Mexican cartel wars winding down?

Mexican authorities on Oct. 1 claimed another coup against the cartels, announcing the arrest of Héctor Beltran Leyva, last remaining kingpin of the Beltran Leyva Organization—the declining crime machine that once controlled much of the west and central parts of the country. Beltran Leyva was taken into custody by army troops "without a shot fired" as he dined in a seafood restaurant in the tourist town of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato state. (LAT, Oct. 1) The capture follows that earlier this year of the Sinaloa Cartel's long-fugitive jefe máximo Joaquin Guzmán Loera AKA "El Chapo"—marking another score for President Enrique Peña Nieto, and his supposed new and more sophisticated policy against the cartels.

The government has other reasons to claim a measure of success. Mexico's murder rate tripled between 2007 and 2012, a period that saw 121,613 murders by official statistics. This period also coincided with President Felipe Calderón's term of office—and aggressive use of the military against the cartels. Since Peña Nieto took office in 2012, the murder rate has steadily declined, dropping below 2010 levels last year. The frequency of the cruel "narco-messages"—taunting or threatening notes left with mutilated corpses—has drastically decreased as well, falling from an average of 52 instances a month to just eight. (DW, Sept. 7) The number of deaths attributable to drug violence over the past years has been estimated as high as 80,000.

But the news isn't so good where human rights are concerned. The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Christof Heyns on Sept. 30 urged Mexico to conduct full and impartial investigations into the killing of 22 civilians in a military operation against supposed criminal elements June 30 at the pueblo of Cuadrilla Nueva, Tlataya municipality, in México state. Eight soldiers have been arrested in the affair, one survivor has provided testimony and two other survivors are detained (Jurist, Sept. 30)

The blow against the Beltran Leyvas came just two days after unidentified gunmen shot dead Braulio Zaragoza, secretary general of the opposition National Action Party (PAN) as he was having breakfast at the posh Hotel El Mirador in Acapulco, where he was due to meet with party colleagues. (Eurasia Review, Sept. 29) Two days before that elsewhere in Gerrero state, gunmen shot up the bus of a local soccer team on the highway near Iguala, leaving three players dead. (AFP, Sept. 27) Meanwhile in Chihuahua state, a shoot-out between gunmen of the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels left 11 dead in the mountain pueblo of Tónachi, in the mostly indigenous Tarahumara municipality of Guachochi. The combatants used grenades as well as assualt rifles. (Excelsior, Sept. 18)

The past years have seen a big drop of violence in Ciudad Juárez—a "peace of the graveyard," as the Sinaloa Cartel has finally acheived hegemony over the former seat of its rival. But simultaneously, the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas has exploded into a real war between the Gulf Cartel and its paramilitary offshoot, Los Zetas—not even reported on, as the press are too intimidated to even cover the ongoing bloodshed.

Under Calderón of the PAN, the going conspiracy theory had the government in bed with the seemingly untouchable Sinaloa Cartel. Peña Nieto's election returned the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power—the old political machine from the days of the one-party state. This has led to speculation that Peña Nieto is trying to rebuild the "Pax Mafiosa" that prevailed during the PRI's long rule. But the Sinaloa Cartel was seemingly excluded from the summit meeting of cartel "capos" reportedly held in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, in June. Mexico's political battles seem to be playing themselves out in the cartel wars as well. Are the rival cartels consolidating a united front against the Sinaloa machine—and will an offensive now under preparation unleash greater violence once again?

Cross-post to High Times and Global Ganja Report.