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Inside El Salvador’s ‘War Without Sense’

Warring gangs have turned El Salvador into one of the world's deadliest places

When new recruits join the brutal Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Salvador, seasoned members haze the newcomers by beating them in a harrowing ritual. The initiation is said to symbolize a recruit’s commitment to what they call his new family. It also prepares gang members for the dual roles they will face going forward, that of both victimizer and victim. Many of the dead in El Salvador’s current epidemic of murder are gang members themselves.

“Since we were children, we have witnessed these scenes–scenes that never end, that come every day. There are deaths, bodies thrown out, decapitations,” says Marvin González, 32, who leads a faction of Mara Salvatrucha in the town of Ilopango, a few miles east of the capital, San Salvador. “We are killing among poor people. It’s a war without sense.”

Since González was released from prison in 2012, he has tried to end this so-called war, working on reaching and maintaining a truce with the rival Barrio 18 gang. But though the accord helped reduce the body count for two years, it has crumbled over the past year, in part because gang leaders were not able to fully control their members. El Salvador is now experiencing its highest homicide rates in decades. This June saw 677 murders in the nation of 6 million people. If this level of killing continues for the rest of the year, El Salvador could become the most murderous country outside a declared war zone, topping neighboring Honduras, which is also being torn apart by gang violence.

Italian photographer Patrick Tombola, who took the photographs on these pages, has been documenting this year’s surge in bloodshed, spending time with the police, gang members and families on the front line. He is no stranger to conflict, having covered wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya, but he was shocked by how bloodthirsty some gang members in El Salvador, many of them teenagers, have become. “I was struck by how young people were,” Tombola says. “We are talking about a whole generation of people that is being affected.”

Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha fight each other for control of territory so that they can expand their extortion rackets, trade in drugs and engage in other forms of organized crime. But gang members also murder their rivals simply to raise their status within their own gang, which helps perpetuate the conflict.

Mara Salvatrucha got its start on the streets of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. El Salvador was then riven by a brutal civil war, with leftist guerrillas fighting a U.S.-backed dictatorship. Thousands of young people fled to take refuge in California. To defend themselves there against established Mexican-American and African-American gangs, they formed Mara Salvatrucha. Mara means “group of friends”; Salvatrucha is believed to be a combination of the words Salvador and trucha, meaning “street-smart.”

When the guerrillas laid down their weapons in 1992, the U.S. deported many Mara Salvatrucha prisoners. During the war, other Salvadoran refugees in the U.S. had joined Barrio 18. Back home, the gang members began to play out the Los Angeles street war in Central America.

The recent surge in killings has become a problem for the U.S. Gang violence has prompted many young people in Central America to flee their homes, leading to U.S. authorities’ detaining record numbers of unaccompanied migrant children crossing Mexico’s border with the U.S. last year. Some gang members are also heading north to join the Salvadoran gangs that still operate in American cities. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has promised a renewed offensive on gangs, with new battalions made up of seasoned soldiers who will specialize in fighting the criminal organizations. That could mean more bloodshed, but Salvadorans, desperate to see an end to the gangs’ dominance, are likely to welcome the campaign. If it doesn’t work, the gangs are likely to take control of more of Central America–and more migrants will flee north in search of a safe haven.

Patrick Tombola is a photographer based in Barcelona.

Mikko Takkunen is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.

Ioan Grillo is a journalist based in Mexico.

TIME Mexico

There Are Already Dozens of Ballads Celebrating the Escape of Chapo Guzman

“It seems there are no bars, that he cannot open, the power of Chapo, and Sinaloa his roots, the most powerful cartel, nobody can combat it”

As news broke that drug trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman had escaped a top security prison, TV crews, reporters and photo journalists sprung into action to bring the story to the world. At the same time, another type of storyteller jumped to work – the composers of narco corridos, or drug ballads. Within hours of the news media describing the escape that happened late Saturday, the drug balladeers had written and recorded the first songs and uploaded them onto websites such as Youtube. By Monday, there were dozens of tracks, with names such as “The ballad of the escape of Chapo 2015” moving on the Internet and playing on people’s phones, computers and TV’s.

“Chapo Guzman escaped,” sings a group called Los Alegres del Barranco (The Happy Ones of the Ravine) in one video. “The general of the Altiplano (prison). He used a lot green money. To be able to get away…Where is Chapo Guzman? Only he and God know.” Drug ballads are sung over instruments including ten stringed guitars, accordions and trombones over mutated polka beats. Some groups record videos of themselves performing their freshly written verses.

Others sing acapella. In one video, a youth boasts that he has taken ten minutes to compose the song and reads the lyrics from his cell phone. “It seems there are no bars, that he cannot open, the power of Chapo, and Sinaloa his roots, the most powerful cartel, nobody can combat it,” he croons in the nasal melancholy style of many drug balladeers. “July 11th 2015. He had noted it on his calendar. A day to celebrate. The second escape of Chapo.”

Such ballads reflect the support for Guzman and other gangsters among many in Mexico’s drug trafficking heartlands. In states such as Sinaloa, where Guzman is from, some see smugglers as heroes who have the balls to beat the Mexican federal government and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. They often refer to them as valientes or brave ones. The traffickers make billions of dollars taking cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth to American users so they provide employment and buy gifts for some in poor mountain villages or urban ghettos.

The escape of Guzman, who left prison in a mile long tunnel with lights and air vents, was seen as the ultimate outwitting of authorities. He had also escaped prison in 2001 and spent 13 years on the run before he was recaptured. After the latest escape, soldiers and police spread across Mexico searching for him but had found no trace by Tuesday morning. “Many young people here see Chapo as kicking the government in the ass,” says Rodrigo Mendez, a music producer in Sinaloa state capital Culiacan who has recorded drug ballads. “They hear about him in so many songs, he has become like a mythical figure.”

On the other side, some of Mexico’s politicians have long complained of drug ballads glorifying the exploits of violent criminals. The gunmen of Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel carry out execution-style killings, ambushes and massacres. Since 2007, more than 83,000 people here have been murdered by cartels or the security forces fighting them, according to a Mexican government count. Politicians say the music drives this bloodshed. The mayor of the city of Chihuahua City Javier Garfio recently passed an initiative banning groups from playing drug ballads in the city.

Most Mexican radio stations will hold back from playing drug ballads. However, they are popular on the Internet, which more than half of Mexico’s 120 million people now have access to, according to a recent survey. Some drug ballads can get millions of views; one of the most famous drug ballads, El Jefe de Jefes, or Boss of Bosses has over 14 million. Many in the United States, home to 11 million Mexicans, also follow the ballads. Drug balladeers can play to huge crowds from Los Angeles to Chicago.

Elijah Wald, who spent months traveling northern Mexico talking musicians for his book Narcocorrido, says the composers see themselves in the tradition of the balladeers who brought news to Mexican villages in the days before the modern media. “They say they are just describing what is happening. Not inventing it,” he says. “They pride themselves on how quickly they can write their songs after news events. Two of the biggest composers were illiterate and they said it was an advantage as they didn’t have to spend time writing things down. They kept it all in their heads.”

Drug balladeers often make money playing at the parties of the same traffickers they sing about. Drug kingpins will also actually pay musicians to pen verses about them. “The traffickers commission the songs to make themselves more famous,” says the producer Mendez. However, the latest songs about Guzman’s jailbreak, were likely done spontaneously without authorization from the kingpin, he says. “These are lesser known artists who are trying to make a name for themselves,” Mendez says. “Some of them may have written their songs about an escape already, just in case it happened.”

TIME

Mexican President Shamed by ‘Unforgivable’ Escape of Cartel Boss

Capturing "Chapo" Guzmán was President Peña Nieto's great success; letting him escape is his great failure

In February 2014, when Mexican marines captured the world’s most wanted gangster Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a proud President Enrique Peña Nieto said the power of drug traffickers was being destroyed. Two previous Mexican Presidents had failed to nab Guzmán during 13 years on the run. But Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, appeared to be better at busting these mysterious kingpins. In one interview, journalist Leon Krauze of Univision asked the President if Guzmán could ever escape from prison again as he had done back in 2001. Peña Nieto raised his hands in an incredulous gesture. “That would be more than unfortunate. It would be truly unforgivable,” Peña Nieto said. “The government will take the measures to assure that what happened years ago is not repeated.”

This Saturday, the unforgivable happened. Peña Nieto got the message as he flew to France with his Cabinet members. The 60-year-old Guzmán had fled Mexico’s highest-security prison, the Altiplano. And he had done it in spectacular fashion, going out in a tunnel that stretched 1.5 km (a mile) and had lights, air vents and a motorcycle that moved on rails. The tunnel went from a cellblock shower to a building site in a residential neighborhood, some 90 km (56 miles) from the Mexican capital.

By Sunday, the jailbreak had become a global news story, totally overshadowing Peña Nieto’s trip to France to sign trade accords. Speaking from the Mexican embassy in Paris, the President told reporters that he was ordering all forces to get Guzmán back behind bars. Soldiers searched for the kingpin from upscale Mexico City neighborhoods to the southern border with Guatemala. “This represents, without a doubt, an affront to the Mexican state,” Peña Nieto said. “But I also trust that the institutions of the Mexican state have the strength and determination to recapture this criminal.”

This latest chapter in Guzmán’s turbulent life hits the Mexican President at an already difficult time. Over the past year, Peña Nieto has been troubled by the disappearance of 43 students at the hands of cartel gunmen and corrupt police, alleged massacres by soldiers and accusations of conflicts of interest over a $7 million mansion in the name of the First Lady. His approval rating has hovered around 40%, the worst for a Mexican President in two decades. The capture of Guzmán was at least one success story. Now the kingpin has become a headache for Peña Nieto as he was for the past two Presidents.

“I was flabbergasted that there wasn’t more care of Chapo Guzmán in the prison,” says Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former member of the federal intelligence agency. “Peña Nieto seriously underestimated Chapo. But this also shows a lot of institutional weakness. To make this escape, Chapo and his men would need plans of the prison. Where would they get those?” On Sunday, Mexican federal prosecutors took 30 prison officials in for questioning, including the director.

The jailbreak also pulls pressure from the U.S. onto Peña Nieto. Numerous U.S. courts have indicted Guzmán for trafficking cocaine, heroin, marijuana and crystal meth to American users, and the U.S. State Department put a $5 million reward on his head. Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration tapped phones that helped the Mexican marines capture Guzmán in 2014 in a condo in the seaside resort of Mazatlán. Former DEA Administrator Peter Bensinger said he was shocked by the escape and that Guzmán “ought to have been housed in an American prison.” The U.S. had filed for the extradition of Guzmán, but Mexican judges had ruled that he should first serve time for his crimes south of the border.

Opposition Mexican politicians also used the escape as a stick to whack the President. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an outspoken leftist who came second in the past two presidential elections, called for Peña Nieto to return immediately from France to deal with the issue. “This is a spectacular escape that will have many repercussions not only in our country but in the world,” López Obrador said in a video message. “Our country should not be a laughing stock for anybody.” López Obrador has said he aims to defeat the PRI in the next presidential election in 2018.

Hailing from a ramshackle village in the Sierra Madre mountains, Guzmán’s nickname means Shorty as he stands at 5 ft. 6 in. Despite his stature, he rose to a larger-than-life size in the drug-trafficking world, taking over the Sinaloa Cartel, the oldest and biggest network of smugglers in Mexico. He was first captured in 1993 but escaped prison in 2001, allegedly by bribing guards. On the run, he took over new turf and made it onto the Forbes billionaire list. While bringing in piles of dollars, Sinaloa Cartel gunmen also left mountains of corpses, especially in border towns such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.

Despite the terror that Guzmán unleashed, some in the poor towns where he grew up see him as a kind of social bandit, bringing more with his drug money than Mexico’s businessmen or politicians offer them. Dozens of so-called drug ballads celebrate his exploits. Following his latest escape, messages on social media even called for people to go to mass in Sinaloan state capital Culiacán and give thanks to God for the gangster’s freedom. Outside the cathedral, some residents told reporters of their support for the kingpin. “I am very happy,” Maria de los Angeles Murillo told a crowd of journalists. “Because if Chapo Guzmán escapes, he will take away hunger from many people.”

TIME Mexico

Meet the First Woman to Lead a Mexican Drugs Cartel

Policemen walk during a press conference
Luis Acosta—AFP/Getty Images Policemen walk during a press conference in which alleged members of the Arellano Felix cartel were shown, at the headquarters of the federal police in Mexico City in 2009.

The men of the Arellano Felix clan are dead or in jail so officials believe Enedina Arellano-Felix has taken over

The Arellano Felix brothers, a clan of infamous drug traffickers in the border city of Tijuana, have a history of meeting sticky ends during festivities. The eldest, Francisco Rafael, was killed at a party by an assassin dressed as a clown. His brother Ramon, known for his brutal torture techniques, was shot dead by police during a seaside carnival. A nephew, Luis Fernando Sanchez Arellano, was arrested while watching Mexico beat Croatia in the soccer World Cup. Now after seven male members have gone to their graves or prison cells, the clan may have done what is unthinkable for many in the macho cartel world – let a woman take the helm.

One of the sisters, Enedina Arellano Felix, could be running the remnants of the Tijuana Cartel that traffics cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth over the world’s busiest border crossing into California, American and Mexican agents say. The 54-old trained accountant is said to be less of a party animal or sadistic killer than her male relatives and more business focused. She is believed to have taken control after Sanchez Arellano, who is reported as being either her son or her nephew, was arrested last year. While there have been other female drug traffickers since the 1920’s, Enedina, known as La Jefa, or the boss, could be the first to head an entire cartel.

Rising to the top in an industry dominated by extremely violent chauvinist men is no east feat, says Javier Valdez, a Mexican journalist who interviewed female traffickers for his book Miss Narco. “This is a world where men behave like animals. Many women in it are used, abused and then killed by the same traffickers they worked with,” Valdez says. “The women who rise high in it are very rare. They have to be extremely intelligent, talented and brave.”

Furthermore, Enedina Arellano Felix has not only survived the fall of her brothers but a slew of takedowns of cartel bosses across Mexico. Under President Enrique Pena Nieto, police and soldiers have rounded up kingpins across the country including the “world’s most wanted man,” Joaquin, “Chapo” Guzman and Miguel Trevino, head of the paramilitary Zetas. La Jefa is one of the last women, or men, standing.

The Arellano Felix brothers moved from inland Mexico to Tijuana in the eighties, carving out their trafficking empire in blood and cocaine-fueled parties. Their antics inspired characters in the movie Traffic. But while the brothers were taking over nightclubs and burning corpses in barbecues, Enedina Arellano-Felix was reported to be studying accounting at a private university.

As her brothers fell in the 2000s, Enedina rose up in the organization, running its money laundering operations by creating front businesses such as pharmacies. From 2002, the U.S. treasury blacklisted her and her companies under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act. Any American doing business with them can be fined up to a million dollars. By 2006, Mexico’s then attorney general Daniel Cabeza de Vaca said in a news conference she had become the chief financial operator for the cartel.

In 2008, the Arellano Felix brother Eduardo led the cartel into a brutal turf war that left piles of bodies around Tijuana. But after police arrested him after a shoot out, Sanchez Arellano took over with Enedina by his side, says Mike Vigil, the former head of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. As number two and now number one in the cartel, the Jefa has helped reduce violence and got back to the traditional business of smuggling drugs to Americans, Vigil says.

“She is not into the wars of her brothers. She is into making alliances and making money,” says Vigil, who spent 13 years in Mexico, often undercover. “Her beauty may also have helped her make alliances with powerful traffickers such as Chapo Guzman.”

But while purportedly making her drug trafficking fortune, little is known of the Jefa. There are few photos of her besides some family portraits from the 1980s. She married and divorced at least twice, with one husband also alleged to be a money launderer, but her present marital status is unknown. Instead, myths of this Tijuana boss are spread in song and film. Among drug ballads that appear to be inspired by her legend is one called La Jefa de Tijuana. “A very powerful female, brave and decisive,” croons the singer to accordions and a polka beat. A low budget narco movie was also released with the same name, showing the fictional Jefa as a beautiful women who is not afraid of a gunfight.

Such a mix of fantasy and reality permeates the role of females in Mexican drug trafficking. Women, often with obvious plastic surgery, pose with guns in slinky clothes in many drug ballad music videos. One woman, Claudia Ochoa Felix, who looks like Kim Kardashian, posed with weapons on social media, sparking accusations in local newspapers that she was the head of a group of assassins. She denied it at a news conference.

These videos and social media create a distorted idea of what it is like for most women in the cartel world, say the journalist Valdez. It is not a glamorous life of mansions and jewels, but of brutality, rape, prison and death, he says. Drug traffickers will get girlfriends to have excessive plastic surgery to make them fit their fantasies but later, they may leave them to rot behind bars or murder them. “They want to control women’s bodies as a way to have power over them,” Valdez says. “But in the end, most of them see women as vulnerable and disposable.”

TIME Mexico

Uber Drivers Hunted Down in Mexico as Taxi Unions Fight Online Competition

MEXICO-TRANSPORT-TAXI-UBER-PROTEST
Yuri Cortez—AFP/Getty Images Taxi drivers take part in a protest against the private taxi company Uber for alleged unfair competition, in Mexico City on May 25, 2015.

Taxi drivers have attacked their online rivals and smashed their cars

Driving through this megacity from a rundown slum to an upscale business hub, David Garcia takes precautions to not be recognized as an Uber taxi operator. He keeps his smart phone on his lap rather than fixed under the mirror where it can be seen from the street. If police stop him, he says he is a private chauffer. He avoids going to certain hotspots where he says that traditional taxi drivers have attacked his colleagues. He is concerned about the car getting damaged. But he is also worried about staying in one piece himself.

“The taxi drivers can be really aggressive. They can block you in and break your mirrors and scratch the car. They attacked a colleague by a taxi stand. They smashed all his windows and beat him,” says Garcia, a 27 year old who has been driving an Uber for four months. Yet despite the hassle, Garcia says he likes the work. “You have good chats with the passengers. And I like driving. The taxi drivers don’t scare me.”

This anger towards online cab services such as Uber and Cabify has hit the headlines here in recent weeks as leaders of traditional taxi drivers have decried what they say is unfair competition. Taxi associations have held a series of demonstrations calling for the government to clamp down on the new services, which people call from their smartphones. One leader even promised to “hunt down” the digitally registered cars. “We are not going to leave (Uber cars) alone. We are tracking these colleagues and hunting them down,” Esteban Meza, who represents about 13,000 cabbies, told the El Universal newspaper. “Without doubt this is going to generate big trouble.”

The meteoric rise of Uber, from a service in San Francisco to a billion-dollar global business, has sparked disputes from Delhi to Rome to Manila. It is perhaps unsurprising that they have got a little rough in Mexico, where conflicts between rival taxi services have a history of spilling into violence. In 2013, a cameraman took this video of a bloody battle between drivers of cabs and motor-taxis in the southern state of Oaxaca in which a man was killed.

Uber has also come into a big but crowded market for taxis in Mexico City. The sprawl with 20 million residents already has tens of thousands of traditional licensed cabs, alongside thousands more motorbike taxis, bicycle taxis, and so-called “pirates” or cabs without the correct papers. Licensed cabs complain they have to pay expensive rates for their permits, which Uber drivers shirk. Mexico City transport authorities also require traditional taxi drivers to take courses, touching issues such as anger management. And they make the cabbies paint their cars in a uniform recognizable color, adding yet more outlays. They are currently making thousands of taxis paint their cars pink. With the costs and competition, drivers often hit the smoggy gridlocked streets for 14 hours a day to make ends meet.

At one taxi stand in the upscale Polanco neighborhood, drivers complained that Uber cars are aggressive as they steal their customers. “They drive right into our stand’s space to pick up their passengers,” said Ramon Trujillo, as he operated the radio and ate a plate of tacos. “You ask them politely to move and they swear at you.” Worse still, he said, Uber had hit them in their wallets, making business fall by about 40% this year. “This is a foreign service that is taking our money,” Trujillo added. A percentage of the Uber fees go the California-based corporation.

Uber has especially hit Mexico City’s upscale neighborhoods as it carves out its niche among young professionals. More than 300,000 people in the city have downloaded the app, with which the registered cars can be seen on the app as thick as bees in some trendy areas. The service appeals by allowing customers to pay with plastic, get online receipts and trace their chauffeurs. This reduces fear of a random taxi driver on the street mugging them – a problem that plagued Mexico City in the past, and still happens occasionally.

Mexico City authorities have zig zagged on how they will deal with the Uber challenge. Transport officials met with taxi leaders and promised to look at regulation of the online taxi services. However, Mexico City mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said there would be no arrests of Uber or Cabify drivers in the meantime. In Mexico State, which incorporates much of the city’s slums and suburbs, the governor Eruviel Avila said that Uber is “not formally authorized.” Yet, it is still easy to digitally hail down a taxi there.

Frustrated with the lack of action, taxi leaders announced last week that they would create a National Front of Taxis to oppose the online services, which are spreading to other Mexican cities. They promised to challenge the digital competition both in the courts and on the street. However, their angry words in the media do little to dissuade drivers such as Garcia. He says he earns 2,300 pesos – or $150 – a week driving an Uber, more than he did in a previous job working on a stall and has no intention of turning back. “It is fine the taxi drivers speak out,” he says. “They are just giving us publicity.”

TIME Mexico

Mexican Cartels Invent Ingenious Weapons to Help Battle Government

Improvised armored vehicle captured from the Zetas cartel.
Juan Cedillo Improvised armored vehicle captured from the Zetas cartel.

The drug gangs have no end of guns but are forced to invent weapons that could be in the A Team or Mad Max

As Mexican gangsters shot it out with troops in the border city of Reynosa this month, residents posted warnings on social media of where not to drive. Not only was the gunfire itself a problem but cartel gunmen had covered some roads with perilous spikes that they call ponchallantas or “tire punchers.” The hazard can appear suddenly as the cartels have customized vans with tubes that eject the spikes. If a car drives into them too fast, it can spin into a lethal crash. Gangsters also set grounded vehicles on fire, creating more debris in the way of security forces.

The tire punchers used in the April 17 firefight, in which soldiers arrested an alleged kingpin called José Tiburcio Hernández, are the latest example of the homemade battle technology developed by Mexico’s cartels. Gangsters have also built fighting vehicles with four inch-thick armor, sometimes referred to as “monsters” or “narco tanks.” And in October, police in the western state of Jalisco even busted a clandestine factory where traffickers assembled their own assault rifles.

The development of this narco technology south of the Rio Grande has grabbed the attention of U.S. security thinkers such as Robert Bunker, an external researcher for the U.S. Army War College. He compares it to the homemade war tools used by insurgent forces round the world. “Each battle technology has been adapted to both the conflict environment and the ideological and illicit economic motivations of the irregular forces,” Bunker says. “Caltrops and spike traps have been a component of warfare going back to the ancient Greeks. In many ways, we can think of them as pre-modern landmines.”

While there is no declared war in Mexico, fighting between rival cartels and the security forces has claimed more than 83,000 lives since 2007, according to a count by Mexico’s federal intelligence agency. Gangsters use traditional weapons, including Kalashnikovs, which are often smuggled from the United Sates. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has traced 73,684 guns seized in Mexico to U.S. gun sellers since 2009. Cartels also have rocket-propelled grenades, which may be stolen from Central American military caches.

However, it is harder for them to buy actual military vehicles leading to them inventing their own. The Zetas cartel, which was led by former soldiers, first developed its own armored vehicles, both converting regular trucks and building others from scratch. Their “monsters” resemble machines from the fantasy road wars of Mad Max, with gun turrets, battering rams and walls of armor.

The Mexican army has taken many of these makeshift tanks off the road, holding more than 40 of them in its base in Reynosa. But some are still at large and causing havoc. Last year, a Zeta monster attacked a hotel in the border town of Ciudad Mier, where executives from the oil services multinational Weatherford were staying. (The executives were shaken but unscathed).

Furthermore, vigilante groups that formed to fight cartels also built their own armored vehicles. “We were going into heavy gunfire and we needed protection. So we made these monsters of our own, based on the vehicles that the Zetas had built,” said Francisco Espinosa, a cattle rancher turned vigilante. With the help of local metal workers, they also used thick layers of armor, and added some of their own features such as mobile sand trenches.

The gun factory busted in October belonged to rising gang called the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The cartel has gained infamy for a series of attacks on Mexican officials, including an ambush on April 7 that killed 15 policemen. Hidden in two farm houses in the tequila-producing region, the factory used industrial metal cutters and blow torches to assemble AR15 rifles from components. “It’s highly sophisticated machinery with very precise software that allows them to make the cuts to finish the guns, which work perfectly,” Jalisco Attorney General Luis Carlos Najera said.

The factory likely uses gun parts that are sold on line, producing untraceable AR15’s, says Bunker, the security scholar. “I consider it conceptually sophisticated but not technologically sophisticated. The next step in this process will be the addition of a 3D metal printer. I’m sure this will come in time as more of these improvised arms factories spring up, metal printer technology matures, and prices for them drop.”

The cartels’ ability to make their own guns, customized vehicles and spike ejectors make them difficult for Mexico’s government to wipe out. Under President Enrique Pena Nieto, troops have arrested a string of cartel leaders, including the head of the Zetas and Sinaloan chief Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. This has helped reduce the total number of homicides, which went down from a peak of more than 22,000 in 2011 to 15,649 last year, according to a police count. But incidents such as the chaos in Reynosa and ambushes in Jalisco continue to shake the nation.

Bunker warns that cartels may keep on developing their battle tech. They could use drones for surveillance in the near future, giving them a fighting edge. Mexican gangsters have also used small car bombs, and could potentially harness bigger improvised explosive devices like those in the Middle East. “One area that we should keep an eye on is car bomb and IED use potentials,” Bunker says. “I could envision IEDs being placed in a city or town under certain circumstances.”

TIME Mexico

U.S. Legalization of Marijuana Has Hit Mexican Cartels’ Cross-Border Trade

The cartels are still smuggling harder drugs but advocates point out the success of legalization in cutting illegal trade

In the midst of this seething mountain capital, Mexico’s security ministry houses a bizarre museum — a collection of what the army seizes from drug traffickers. The Museo de Enervantes, often referred to as the Narco Museum, has drug samples themselves (including the rare black cocaine), diamond-studded guns, gold-coated cell phones, rocket-propelled grenades and medals that cartels award their most productive smugglers. It also shows off the narcos’ ingenuity for getting their drugs into the United States, including “trap cars” with secret compartments, catapults to hurl packages over the border fence and even false buttocks, to hide drugs in.

Agents on the 2,000 mile-U.S. border have wrestled with these smuggling techniques for decades, seemingly unable to stop the northward flow of drugs and southward flow of dollars and guns. But the amount of one drug — marijuana — seems to have finally fallen. U.S. Border Patrol has been seizing steadily smaller quantities of the drug, from 2.5 million pounds in 2011 to 1.9 million pounds in 2014. Mexico’s army has noted an even steeper decline, confiscating 664 tons of cannabis in 2014, a drop of 32% compared to year before.

This fall appears to have little to do with law enforcement, however, and all to do with the wave of U.S. marijuana legalization. The votes by Colorado and Washington State to legalize marijuana in 2012, followed by Alaska, Oregon and D.C. last year have created a budding industry. U.S. growers produce gourmet products with exotic names such as White Widow, Golden Goat and Oaktown Crippler as opposed to the bog-standard Mexican “mota.” American dispensaries even label their drugs, showing how strong they are, measured in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient), and grade their mix of sativa, which gets people stoned in a psychedelic way and indica, which has a more knock-out effect.

Drug policy reformists tout this market shift from Mexican gangsters to American licensed growers as a reason to spread legalization. “It is no surprise to me that marijuana consumers choose to buy their product from a legal tax-paying business as opposed to a black market product that is not tested or regulated,” says Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “When you go to a legal store, you know what you are getting, and that is not going to be contaminated.” A group called Marijuana Doctors elaborate the point in this comical online ad.

Analysts are still trying to work out the long-term effect this shift will have on Mexican cartel finances and violence. The legal marijuana industry could be the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy. It grew 74% in 2014 to $2.7 billion, according to the ArcView group, a cannabis investment and research firm. This includes revenue from both recreational drug stores and from medical marijuana, which has been legalized in 23 states. The group predicts the industry will top $4 billion by 2016.

This means less cash for Mexican cartels to buy guns, bribe police and pay assassins. Coinciding with legalization, violence has decreased in Mexico. Homicides hit a high in 2011, with Mexican police departments reporting almost 23,000 murders. Last year, they reported 15,649.

Other factors may have caused this fall in killings, says Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former officer of Mexico’s federal intelligence agency. “Finances from marijuana could be having an impact on violence but you also have to look at other causes. Many of the most violent cartel commanders have been killed or arrested,” Hope says. These downed warlords include the head of the Zetas cartel Heriberto Lazcano, a former soldier who was known as the Executioner for the mass graves he dug. Mexican marines say they shot Lazcano dead in 2012, although his cohorts bust into the funeral home and stole his corpse.

Despite the drop in homicides, Mexico’s violence is still at painful levels. In September, cartel thugs working with corrupt police attacked a group of students, killing three and abducting 43. The atrocity caused hundreds of thousands to take to the streets to protest corruption and bloodshed. On Monday, cartel gunmen ambushed police in Jalisco state, killing 15 in one of the worst attacks on security forces in recent years.

A key problem is that cartels have diversified to a portfolio of other crimes, from sex trafficking to stealing crude oil from Mexican pipelines. They also make billions smuggling hard drugs. Seizures of both heroin and crystal meth on the U.S.-Mexico border have gone up as those of marijuana have sunk, according to U.S. Homeland Security, with agents nabbing a record 34,840 pounds of meth in 2014.

In total, Americans spend about $100 billion on illegal drugs every year, according to a White House report. The estimate puts marijuana at about 40% of this, so the legal industry still only accounts for a fraction of the total. One restriction to growth is that U.S. federal law still prohibits cannabis, making banking difficult and scaring investors.

In the long term, drug policy reformers hope for a legal marijuana market in the entire region. This would throw up the possibility of Mexicans legally producing and exporting their drugs to the U.S., taking advantage of cheaper labor. “Cannabis is not unlike wine,” says Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at Washington’s Institute of Policy Studies. “I can buy a $200 bottle of wine, if that is what I am after. But many people will prefer the cheaper mass market product.” One advocate is former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has voiced support for an American entrepreneur who wants to import marijuana to the United States.

Any such cross-border market would require a change of U.N. treaties, which outlaw marijuana. These come up for discussion in a General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in April 2016. “I feel optimistic there will be change. This movement has momentum,” Angell of Marijuana Majority says. “It is interesting that the United States was historically a driver of drug prohibition. Now parts of the U.S. are leading the change.”

Read next: The Business of Pot

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