Alma Barragan was a 61-year-old mayoral candidate in the small central Mexican town of Moroleon. On May 25, twelve days before the June 6 election, she stood at a campaign event, microphone in hand, speaking of a time in the idyllic past when the people of Moroleon could safely walk its streets. She urged an end to the corruption endemic to every level of Mexican politics. A moment later, an assassin’s bullet took her life.
Barragan became the 35th political candidate to be killed in Mexico’s most bloody election cycle on record. Nearly 100 political operatives were murdered. Dozens of other candidates dropped out of races due to threats of violence. In total, the risk-analysis firm Etellekt recorded 782 acts of aggression against candidates and politicians in the nine months leading up to the elections.
Moroleon sits in the state of Guanajuato, adjacent to Michoacan. According to a 2020 report by Mexico-based Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, among world cities with populations exceeding 300,000, seven of the 10 with the highest homicide rates were in Mexico. Three of the 10 were in either Michoacan or Guanajuato.
Why Guanajuato and Michoacan? And why the other ranked Mexican cities — Tijuana, Ensenada, Juarez, and Obregon?
The pre-election scourge in Mexico, like the rapid disintegration of its security apparatus generally, can be understood in the context of the plaza system that has long defined its organized-crime landscape. The complex Mexican transnational criminal organizations that today traffic in everything from deadly opioids to advanced weaponry and Central American migrants arose from an earlier generation of farmers in the mountainous Golden Triangle region. The farmers had found a customer base for marijuana and opium in the United States and, in coordination with associates in towns, or plazas, along transportation routes, developed reliable methods for crossing illegal drugs into the United States.
The success of these Mexican drug traffickers attracted the attention of their counterparts to the south. In the 1980s, the first generation of South American cocaine producers had a distribution problem. The demand for their cocaine was skyrocketing throughout the United States, but the Drug Enforcement Administration’s counter-drug efforts were disrupting Caribbean-based cocaine supply lines.
To solve their distribution problem, Colombian cocaine traffickers negotiated with Mexican drug transporters for the use of their routes in moving cocaine to the U.S. Mexican drug traffickers realized that coordination among their geographically dispersed transportation organizations — the cartelization of drug trafficking — would shift market power from the Colombians to the Mexicans. The Colombians controlled the production of the commodity, but the Mexicans controlled its distribution channels. Well before there was Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, there was the first generation of Mexican drug lords. They transported and distributed anything and everything profitable, and illegal drugs have long held the largest profit margins.
The state of Guanajuato sits along one of those transportation routes. Mexico’s two largest criminal organizations, the Sinaloa Federation and the New Generation Cartel of Jalisco, commonly known as CJNG, are at war with each other for control of Guanajuato. High-ranking operatives of the Central American gang MS-13 have likewise settled in the state, strategically positioning themselves to coordinate human-smuggling operations across Mexico. Guanajuato is controlled entirely by organized crime, and it is not the only such state in Mexico. Estimates of the percentage of Mexican territory controlled by criminal organizations range from 20 percent to 80 percent.
Such is the prism through which the U.S. immigration crisis of 2021 should be viewed. The cartelized Mexican transportation organizations of the 1980s became known as the “Mexican trampoline,” bouncing the multi-billion-dollar cocaine industry from South America to the United States. With the recent waves of northbound Central American migrants, the same organizations have become the Mexican bridge. As with cocaine, Mexico’s vast, complex transnational criminal organizations are not involved in the supply of migrants headed north, just in transporting them. Instead, smaller, less-organized human-trafficking and -smuggling organizations and gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street are largely responsible for organizing caravans and motivating migration.
But the Mexican organizations controlling plazas along the trafficking routes have again asserted their control over distribution lines, while their product is tragically dehumanized and treated as chattel. An estimated 80 percent of women and girls who come from the Northern Triangle, escaping rampant crime and extreme poverty in the hope for a new life in America, are raped along the way.
The United States should resist categorization of Central American migrants as its adversaries. Migrants today collectively are no more an existential threat to the United States than our nation’s European forebears were in previous centuries.
The U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence apparatus should instead increase vigilance in detecting and combating transnational gangs, criminal organizations, and terrorist groups intending to use the fog of an immigration crisis to inflict harm on American citizens. Such organizations are the true enemies at the border, as are hostile foreign states that use criminal organizations to threaten the lives and livelihoods of American citizens. China, for example, under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, has been an almost exclusive supplier to Mexican criminal organizations of pseudoephedrine (the primary ingredient in methamphetamine synthesis) and fentanyl over the last 20 years. A decade ago, Mexican criminal organizations began using fentanyl rather than opium as the base opiate in heroin production. Since then, fentanyl has been at the center of America’s opioid crisis, transported across the southern border in the form of everything from heroin to counterfeit oxycodone pills.
U.S. immigration policy is focused, from the left, on the “root causes” of immigration from the Northern Triangle, and from the right, on Biden-administration policies that encourage would-be migrants to make the dangerous journey north. Both approaches, while carrying some merit, miss a more significant existential threat. The Mexican government is the most corrupt in the Western Hemisphere, and its criminal organizations provide hostile foreign states such as China the ready access to the United States that the same organizations provided the Colombian drug cartels.
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, after the assassinations of dozens of political candidates such as Alma Barragan, declared “peace and tranquility” throughout his country on the eve of the June 6 elections. The people of Mexico responded to that lie by depriving his party of its supermajority in Mexico’s legislative lower house.
It is time for the United States to take a similar step. The U.S. diplomatic approach to Mexico over the last 30 years, through administrations affiliated with both parties, has been largely transactional and has overlooked Mexico’s systemic corruption, lack of transparency, and perpetual, and perhaps intentional, ineffectiveness in policing its borders to the north and south.
The best thing that the U.S. government can do for citizens of both countries is to expect from the Mexican government what it expects from any other government seeking a bilateral relationship. It is time for the U.S. to demand that Mexico regain control of its own territory from criminal organizations, cut the supply lines of fentanyl and pseudoephedrine from China, and engage in the same bilateral cooperation with U.S. law enforcement that would be expected of any other ally.
If Mexico does not, then it is time to end the charade that Mexico is an ally.