The strategic use of violence by criminal organizations is becoming a concerning new trend in Mexico. In August 2022, the country witnessed one of its most violent weeks in recent history.

The criminal landscape in Mexico has changed over the last two decades. Whereas, in the past, a handful of cartels dominated drug-trafficking operations, the current criminal environment is much more fragmented, and overtly violent. In the early 2010, as large cartels fragmented into numerous smaller ones, new criminal organizations operating in the country were spawned. These groups exert their territorial control by unleashing recurrent, strategically coordinated attacks on ordinary members of the public.

A string of violent incidents between 9 and 14 August underscored how much power these groups have amassed. In one chaotic week, over a dozen civilians were murdered as a result of violent turf wars between factions of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) ­– one of the drug gangs emerging in the early 2010s. The group set fire to dozens of vehicles, shops, petrol stations and pharmacies across the country. This was not the first time criminal groups had launched attacks on innocent members of the public.

In June 2021, armed men pertaining to one of the factions of the Cartel del Golfo murdered over a dozen people in Tamaulipas. In October 2019, after setting fire to a number of vehicles in Sinaloa and launching a spree of coordinated attacks on civilians and military personnel, resulting in eight deaths, the Sinaloa Cartel forced the authorities to release one of their detained leaders, Ovidio Guzmán, and held the entire city captive for over 12 hours. Earlier, in May 2018, after a failed assassination attempt on the former state attorney of Jalisco, Luis Carlos Nájera, by the CJNG, the group set a number of buses on fire, resulting in multiple injuries and the death of a woman and her child.

Instrumentalizing fear

These coordinated attacks show how criminal organizations in Mexico have been leveraging calculated violence to retaliate against law enforcement institutions, demonstrate their strength to rival factions and spread terror among the population so that their demands will be met. From these incidents, organized crime networks appear to be deploying violence as a strategic tool of criminal governance. The August 2022 attacks in cities across Jalisco, Guanajuato, Chihuahua, Baja California and Michoacán – perpetrated by the CJNG and Sinaloa Cartel-affiliated groups – is a case in point. In particular, the CJNG and its allies have become efficient in strategically using violence against ordinary members of the public as a way of challenging law enforcement and advancing their interests.

This reign of terror not only affects the individual victims, but also weakens the economy, shatters the social fabric of affected communities and further undermines the already shaky rule of law in Mexico. As a result of the August attacks, curfews were imposed in Ciudad Juárez, public transport was temporarily cancelled, businesses closed and citizens were forced to hide in their homes. US consulates in Guadalajara and Tijuana released emergency statements warning US citizens to take extreme precautions and avoid conflict areas.

The country’s authorities have failed to develop responses to counter and contain these kinds of attacks, or to create a compelling strategy to address the situation. In a highly controversial response to the August attacks, the mayor of Tijuana said she would not allow ‘a single Tijuana citizen to pay the consequences of those who did not pay their bills’ – the inference being that she was placing the blame for these attacks on citizens who failed to meet extortion demands. Only after the attacks occurred did the authorities boost the presence of law enforcement agents and arrest some of the perpetrators.

A more robust response

The frequency, intensity and deadliness of these attacks appear to be an increasing pattern. In late August, criminal groups in Zacatecas (where the CJNG and a Sinaloa criminal organization are locked in a violent turf war) set fire to vehicles and blocked roads in retaliation to law enforcement responses. In early September, in simultaneous attacks in various parts of Guanajuato, five people were killed and seven others were wounded.

Authorities must consider that these calculated attacks on members of the public may well escalate if the leader of a criminal group such as the CJNG – which exerts territorial gang control over two-thirds of Mexican states – is arrested. If this were to happen, would they be prepared to contain the attacks and protect the lives of people on the street? How can the national gendarmerie force coordinate more effectively with police authorities to deter and contain these calculated acts of violence? Answers to these questions are never going to be straightforward, but authorities must ramp up the state’s response before criminal organizations launch an attack on citizens on a much larger scale.