The U.S. Consulate in Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara, opened Monday with limited operations after it was targeted with two grenades over the weekend, just hours before Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was sworn in as the nation’s first leftist president.
The act occurred when the consulate was closed, and no one was injured. But it immediately caused alarm among government officials and security experts who question whether it was meant as a test for the new Lopez Obrador government, to provoke the Trump administration, or both.
Guadalajara, along with Lake Chapala and Ajijic in the region, is home to one of the largest American expat communities in the world.
Elements of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, whose headquarters are in Guadalajara, were suspected in the act. Security was reinforced Monday outside consulate offices as well as at the U.S Embassy in Mexico City as a precaution.
“The situation in Mexico is a powder keg,” said Arturo Fontes, a security consultant and former FBI agent whose postings have included the western city. “The timing and target are key: a presidential inauguration. Political transition. The Chapo trial, which threatens to expose names of corrupt officials, and the migrant caravan.”
The infamous drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán of the Sinaloan cartel has been on trial in New York City since mid-November. Fontes and other security experts say the caravans of hundreds and sometimes thousands of Central Americans moving up through Mexico to the U.S. border are hurting human- and drug-smuggling profits because they don’t need cartel protection or cartel-regulated coyote smuggling services.
And with Christmas fast approaching, cartel bosses are desperate for money to pay annual holiday bonuses known as aguinaldos to their underlings.
Some current and former U.S. and Mexican officials drew parallels to other political transitions in which power vacuums have led to internal realignment among cartels, usually leaving a trail of bloodshed behind.
Lopez Obrador arrives to the presidency with the murder rate at a record high, with more than 31,000 people killed this year. It’s now been 12 years since the official start of a militarized crackdown on organized crime that’s left more than 240,000 dead and more than 37,000 missing.
Moreover, Mexico’s rule of law remains weak, with beleaguered police forces beset by corruption and incompetence, campaign issues that were central in ushering Lopez Obrador to power.
At his first daily early morning press briefings Monday, Lopez Obrador made no mention of the incident in Guadalajara.
Near midnight on Friday, a person, caught on film, tossed two grenades into the U.S. Consulate General compound. Grenade fragments were found at the scene and the blast left a 16-inch hole in an exterior wall. The damage was considered minimal.
Mexican federal and U.S. authorities are investigating the act. The U.S. Consulate said on Twitter that it was limiting operations Monday to facilitate the investigation. Regular operations were to resume Tuesday.
“The investigation has been handed over to federal authorities, who will give information on developments in due time,” stated the prosecutor’s office for the state of Jalisco.
The incident comes nearly two weeks after the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known by its Spanish acronym, CNGJ, allegedly posted a video online in which it threatened to attack the consulate. The video shows a man under interrogation, with part of his face bandaged and severely beaten. With an accordion playing in the background, the man says he was ordered to attack the consulate office and, with the help of local and state police, to kidnap Central American men, women and children and hold them for ransom to generate money to pay corrupt authorities to overlook illicit activities. The planned attack against the consulate office, the man said, was to send the U.S. a message to leave “Mencho alone.”
The Dallas Morning News couldn’t independently confirm the recording’s authenticity.
CNGJ is one of the largest and most violent cartels in Mexico and is a top target for U.S. anti-drug operations. The gang’s leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, or “El Mencho,” is on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s most wanted list.
Attacks on U.S. personnel or structures are rare. But when they do happen, retaliation by the U.S. government has been swift and severe. An unexploded grenade at a U.S. Consulate in Monterrey in 2008, the 2010 killing of a U.S. Consulate employee and her husband in Juarez, and the 2011 murder of U.S. agent Jaime Zapata led to swift action by the U.S. government that eventually crippled or splintered the cartels, from the Zetas in the state of Tamaulipas to the Juarez cartel across from El Paso.
John Feeley served in Mexico during those incidents and said of the incident in Guadalajara: “We have seen U.S. embassies and consulates attacked before, but it is very rare. If this was a cartel directed attack, it was almost certainly a message or a trial run … El Mencho and CNGJ know how to kill and maim and this attack did neither.”
Feeley said he won’t fully rule out that someone other than a cartel may be behind the grenades, saying, “We have seen embassies attacked by disgruntled visa seeker or ideologically anti-American crowds, too. One thing is certain, however: The FBI and ATF will be all over this and it will be an early test of law enforcement collaboration in the AMLO-era.”
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political science professor at George Mason University and expert on security, said she was puzzled by the act because it’s been a long-held unspoken rule by the cartels not to rattle U.S. authorities. But she said the timing was key.
“Remember that the CJNG grew exponentially and became what it is now since the beginning of the Peña Nieto government,” she said, referring to former President Enrique Peña Nieto, who just ended his six-year term. “But they should not be attracting attention, and with this attack you’re calling for a response from two governments. Why?”
Fontes played an integral role as an FBI investigator in the Laredo region during the rise of the Zetas paramilitary group, whose remnants continue to terrorize the area. Fontes didn’t dismiss the possibility of a feud inside the Jalisco cartel, as warring factions led by Carlos Enrique Sanchez Martinez, known as El Cholo, with the support of the Sinaloa cartel, against his old boss, ‘El Mencho.” But in his experience in Nuevo Laredo, he said, politics also played a central role in such incidents as political rivals unleashed violence to weaken their opponents in the eyes of voters.
Political motives cannot be ignored, he said. “You have a new president coming in and this may be a message: ‘Hey, this drug war continues and it can make or break you.’ “
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