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August 22, 2022

Blockades and "Narcoterrorism"

Two weeks ago, residents of several Mexican cities experienced frightening waves of violence and intimidation. Over four days, criminal groups made public threats, burned stores and vehicles, blocked roads, and shot bystanders apparently at random. These events, while largely unconnected from each other, raised broader questions about the government’s strategy, the evolution of criminal practices, and whether the violence was a sign of things to come.

A rough timeline of events shows how these separate episodes combined to raise serious concerns about the future of security issues:

August 9

Burning vehicles block roads, and at least 25 convenience stores are torched in Jalisco and Guanajuato. Videos circulate on social media of heavily armed men burning down the stores. Without a clear reason for the violence, uncertainty and fear spreads as residents worry about what might come next.

August 10

During his morning press conference, President López Obrador asserts that the violence was in response to a military operation attempting to capture two high-ranking criminal leaders associated with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). The leaders were claimed to be meeting in the municipality of Ixtlahucán del Río, Jalisco.

August 11

Just after 1:00 PM violence breaks out at the state prison in Ciudad Juárez known as Cereso Número 3. The riot is allegedly due to a confrontation between “Los Chapos” and “Los Mexicles,” whose members are affiliated with different Sinaloa Cartel factions. While authorities restore order inside the prison after two people are killed, members of the Mexicles gang carry out what appear to be indiscriminate acts of violence among the population in the city, shooting at gas stations and stores and setting some on fire. Nine people, including a child, are killed during the rampage, and twelve more are injured.

August 12

Cars, taxis, and public city buses are torched across Baja California. Roadblocks disrupt traffic in Tijuana, Tecate, Mexicali, Ensenada, and Playas de Rosarito, occurring near tourist areas and border crossings. Videos circulate on social media and messaging apps in which individuals claiming to represent the local CJNG declare a curfew and threaten to citizens stay home or risked being attacked.

The violence prompts the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana to instruct US government employees to shelter in place.

That night, the mayor of Tijuana circulates her own video with the highly controversial request that criminal groups “only target those who have not paid their bills.”

August 15

Mexico´s interior secretary, Adán Agusto López, holds a special press conference reviewing the events where he remained adamant that the government´s security strategy is working.

SEDENA denies they carried out an operation in Jalisco based on intelligence regarding a meeting of criminal leaders. Rather, forces were simply responding to a report of armed individuals. Those arrested in the operation do not include criminal leaders.

To date, around 50 individuals have been arrested in connection with the violence.

Deciphering these events is difficult not because they represent something new, but because the magnitude of the chaos does not align with any established interpretations of criminal behavior. Three observations are crucial to a forward-looking analysis of the violence.

It wasn’t “narcoterrorism.” While the blockades and attacks on convenience stores certainly created an atmosphere of terror, discussion of the events using a “narcoterrorism” frame serve to distort more than clarify. The problem is both conceptual and empirical. First, adding the “narco” prefix does not justify emptying “terrorism” of meaning, and it is even unclear how connected to drug trafficking the violence was. In some cases, the events more resemble vandalism or riots, akin to those that have occurred in many other places. Second, previous episodes of widespread blockades using burning vehicles occurred in response to specific events (typically the capture of a leader, or an attempt to disrupt a security operation). If the torched stores and vehicles two weeks ago were less strategic, neither were they a new technique to inflict harm on a “civilian” population. Furthermore, at this point there is no evidence that the chaos was an attempt to negotiate a political objective: the events were disconnected and driven by local dynamics.

That said, both the violence and the terror inflicted on residents of Ciudad Juárez was extreme, and the loss of life was tragic. Whether or not there was a rational motive, these events have a serious and long-lasting psychological impact on the population. In each city the chaos was magnified as videos and messages circulated on social media and became part of the larger archive of trauma. In this sense, the scars will remain long after bullet holes are patched and storefronts repainted.

It was a security failure, but not a Waterloo. Major episodes of violence are often (over)interpreted as evidence that the López Obrador administration’s security strategy is failing. In this case, the deployment of hundreds of soldiers to Tijuana over the past several months did not prevent chaos and fear, and SEDENA’s lack of operational intelligence in Jalisco appears to have contributed to rather senseless violence. The frustration is justified: what is the purpose of military convoys patrolling the streets if not to prevent such events? Yet the bad optics of highly public violence and vandalism make it harder to address structural problems with security policies. For example, even though by its own metrics the administration’s signature security project—the National Guard—is ineffective in detaining criminals, the violence has led to new deployments of military forces. It is those political choices that turn events like these into security defeats.

It's not necessarily a harbinger of the future. This type of violence is not new and hardly costless.  Neither the groups nor the practices involved in the events of August 9 to 12 were new. CJNG blockades using burning vehicles are an established pattern (in Aguillia, Michoacán for example), and the Mexicles have long been known for rather indiscriminate violence. There is thus little reason to see a change in the underlying dynamics of criminal behavior here. Violence is rarely without purpose, and for groups that rely on extortion and petty crime for survival, creating widespread fear that disrupts business—particularly along the border—is not only unwise, it is self-destructive. Indeed, as groups have fragmented and become more reliant on predatory practices, the incentives to turn cities into war zones may have lessened. In some cities where episodes of chaotic public violence have affected civilians, criminal groups have seemed acutely aware of the reputational damage, and took steps to apologize and reassure the population that the events were isolated incidents (see Culiacán, Sinaloa, for example). This suggest that for groups that aspire to long-term survival in urban strongholds, there is a strong disincentive to frequent repetition of this sort of violence going forward.

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