How have crime and violence evolved in Veracruz? Why has the state become a reference point for disappearances? Have conditions improved since the governorship of Javier Duarte? As part of our ongoing interview series, the Mexico Violence Resource Project spoke with Xalapa-based journalist Miguel León.
In telling the story of Veracruz, León traces a long history of violence, describing a shift from criminal activity dominated by local political bosses to a situation where small gangs operate as franchises of larger organizations and exercise significant control over local politics.
"Organized crime has been present in Veracruz for at least 40 years. Starting in the 1980s, the highland regions were used for cultivating marijuana, while the highway network and ports facilitated the transportation of chemical precursors for narcotics, as well as human trafficking and oil theft. In the past, when we talked about organized crime, it meant crime in the service of local bosses (caciques)—typically union leaders, politicians, etc—but since 2000, illicit activity and crime began to increase exponentially, and this was linked to the prevailing impunity. People realized that crimes were not investigated, and violence became a tool for holding on to power and extending that power across ever more extensive regions.
Currently, the ports of Veracruz and Coatzacoalcos, and the regions around Córdoba and the Sierra Totonaca are the nerve centers for organized crime, but the control is by regional groups. The south of the state—the most important plaza—is still under the control of the Zetas. But really, we can say that there are not ’cartels’ as such. Rather, it is a cocktail of groups, with leaders who do not have fixed or clear affiliations—they are just franchises.
These days, everything depends on narcotrafficking: all the elected positions, political power; and everything needs to be negotiated—all the decisions, policies, it’s all negotiated. So yes, without a doubt we can talk about narcopolitics.
In tracing these changes, León points to important shifts that occurred between the governorships of Fidel Herrera (2004-2010) and Javier Duarte (2010-2016). He observes that it was in September, 2011 when the drug war really began in Veracruz, when 35 tortured bodies were dumped in Boca del Rio. Over the following years, disappearances, murders, and assassinations of journalists reached crisis levels. Yet since the end of Duarte’s disastrous government, neither the security strategy, nor the human rights situation has changed.
"Since Duarte, in reality there have been very few positive changes. According to the official data from the SESNSP, there has been a decrease in the number of minor crimes, such as robberies. But on the other hand, high impact crimes (murders, kidnappings, extorsion) have all increased. It is worth noting that the effort to combat oil theft and migrant smuggling has only caused more violence. Organized criminal groups have shifted to other crimes in order to maintain their structures and revenues.
On the other hand, officials have generally given the sense that they are combatting the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), the group considered to be the most powerful during the government of Enrique Peña Nieto. But the “blows” that have been struck against that group have only occurred in specific regions. It’s important to note that the CJNG has franchises in the majority of Veracruz, that they rent to regional criminals; some of which include deserters from groups opposed to the CJNG, such as the Zetas. And it is precisely some of those franchises that have been targeted. Exactly the opposite has happened in the port of Veracruz, which is where the real leaders of the CJNG in the state are assumed to be operating. In that municipality—the most economically important in the state—there have been very few arrests or seizures.
The worrisome thing is that the police seem to be reverting to the same practices as before: there are widespread disappearances and other abuses. They’ve made an effort not to harm journalists directly [a recurrent problem under Duarte] but there are abuses. What causes the most fear is that abuses are being covered up—there is a policy of denying what is happening—for example there have been extrajudicial executions that are passed off as shootouts between criminals and the police.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this ossified security strategy is that the state’s history of disappearances—it has been described as ‘one giant clandestine grave’—is closely tied to the participation of state and local police in the practice. For León, it is the visibility of state complicity in disappearances as much as their prevalence that helps explain why Veracruz is such a shameful reference point.
"I think what became clear in Veracruz—due to the arrests of former police officials—is that there was a brutal complicity between criminal groups and top-level authorities. This was not just the state government but also previous federal administrations. The National Human Rights Commission has issued recommendations that document the criminal collusion of those tasked with security in the state (ranging from municipal police to even the Marines). Those security forces committed systematic disappearances, sometimes called “social cleansing” [limpias], during which many people—principally youth—who were presumed to belong to criminal groups were killed or disappeared. Those practices were not, apparently, part of a strategy to reduce crime, but rather simply a tactic to finish off rival groups under the cover of official activity.
The involvement of police leadership was proven through photos and videos that were published in national and international media. One emblematic case—that was perhaps the Pandora’s Box for disappearances in Veracruz—was the enforced disappearance of five young people from Playa Vicente. The moment those five were detained by a group of State Police was captured on video. The case led to the arrest of 21 people, seven of whom were police, including the regional commander, Marcos Conde Hernández, as well as eight civilians who claimed to be members of the CJNG.
The epidemic of violence and disappearances in Veracruz gave rise to a robust civil society movement as well, fueled also by the evident corruption and abuse of the Duarte years. For León, these activists succeeded in changing the narrative surrounding victims and creating a degree of empathy. It was not, he says, so much that victims were automatically assumed to be victims—since crime had begun to touch people of all social classes—but that this empathy helped create a stronger civic movement. And as a journalist, he notes that it became possible to describe victims more honestly.
"Before, for the families of victims, a good news story was one that said ‘he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, etc…’ but those descriptions only eroded trust, because they weren’t accurate. People didn’t believe the stories, and it was damaging. It is essential to describe victims the way they were, because if you drank, or if you smoked a joint, that doesn’t mean you should be killed or disappear. Now the families are more trusting of journalists, and that is in part thanks to the relationship we have with activists.
But León notes that not every journalist is able to tell these stories, and that indeed one of the greatest myths of Veracruz is about the risks journalists face there, and where the zones of silence are.
"What is clear is that high levels of violence occur not just in the major cities, such as in the capital (Xalapa). The fact that many abuses are documented there, by journalists or activists, doesn’t mean that it is where the most problems occur. For example, I think it is far from accurate to say that Xalapa is the most dangerous place to be a journalist, the way that some international organizations have. While it is true that there are risks for journalists in Xalapa, they don’t compare with what happens elsewhere, where—as happens with disappearances—colleagues cannot even talk about the threats they face.
Miguel León is a journalist based in Xalapa, Veracruz. His work is regularly published by E-Consulta Veracruz and LSR Veracruz.