MEXICO CITY – The raid by Marines on two methamphetamine labs in a remote mountain village in western Mexico saw the seizure of 1,800 kilos of crystal meth, 50 gallons of precursor chemicals and five industrial ovens used to produce the drug, just two of hundreds of such labs that have been found and dismantled by the Mexican military in recent years.
In many ways, the Jan. 25 raid was merely another chapter in Mexico’s seemingly endless war on drugs, which has taken tens of thousands of lives since former president Felipe Calderón first deployed the military to combat the cartels in 2007. Yet it was also an example of the increasing sophistication and transnational reach of Mexican gangs which have long moved beyond the traditional traffic of marijuana and heroin to the U.S. market.
In this case, the materials necessary to make crystal meth had been smuggled from China -- which according to the U.S. government produces 80 percent of such chemicals. The meth itself was manufactured in Mexico, where authorities discovered 131 meth labs in 2014 alone. And the finished product may have been destined for consumers as far away as Europe and Australia.
Mexico’s most legendary drug lord, Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was extradited to the U.S. Jan. 19 after a criminal career that spanned three decades. Born in the impoverished mountains of Sinaloa to peasant farmers in the 1950s, El Chapo has become the most enduring symbol of the Mexican drug trade, yet experts insist that the 59-year-old veteran is far from typical of the country’s drug traffickers today.
“El Chapo was very much the prototype for today’s drug lords, but over the last few years the criminal landscape in Mexico has changed significantly,” Raúl Benítez-Manaut, a security expert and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told Fox News.
“The groups competing over the drug trade are smaller, more fragmented, and frequently they are more violent.”
The current spike of drug-related violence in Mexico began in 2007 after Calderón’s controversial federal crackdown on the cartels. Dozens of leading traffickers have been arrested and many others killed by security forces, yet government efforts have also caused the breakup of the larger cartels and spawned breakaway groups that have rapidly diversified their activities.
“It is a very different scenario to the 1990s when you only had two major groups [the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels] and they were primarily focused on drug trafficking,” said Benítez-Manaut. “Today there are many groups participating in a range of activities, most worryingly, extortion and intimidation.”
Since the mid-2000s, countless younger gangs have emerged such as the Zetas, the Guerreros Unidos, and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, groups that earn revenue not only from drug trafficking, but also kidnapping, extortion, and counterfeiting, among other crimes.
According to Edgardo Buscaglia, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and an expert on international organized crime, they also frequently operate on a transnational basis, moving meth and cocaine to Europe and participating in human trafficking rings across South America.
“In recent years, organized crime in general has become more sophisticated because of developments in trade, technology, and finance,” Buscaglia told Fox News. “Such groups form strategic alliances and are more likely to operate across borders. The Mexican organizations are no exception. It is the dark side of globalization.”
For decades, Mexico’s most famous drug lords overwhelmingly came from the mountains and villages of Sinaloa on the Pacific Coast where marijuana and heroin have been produced by farmers since the late nineteenth century. They were often portrayed in the press as ‘Robin Hood’-like figures, pouring drug money back into local communities. After El Chapo was arrested by Mexican authorities for a second time in 2014, poor people from his home state of Sinaloa marched in the streets to demand his release.
Yet according to Mexican journalist Javier Cárdenas, a native of the region who has covered the drug trade for twenty years, today’s ambitious young narcos are a different story.
“Maybe they were Robin Hoods in the past, but the next generation of gang leaders are increasingly urban and lack the sense of social responsibility of their predecessors,” he told Fox News. “It is a very different mentality now.”
The newer Mexican gangs have proven to be way more violent. Two years ago, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel infamously brought down a Mexican Army helicopter with a grenade launcher in the state of Jalisco. Authorities have dismantled dozens of military-style training camps in recent years where cartel recruits are schooled in the use of high-caliber firearms and torture.
Current Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s term looks set to end with more violent homicides than that of his predecessor, with 20,766 murders in 2016 alone, according to government statistics. Reported kidnappings have also risen in the past decade from 438 in 2007 to 1,128 last year.
Benítez-Manaut said he believes that Mexico is making slow but steady progress in its fight against crime, although serious challenges remain. “The rise of new groups has seen violence spread to parts of the country it wasn’t seen before,” he said.
Paul Imison is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @paulimison