many fish leaping in the water.

Maybe I’ll go back again someday. After the fever breaks.

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