The Terror Two Hours South | Neon Tommy

By Steve Helmeci via

USC Annenberg and


More Americans have died due to Mexican cartel violence than in the entirety of the Iraq War.

Source: The Terror Two Hours South | Neon Tommy

With the gaze of the United States firmly on the Middle East for the past decade or so, atrocities within our closest neighbors have gone almost entirely ignored.

Right now, parts of Mexico are a war zone, exhibiting the same characteristics of the failed or failing states halfway around the world the United States has worked so tirelessly to fix. Criminal organizations control the capital flow, politics, defense and citizenry of the entire country – and they use this power to commit horrendous crimes against humanity on par with, if not even more heinous, than the actions of ISIL and other terror groups around the world.

Moreover, the government is either unable or unwilling to work to diminish the power of the cartels. Members may periodically be arrested, however does litte to check the operations of the actual organizations.

Incredibly, human rights violations and appalling atrocities bordering on autogeoncide have been occurring in Mexico for years, but it was not until I had a conversation with a man who has family in the country that I became aware of the depth and breadth of the senseless violence against citizens just a few hours south of where I sit now.

The source, who for the sake of his family’s safety I will not name, pointed me in the direction of atrocities committed by the Zeta Cartel – in existence since their 2010 split from the Gulf Cartel and now widely considered one of the most prominent and most violent cartels in Mexico – with regard to the disappearance of multiple busloads of people in 2011 that has since been dubbed the “San Fernando Massacre.”

READ MORE: Mourners Plan Candelight Vigil For Missing Mexican Students

Los Zetas hijacked several busses and kidnapped every person on board, then proceeded to force the men to fight to the death with knives, machetes and other crude weapons. Those who were alive at the end of the bloodsport were usurped into the cartel and often made to go on suicide missions, such as being forced to go to rival gang-controlled areas and open fire. The source noted abuses of the women and children taken hostage as well, including forcing them into slavery, though media reports focused on the gladiator-style death matches between captured civilians.

Before the disappearances were linked and the crimes were stopped by the Mexican government, 193 innocent civilians were killed and unceremoniously tossed into mass graves. Although 193 is the official number of deaths, unconfirmed reports say that upwards of 600 bodies were found in the graves. The Mexican government has been known to undercount cartel-related deaths, giving credence to the notion that more than 193 people were found in those graves.

A defecting cartel member going by the name of “Juan” was the source for the story for the media outlets, and off of his testimony, news organizations like The Wire and the Daily Mailpicked up the story.

While the government did eventually act on behalf of the safety of their citizens in this instance and put a stop to the hijackings and kidnappings, in other instances the Mexican government has proven itself inextricably tied with cartels.

As recently as September of this year, 43 students were detained and six killed by police in the southern city of Iguala en route to a demonstration. The 43 have not been seen since. As the policemen arrested for their part in detaining the students have given more information, it has come to light that they gave the students to the Guerreros Unidos, a cartel in the area. Maria de los Angeles Pineda, wife of the ex-mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, and her two brothers are all associated with Los Guerreros, and it is believed that Abarca and the police force planned the kidnapping with the cartel in order to shield his wife’s speech that day from protest.

None of the 43 have been confirmed as dead or alive, despite weeks of searching. However, 20 mass graves reported to contain the bodies of dozens of people have been uncovered near Iguala. There is widespread belief that the students could be among those found in the graves, but again, that is not confirmed. Officially, the remains in the graves are believed to be among the 22,000 missing persons since the War on Drugs began in 2006. 

READ MORE: Former Mexican Mayor Charged With Homicide In Disappearance Of 43 Students

Protests continue across the country on behalf of the students.

Where the government is not directly involved in criminal activity, it sometimes lacks the ability to overpower the cartels. Saturday, General Ricardo Cesar Nino Villarreal and his wife were ambushed, shot and killed as they drove from Monterrey to Nuevo Leon in the northern part of Mexico. Villarreal was appointed in May to oversee government operations in attempting to curtail cartel violence in Nuevo Leon. He was one of four military officers sent to the area.

When the government will not – or cannot – protect citizens, often those citizens will seek to protect themselves. In Reynosa, a city on the border of Texas often noted for cartel activity and influence, residents have taken to Twitter to alert fellow citizens of suspicious activity in the town and areas to avoid.

Working against the cartels is incredibly dangerous, however. On October 16, one of those brave citizen journalists was killed, and her Twitter account used to broadcast the crime. Although she was operating under an anonymous account, the Reynosa cartel found María del Rosario Fuentes, kidnapped and killed her, posting threats to the community and other citizen journalists, as well as pictures of her lifeless body on her account. 

Fuentes’ story is unfortunately not uncommon. Mexico is one of the most unsafe countries in the world for journalists – with 57 killed since 2006alone. Last year, a YouTube video was released showing the execution by cartel members of a contributor to a social media group reporting on crime, and in 2011 another four citizen journalists active on social media were murdered in Nuevo Laredo.

As for general civilian violence, the death toll is staggering. According to a report by Al-Jazeera, cartels murdered 16,000 people in 2013 alone – and an additional 60,000 between 2006 and 2012. If you take the 76,000 people killed from 2006-2013, and the 22,000 missing over that same time period, that makes a total of 98,000 Mexican citizens dead or missing in a span of seven years.

Cartels carry out hundreds of beheadings a year; they recruit child soldiers as young as 11; they kidnap tens of thousands of children every year for use as drug mules, prostitutes or forharvesting their organs to sell on the black market; they hold tens of thousands of Mexican citizens as slaves; they systematically use rape as a weapon of war; they use medieval torture techniques like dismembering and cooking victims; and they often attack U.S. consulates in the country. And that’s saying nothing of their main enterprise: trafficking illegal and harmful drugs.

Not only are the cartels dangerous, but the government – while ostensibly fighting the cartels and pursuing reform – is often ill-equipped to respond. As evidenced by the lack of protection for General Villarreal, the cartels have at least equal manpower and equal ability to fight the government where they see it as a threat to business. If the government cannot stop groups killing or kidnapping almost 100,000 of their citizens over seven years, it is clear that they are outmatched.

Exacerbating the situation are the ties between officials and the cartels. Ties between the mayor of Iguala and Los Guerreros were evident at the time of his election – yet he was still elected, and the result was 43 students being handed over to the cartel to suppress dissent.

But it’s not just high level officials, either. My source also shares that police officers, those citizens trained to protect and serve, are not paid a sufficient amount by the government, and as such are willing to accept bribes from the cartels.

Just like everywhere else, those who have the money have the power – and the cartel has more money than the government.

In sum, we’re dealing with a country dominated by groups that kidnap and kill tens of thousands of citizens, commit rape, use child soldiers, behead and brutally torture people, hold slaves, post graphic images of their crimes in order to terrorize the public into compliance, and seek to attack America and its interests. We’re dealing with a country whose government either cannot control these violent groups or is willfully complicit in their activities. We’re dealing with a country that has little semblance of rule of law, cannot protect the basic human rights of its citizens and cannot protect journalists from being hunted down and killed for reporting facts.

Is it me, or is that description fairly similar to the one we often get about Iraq?

Seemingly nightly, the airwaves are bombarded with stories about ISIL, the grave threat they pose and why it is necessary to commit to direct military action against them. And they do pose a grave threat – they’re a genocidal, violent group hell-bent on destroying America and our way of life. A response is warranted.

But, shouldn’t a response be warranted against the auto-genocidal maniacs running rampant, killing and maiming citizens directly to our south? Or at least more of a focus than a few articles buried in CNN’s website about the 43 disappeared students and the arrests made in connection to the crime?

Surely this problem deserves just as much, if not more, public attention than one that exists half a world away.

The problem of cartel violence in Mexico does not exist in a vacuum: the drugs those violent criminals traffic end up here, in the United States, more often than not. However, it’s not just the drugs that reach America. From 2006 to 2010, 5,700 Americans died on American soil as a result of cartel-related violence that spilled over from Mexican border towns. In context, that’s more Americans dead in four years than during the entirety of the war in Iraq.

I can’t possibly believe that the entirety of the United States cares more about the lives lost in Iraq than the ones lost at home and in Mexico, but our discourse and our actions would suggest that we do.

Even as we criticize the Muslim world for being extraordinarily medieval in their wartime tactics or propagating “bad ideas” about suppression of freedoms, we tend to either be ignorant of or entirely disregard the occurrence of these actions in Mexico, let alone their connection to extremist interpretations of Christian doctrine. As one op-ed published in Al-Jazeera America suggested: “The US Government cannot formulate an effective response to these much more severe threats [Mexican drug cartels] because the American public is far too busy disparaging Islam while the US Military kills Arabs and Muslims abroad.”

In the end, whatever aid we may be giving to Mexico right now is either misappropriated or insufficient, and public attention to cartels controlling huge swaths of territory, terrorizing citizens, suppressing human rights and committing acts that could easily be described as auto-genocide directly to our south is shockingly nonexistent. Both need to change if we ever want to solve the continuing problems at our border, and if we ever want to see a Mexico where citizens can live their lives without fear of death by cartel.

Despite the fact that Cabo and Cozumel look nice, we’re dealing with a failing state immediately to our south. And that should be much more scary than it’s been made out to be.

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Reach Columnist Steve Helmeci here.