Why does Mexico have the world’s ‘most violent’ cities?

Many blame AMLO for the ever-growing violence in Mexican cities, but the Mexican president did not create the current landscape of violence out of thin air.

A woman attends the wake of mayoral candidate Alma Barragan in Moroleon, Mexico on May 26, 2021. Barragan was killed May 25 while campaigning for the mayorship of the city of Moroleon, in Guanajuato state [AP/Armando Solis]

In 2020, according to a report by the Mexico City-based Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, seven out of the ten “most violent” cities in the world were located in Mexico.

The organisation ranks cities with populations of 300,000 or more – which are not in declared conflict zones – based on official tallies of intentional homicides.

The city of Celaya in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato came in first with 109.38 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Ciudad Obregón. Guanajuato’s Irapuato took fifth place, while Baja California’s Ensenada took sixth. Uruapan in the state of Michoacán came in eighth.

For the country as a whole, 2019 and 2020 were the most violent on record, with more than 34,000 intentional homicides each year. Many critics of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) have blamed his “hugs, not bullets” policy vis-à-vis the drug cartels for the bloody state of affairs.

But while AMLO is certainly deserving of more than a little criticism – particularly with regard to his appallingly dismissive attitude towards Mexico’s surge in femicides during the pandemic – he did not exactly create the current landscape of violence out of thin air.

For starters, although Mexico is of course not officially categorised as a global conflict zone, the country has had the grave misfortune to exist at the mercy of a United States-backed “war on drugs” since 2006, a full 12 years before AMLO assumed the presidency.

Since the start of militarised operations, some 300,000 people have been murdered, and more than 77,000 have disappeared.

In a hypocritical arrangement typical of Mexico’s nasty imperial neighbour, the US is itself responsible for not only the demand for drugs but also the criminalisation that makes their trafficking so lucrative and produces such violent competition in the first place – with poor civilians often caught in the crossfire.

And because the capitalist system thrives on the proliferation of strife in general and the marketing of superficial non-solutions to problems, the US response to the narco-showdown it created across its southern border has been to throw heaps of money at corrupt and violent Mexican security forces who are often in bed with – who else? – the cartels.

Furthermore, as a Washington Post article from 2020 notes, the “US-backed kingpin strategy” – whereby cartel leaders were killed or captured – merely caused criminal organisations to splinter and multiply rather than spontaneously cease to exist, as any remotely lucid person might have predicted.

Now, the array of armed groups continues to expand, and they have also diversified their activities to encompass everything from fuel theft and migrant trafficking to contraband cigarette sales and Fentanyl pill production. The drug war’s initial focus on large cities is another factor contributing to the groups’ diffusion throughout the country as they battle for trafficking routes and territory – and to the sudden emergence of little-known places like Celaya, Guanajuato, as global epicentres of violence.

Again, the Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice study lists only cities that do not fall within official war zones. But as luck would have it, plenty of equipment designed for use in war regularly inundates Mexican territory from – you guessed it – the US.

Another Washington Post article from last year observes that the .50-caliber sniper rifle that has been “used by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to strike targets from nearly two miles away” – and that is “sold casually” in the US, as weapons tend to be – is “increasingly being used to target and terrorise Mexicans”.

Over the past decade, the article says, approximately 2.5 million illicit US guns have reportedly flowed into Mexico, and the “percentage of homicides committed with firearms has risen” accordingly.

From wars on terror that largely consist of terrorising civilians, then, to wars on drugs that do the same, the imperial dots seem pretty well connected. And the arms industry presumably is not registering too many complaints.

Dawn Marie Paley, author of Drug War Capitalism, commented in an email to me that the “militarisation of Mexico over the course of the last 15 years under the discourse of the war on drugs has led to an increase in violence” – the same “pattern we’re seeing in countries throughout the hemisphere, many of which are experiencing violence more extreme than during the military juntas of the Cold War”.

Naturally, not all countries of the hemisphere have had the precise honour of being co-signatories to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which swiftly dispensed with millions of Mexican livelihoods on behalf of US agribusiness and other noble sectors  – while also causing many Mexicans to view their own integration into the drug trade as the only viable economic option.

But as Paley emphasised to me, hemispheric “violence on this scale cannot be properly understood as a consequence of criminal activity and state responses to it”. More accurately, she said, it must be understood as “neoliberal war, waged against poor and working-class people in the interest of maintaining an increasingly unequal social order”.

To be sure, unequal social orders are great in terms of generating the perpetual strife on which capitalism thrives. And the present violent Mexican panorama – in which cities like Celaya are transformed into veritable war zones – constitutes a link in a vicious but profitable cycle.

An ABC News article from May quotes penultimate US Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau on how Mexican president AMLO has “basically adopted an agenda of a pretty laissez-faire attitude towards” the drug cartels, which Landau claims “is pretty troubling to our government, obviously”.

But there are a lot more troubling things out there.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.