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The most wanted men in Mexico are tumbling. Will crime follow suit?IN MARCH 2009 the Mexican government published a list of 37 men believed to be running drug gangs. The alleged bandits were named and rewards of up to 30m pesos ($2m) each were offered for their capture. The government’s normally stodgy official gazette listed the villains by their nicknames: Monkey, Beardy, Taliban and so on. It was a risky decision: the list could have become an embarrassment if its members had remained free.
But most have not. Three and a half years on, security forces have arrested 16 of them and killed seven. Two more have been murdered by rivals. That leaves just 12 at large–though among them is the leader of the Sinaloa “cartel”, Joaquín Guzmán (known as El Chapo or “Shorty”), who is the most wanted of all.
On October 7th the marines killed the latest target, Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano, who was allegedly head of the Zetas, one of Mexico’s two most powerful mobs. In an embarrassing twist, government officials thought they had merely dispatched a common criminal until a group of gunmen–presumably fellow Zetas–entered the funeral home where the body was kept and drove off with it in a hearse. Conspiracy theorists now wonder if Mr Lazcano faked his own death and is living out his days under a parasol in Cancún. Fingerprints and photos of the corpse suggest otherwise.
Snatched bodies aside, the downing of so many drug lords is a success for Felipe Calderón, whose presidency will end on December 1st. The Gulf “cartel”, one of the region’s oldest and most powerful mafias, has been virtually wiped out. (Its boss, Jorge Costilla, was arrested last month.) The Beltrán Leyva organisation, once so formidable that it infiltrated the attorney-general’s office, is all but gone. The Zetas have been hurt by a series of arrests this year. Even Sinaloa, the strongest and canniest group, has lost important members.
What is it good for?
Despite it all, the murder rate is nearly twice as high as it was when Mr Calderón took office six years ago. In some cases the capture of kingpins has led to feuds among their deputies, fuelling the violence. Mr Calderón admits that the fall of Mr Lazcano might not immediately calm things down, though he says he expects a “period of stabilisation” to follow a “readjustment of the criminal organisations”.
But when? It is nearly three years since the killing of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, and his old fiefs of Guerrero and Morelos now see 60% and 180% more murders than they did when he was alive. “It is precisely because there has not been an authority to replace that hegemony,” Mr Calderón says. “If a cartel is weakened and made vulnerable, as the Beltrán Leyvas were, but there is no authority to assume the roles of leadership and enforcement, clearly that prolongs the situation.” The blame, he implies, lies with state and local governments. “I would like nothing more than to be mayor of Acapulco [in Guerrero] as well…but the truth is that there is a local government and there is a governor of Guerrero, who between them have 5,000 police, and the desirable thing is that those police work. And while that doesn’t happen, well, evidently a process of instability will continue.”
A national vetting scheme has weeded out some of the worst police. But so far 10 of the 31 states (including Guerrero) have not evaluated even half their forces. The federal police, by no means completely clean, enjoy greater public confidence: 55% think they do a decent job, versus 42% for state police and 36% for local police. Enrique Peña Nieto, the president-elect, has promised to swell the federal police’s ranks by drafting in 40,000 soldiers.
Some individual captures do seem to have helped. José Antonio Acosta, who has admitted to planning hundreds of killings for the Juárez gang in Chihuahua, was arrested in 2011. So far this year murders in the state have fallen by about a third. The removal of bloodthirsty lieutenants such as Mr Acosta may be less destabilising than the falls of capos. “If you’re taking out the middle layer, the risk of succession fights might be diminished,” says Alejandro Hope of IMCO, a think-tank. The recent captures of various mid-ranking Zetas, such as “El Lucky” and “the Squirrel”, might limit the infighting following the death of their leader.
Mexico’s national murder rate has fallen by 8% this year, the first decline since drug-related violence took off in 2008. Mr Peña, who vowed to lead a “government that keeps its promises” during his campaign, says he aims to reduce it by half during his six-year tenure. (He will take last year’s rate as the base, giving him a small head start.) That is an ambitious goal. But as the dwindling most-wanted list shows, unlikely targets can sometimes be hit.
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