Five Mexican states have been issued with new travel advisories by the State Department that puts them on a footing with war-torn Yemen and Syria.
US citizens are being told not to travel to Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, or Tamaulipas state due to widespread violent crime and gang activity.
The states were issued with a level 4 warning on Wednesday under new State Department guidance, the same level as Afghanistan, Somalia and North Korea.
Guerrero, one of the country’s most violent states, is also home to Acapulco, a popular tourist resort on the Pacific coast.
Mexico as a whole is under a level 2 advisory, meaning tourists should ‘exercise increased caution’.
‘Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread,’ the State Department warns.
But another 11 states are under a level 3 warning, meaning travellers should ‘reconsider’ their plans.
Again crime and gang activity are the two most commonly listed causes, alongside travel restrictions on US government employees meaning they have a ‘limited ability to provide emergency services’.
Colima was once considered Mexico’s safest state but saw a three-fold increase in murders between 2015 and 2016.
In 2016 Colima had the most murders of any Mexican territory despite having the lowest population, due mostly to cartel violence.
The state is believed to be under the control of Jalisco New Generation, the former armed wing of El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel that splintered off when he was jailed, though the two gangs are fighting for control.
Guerrero is disputed territory between the Guerreros Unidos and Los Rojos cartels, according to Newsweek, with the State Department saying ‘these groups frequently maintain roadblocks and may use violence towards travellers’.
Michoacán, sandwiched between Colima and Guerrero states, is also disputed territory but in 2016 the New Family cartel announced its arrival in the area, apparently a successor to the Michoacana Family gang which was wiped out in 2010.
Sinaloa state, further up the coast, is the sole territory of El Chapo’s former gang which bears the state’s name as its own.
Finally, the border state of Tamaulipas, on the Gulf of Mexico, is also frequently fought over but is currently controlled by the Gulf Cartel, according to the BBC.
The Pacific coastal state of Colima has seen a dramatic rise in the number of murders in the last two years.
Once considered one of the safest states in the country, Colima’s murder rate jumped three-fold between 2015 and 2016, according to the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.
This is by far the largest increase in crime of any state in a country that has seen its overall murder rate more than double since 2007 – the year the government launched an offensive against the drug cartels.
Although Colima is Mexico’s least populous state with just 700,000 people, in 2016 its murder rate was 71 homicides per 100,000 people.
Colima is symptomatic of what has been ailing parts of the country that were once considered free of cartel-linked violence.
Since the Mexican government has teamed up with the United States in their war to defeat the cartels, the security forces have succeeded in killing or imprisoning the leaders of these criminal organizations.
The loss of leadership forced these criminal gangs to splinter off into smaller organizations and branch out into nontraditional areas to expand their turf.
Experts say the uptick in violence in Colima could be traced to El Chapo’s escape from prison in 2015 and his subsequent recapture in January 2016.
It has been speculated that the demise of El Chapo led to a power struggle within the Sinaloa cartel, factions of which were said to be determined to keep him isolated from the organization’s activities.
SINALOA – THE DRUG CAPITAL OF MEXICO
El Chapo’s downfall triggered a fierce battle for succession among rivals in his notorious cartel.
The Sinaloa cartel is considered one of – if not, the most – powerful criminal organization in the country.
According to experts, the uptick in violence in Sinaloa can be explained by a three-sided turf war for El Chapo’s criminal empire that has left a trail of dead bodies.
One group is led by Guzman’s right-hand man, Damaso Lopez Nunez, who knows the cartel’s operations inside-out and helped his extradited boss escape prison twice.
Another is led by two of the extradited kingpin’s sons, Jesus Alfredo and Ivan Archivaldo, who say they are the rightful heirs to his drug-running empire.
The third is led by Guzman’s brother Aureliano ‘El Guano’ Guzman, who controls the area around their hometown, Badiraguato.
Since Guzman’s extradition in January 2016, a bloodbath has engulfed Sinaloa, the western state where the cartel is based.
Mexican government officials have long maintained that they do not have the resources necessary to curb the violence there.
Michoacan has been one of the bloodiest states in Mexico because of battles between rival gangs involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion of local businesses as well as mineral theft and illegal logging.
The situation had deteriorated to the point where in 2014 the federal government effectively took control of Michoacan for over a year in a bid to curb violence between drug gangs and community militias that had risen up to fight extortion and kidnappings.
Why is this region of western Mexico considered important?
That’s because it is the home of one of the largest producers and exporters of methamphetamine to the United States, according to Vice.
Michoacan is also the state that has the country’s most important port, Lazaro Cardenas, which has been used by drug traffickers as a strategic transfer point.
In 2006, a drug cartel known as La Familia Michoacana begins to make its presence felt with gruesome displays of severed heads belonging to supposed rivals.
In December 2006, then-President Felipe Calderon decided enough was enough and sent 7,000 soldiers into his home state of Michoacan in hopes of crushing cartel-fueled violence.
The government-backed war leads to an escalation of violence, with cartels committing acts of murder against civilians.
The bloodshed only gets worse as the cartel organizations are wracked with in-fighting and internecine turf wars that claim more lives.
This past November, it was reported in The Guardian that workers at the government-run morgues in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero walked off the job because there was simply no more room to store the dead bodies.
The violence in Guerrero, an impoverished state that boasts of the tourist-friendly beach resort Acapulco and a mountainous hinterland that is considered one of the country’s poorest areas, led to entire towns being abandoned.
Schools have also been shut down and the violence has even led bus companies to no longer provide service in the area.
By the end of 2017, the number of homicides in Guerrero approached 2,000, an increase of over 100 compared to 2016.
Guerrero’s surge in violent crime can be traced to its significance in the heroin trade.
The state produces more than half of Mexico’s opium poppies, which is the base ingredient for heroin.
Drug cartels have taken advantage of the growing demand for heroin in the US.
According to The Washington Post, more than 90 percent of the heroin consumed by Americans originates in Mexico.
In order to meet the growing demand, poppy production has been ramped up by 800 percent in less than a decade.
In years past, there was one cartel in charge. It maintained its grip on the lucrative heroin trade by paying off police and state officials so that they could freely move their products north.
But in recent years splinter groups of criminal gangs have upended the traditional hierarchy.
This, in turn, has led to the rise of civilian-led militias. These turf wars have led to increased violence and bloodshed while the government struggles to exert control.
Tamaulipas, the northeastern Mexican state that borders Texas, was once known as a quaint region that offered delicious beef and exportable vegetables.
But in recent years, that reputation has changed. It is known today as a region that has become part of a turf war between powerful cartels seeking control of the key trade route where drugs are transported to the US.
According to Splinter, Tamaulipas’ importance to the drug trade has only grown since American demand for narcotics has surged exponentially.
Drugs that are shipped from Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela make their way to the Yucatan Peninsula. From there, they are transported to Tamaulipas before they reach their destination across the border.
The Mexican army is known to confiscate large quantities of drugs in Tamaulipas every day, though it is difficult to say exactly how much.
Tamaulipas is the birthplace of the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s oldest and most notorious crime syndicates.
During Prohibition, the Gulf Cartel engaged in the lucrative business of smuggling whiskey into the US.
The cartel’s business continued to flourish, only in recent decades its product of choice was cocaine.
But a factional split between the cartel and former Mexican military soldiers who worked as enforcers for the organization but then broke off and formed their own syndicate plunged the region into bloodshed.
Massacres and kidnappings have become all too commonplace since violence escalated dramatically beginning in 2010.
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