Decades ago, while training for U.S. Peace Corps service in El Salvador, I traveled into the rain forest of the state of Veracruz to the tiny village of Zongolica. Most of the men and all of the women and children spoke only Nahuatl, survived on subsistence farming and faithfully maintained their culture despite four centuries of Spanish influence. There was little crime, much less violence, in the state — and a strong sense of community, particularly in Zongolica, where adobe bricks were made cooperatively for each other’s homes.
Today, Veracruz is a battleground where five major cartels and multiple smaller criminal gangs kill for control over lucrative cocaine drug routes, oil pipelines and human trafficking networks — with the Zetas and the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación emerging as the most dangerous and successful organizations. The state apparatus, far from preserving law and order, has been warped to protect criminal interests. Veracruz state, rich in natural resources, could be an economic powerhouse but is instead near bankruptcy. In 2016, homicides here increased by 123 percent — the second highest in the country.
President Donald Trump reportedly proposed sending over the U.S. military to take care of “bad hombres” south of the border, according to a leaked excerpt of his recent telephone conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Trump’s unilateral offer — coming alongside demands that Mexico pay for a border wall to stop illegal migration, a wave of deportations, and a threat to terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement—has revived memories of U.S. gunboat diplomacy and prompted “Gringo go home” sentiments south of the border. In any case, most knowledgeable observers agree that a military response to the cartels will backfire.
There is a better way to help fix rampant crime and terror in Mexico, starting with Veracruz. The state’s new governor, Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares, has promised to clean house and prosecute those responsible for criminal atrocities. He will need serious national and international support to deliver.
Yunes’ election in 2016 marked the end of 80 years of state rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). His predecessor, Javier Duarte Ochoa, fled amid charges against his administration of embezzling around $650 million and of having links to the cartels. Yunes, of the National Action Party (PAN), may have the political will to root out crime and corruption, but he has few state or federal resources to address the crisis.
Since the transition, more than 100 mass graves have been discovered in one site alone, and human rights groups and the new Veracruz Truth Commission allege state complicity in the disappearances of 5,000 individuals, many times the official government count. A new report by International Crisis Group, based on interviews with families of the victims and human rights groups, estimated that the total number of disappearances could be as high as 20,000.
Veracruz reflects the nationwide epidemic of violence and corruption weighing down Peña Nieto’s administration.
The country’s much-heralded transition to a more open democracy at the end of the 1990’s was undermined by the establishment of drug trafficking routes from the Andes converging in Mexico as the last stop before the U.S. market. Mexico’s civilian police were no match for the firepower of the cartels, who were happy to pay whatever it cost to smuggle weapons from the United States.
The country’s “war on drugs” has resulted in an explosion of violence, as the cartels fought back against Mexican authorities and against each other, at times with the complicity of rogue security forces. There have been at least 65,000 victims since 2006, with no end in sight.
The United States should recognize that its own economic and security interests would be well served by cooperation, not confrontation, with Mexico to tackle organized crime and corruption.
A more effective response in Veracruz, and the rest of Mexico, depends on providing carefully vetted federal technical support and redirecting U.S. counter-drug aid to strengthen local law enforcement, the state attorney’s office, and civil society organizations like the Truth Commission. They can start by investigating the thousands of disappearances and bringing those responsible to justice.
Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, the conflict prevention organization, and former director of the U.S. Peace Corps.