The discovery of 18 dead bodies in the Mexican state of Zacatecas indicates the ongoing war between different drug cartels and with the government continues to worsen, more than 15 years after it began.
Then-president Felipe Calderon began the war by deploying more than 6,500 Mexican soldiers to the state of Michoacán to battle drug traffickers in 2006, but while the government sought to take down cartels, the groups themselves were fighting for control of territory.
Drug cartels in Mexico are the leading suppliers of illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine into the US, and the violence fuelled by the drug trade contributes to tens of thousands of homicides every year.
The violence appears evident in the discovery of the bodies in Greater Zacatecas, northwest of Mexico City, on Saturday, February 5. Ten of the bodies were found lying on the streets of Fresnillo after having been wrapped in blankets, put in black plastic bags, and thrown from trucks, according to OCCRP, while another six were found hanging from the doors and windows of a warehouse in Pánfilo Natera.
A further two bodies were found on the outskirts of the warehouse. In a statement about the deaths, prosecutor Francisco José Murillo Ruiseco said the ages of the victims ranged from 15 to 57.
David Monreal Ávila, the governor of Zacatecas, said officials believed the victims to be ‘members of rival criminal groups’ at first glance, though stressed that further investigations were needed to ‘make a conclusion’. Following Ávila’s comments, Ruiseco said authorities had identified 15 of the 18 victims and that only five of the 15 have been previously charged with crimes in Mexico.
Though it remains unclear whether the victims were members of cartels, a recent spike in violence in Zacatecas has reportedly been attributed to a battle between the Sinaloa and the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartels over drug trafficking routes in the countryside.
These cartels are two of the country’s most influential, with the Sinaloa cartel having been founded by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was convicted in a US court in February 2019. According to CNN, the Jalisco Nueva Generación split from the Sinaloa cartel in 2010 and has been described by the US Drug Enforcement Administration as ‘one of the most powerful and fastest-growing in Mexico and the United States’.
OCCRP reports that three of the 50 most violent municipalities in the country in 2020 were found to be in Zacatecas, while Fresnillo was perceived last year to be Mexico’s most insecure city.
Officials are said to have detained two people for their alleged involvement in the 18 deaths.
If the victims are found not to have been part of criminal groups, it would not be the first time innocent people lost their lives as a result of the war. In 2008, eight people died after grenades were thrown into a crowd celebrating independence day in Morelia, while just two years later the bodies of 72 migrants from South and Central America were discovered on a ranch in Tamaulipas state. CNN reports that it is believed the 72 victims were kidnapped by the Los Zetas cartel and killed for refusing to traffic drugs.
Authorities have arrested a number of significant players in the drug war over the years, including Cardenas Guillen, head of the Gulf Cartel; American citizen Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as ‘La Barbie’, who was charged with trafficking thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the US; and Hector Beltran Leyva, head of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel.
However, the success has not come without casualties, and last year it was reported that Mexico had seen more than three hundred thousand homicides since the government declared war on the cartels.