The infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera – better known as “El Chapo” – was finally captured earlier this month after a controversial interview with Sean Penn helped authorities track him down. Now, young drug lords are scrambling to fill the power vacuum he left behind.
This new generation of “hyper-violent cartel killers” makes El Chapo look “almost benign,” reports The Daily Beast. The newest front line in Mexico’s drug war is a long and arid valley called “Tierra Caliente” (the hot land). Others call it “Infiernillo” (Little Hell). The scorching valley runs through southwestern Guerrero state and encompasses one of the deadliest areas in the hemisphere. More than 40 students disappeared there in September 2014.
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El Chapo’s arrest has caused infighting amongst the members of his one-time cartel federation. Meanwhile, intelligence reports reveal dozens of DTOs (drug trafficking organizations) operating in Tierra Caliente. They have only grown stronger with El Chapo’s absence.
The Hot Land has recently surpassed Mexico’s infamous “Golden Triangle” as the prime spot for heroin production (most of which heads straight for the United States). The mountain ranges on either side of the valley provide ample hiding room for drug lords to produce heroin, opium, and crystal meth. All that revenue enables cartels to prey on the area’s business owners, farmers, and politicians. The gangs often use kidnapping, rape, extortion, murder, and in some cases organ trafficking to keep the general public in fear.
There have been nearly 350 murders in and around the Hot Land in the past three months. This January, authorities recorded over 30 “forced disappearances” – some of them children. Nearby schools have had no choice but to close and entire villages have been displaced as local mafias struggle to capture El Chapo’s throne.
The cartels don’t just target civilians. They also engage in surprisingly brutal turf wars that frequently end with the death of innocent civilians. “I’ve been in Mexico for 30 years,” says Laura Carlsen of the Mexico City-based Americas Program, “but I never imagined that we could see the levels of violence happening now.”
Current gangs have been known to skin their victims faces (while still alive), use power tools as torture devices, conduct beheadings, and throw captives in vats of acid. Many blame the increased violence on the DEA’s “Kingpin Strategy,” which focuses on eliminating the biggest cartel leaders. Critics say that when a crime lord like El Chapo is taken down, his lieutenants instantly start fighting to gain control.
“Cartel activity really restricts freedom of movement,” says Mexican journalist Mayra Jiménez. “People know they can’t be out on the street after 6 or 7 at night. And even during the day, the roads aren’t safe.” The Cartels are also having an effect on the freedom of the press.
“We can’t even write about what the narcos are doing without putting ourselves at risk,” explains Jiménez, who lives in Tierra Caliente. “If you say something they don’t like, they’ll hunt you down and kill you. Or they’ll hunt down your family.”
As with other areas in Mexico, the authorities are all but helpless when it comes to curbing the violence. Carlsen hints that federal forces are “complicit with the cartels.”
“All access roads are controlled by the military, yet there’s still a huge flow of drugs,” she says. “The responsibility of the state to guarantee human rights and security is simply not being met,” she says.