While bloody death tolls and ubiquitous violence are nothing new in a country that has seen an estimated 106,000 people killed in drug violence since 2006, the disappearance of 43 college students has shaken the country and spurred widespread protests across Mexico.
The kidnapping and likely murder of 43 Mexican college students in the poor, rural state of Guerrero has not only shed light on the complicity of local lawmakers with organized crime groups in Mexico but also on whom these small, localized and ultra-violent groups are.
It appears that after almost eight years of widespread warfare between Mexican authorities and the country’s notorious drug cartels, a newer group of criminals is emerging from the battle dust -- one that operates on a much more local level than its international drug-smuggling brethren.
“[Former President Felipe] Calderón’s strategy was to pulverize those groups and weaken them into these little ones,” Tony Payan, the Mexico center director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, told Fox News Latino. “There is now a proliferation of hundreds of these smaller groups.”
Groups like Guerreros Unidos, who are purportedly responsible for the slaying and burning of the 43 students, have become one of the main threats to the Mexican public as the government continues to dismantle the major cartels – either by arresting or killing the groups’ major players.
Possibly realizing the national and international pressure that operating a transnational drug cartel brings; the newer, smaller gangs instead have eschewed the drug trade in favor of extortion, theft and abductions – crimes that make them a ton of money and reward them with new territory, but also forces constant acts of violence to keep them visible and in control.
Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the focus on dismantling drug cartels has been helpful because it has created a power vacuum among the cartels.
But, she said, it has also forced many to turn to other crimes – like extortion, robbery and kidnappings “that prey more directly in the Mexican population.”
“Without a stronger rule of law, Mexico struggles to combat these groups and proliferation in crime,” she said.
Security analyst Alejandro Hope told Spain’s El País that the new gangs are more local and predatory in nature.
“In the case of Guerrero, this trend has reached an apex because of the institutional weakness in the territory. Nothing has stopped them, and they have taken control of municipalities such as Iguala,” he said. “Guerreros Unidos is the clearest example. They are not very sophisticated, they operate locally, and they sell drugs on the international market through intermediaries. They are the children of fragmentation.”
Like many of these small gangs, Guerreros Unidos arose following the demise of a once powerful cartel – the Beltrán Leyva – and moved into the broad swathes of the Pacific area and central Mexico following the cartel's splintering.
What’s happening in Mexico also somewhat mirrors what occurred in Colombia during the mid-1990s and early 2000s following the death of drug lord Pablo Escobar and the downfall of the Medellín and Cali cartels. In Medellín, for example, the power vacuum left when the cartel eroded created a number of small scale gangs that battled each other for control of various barrios – driving up homicide rates to obscene levels and creating virtual no-man’s lands in parts of the central Colombian city.
While some experts agree with this comparison, others say that the situation in Mexico is different given President Enrique Peña Nieto’s apparent unwillingness to do anything about the violence in places like Guerrero. On Monday, relatives and supporters battled federal police in Acapulco then blocked roads leading to the Pacific resort's airport, forcing tourists to trudge for a half-mile to the terminal.
The country's outbursts of violence threaten to erase Peña Nieto’s efforts to convince the world that Mexico has put the worst behind it.
"I think we are going through some difficult moments," Presidential spokesman Eduardo Sánchez said. "I am sure we'll get through this, and that something positive has to come out of this all."
The perceived sluggishness on the part of his administration has many questioning Peña Nieto’s commitment to battling these groups and making Mexico secure.
“Peña Nieto is not willing to confront the issue and it looks like he is neglecting the problem,” Payan said.
Payan suggested two things Mexico needs to do in regards to the country’s security situation: massively overhaul the country’s local and state police forces to root out corrupt members and use Mexico’s intelligence service to track down lawmakers working in collusion with the gangs.
“This, however, would require Peña Nieto to go after members of his own political party,” he said, “and I don’t think he is willing to do that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.