Geography can be a barrier to development in any country. Some have managed to overcome their hurdles through technology and sheer political will. Others, like Mexico, have found it more difficult.

Even during colonial rule, the Spanish viceroys struggled to control parts of the vast country. Anywhere outside of the central plateau, which includes Mexico City, can be hard to govern. Today, violence and drug trafficking are on the rise, partly due to the disconnectedness and lack of government authority in certain areas. In the first quarter of 2018, Mexico registered 7,667 intentional homicides. At this rate, total homicides will exceed 30,000 by the end of the year – well above the total for 2017, which was already a record year at 25,339 homicides.

The problem has been more pronounced in some places, most notably Guerrero state. Located on the Pacific coast and 120 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of Mexico City, it had the most homicides of any state in Mexico last year. Though this can partly be attributed to geography – the state is mountainous and therefore hard to secure from the outside – it’s also due to the fact that the state was not seen as a priority during various points in Mexico’s history. This Deep Dive will focus on why Guerrero has become a hub of violence and illicit activity and some of the challenges the government still faces in controlling it.

An Attractive Target for Cartels

On the whole, Mexico is a fairly prosperous country. It ranks 15th in the world in terms of gross domestic product and is classified as an upper middle-income country by the World Bank. But its wealth is not distributed evenly, and Guerrero state is a perfect example of the poverty and underdevelopment that exists in many parts of the country. Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography compared the level of development in all 32 Mexican states, looking at factors such as housing, infrastructure, basic furnishings, quality of life, health, education and employment levels. It found that Guerrero was among the three least-advantaged states in the country. In fact, all three least-advantaged states are located in the south and along the Pacific coast.

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Guerrero has become a prime target for drug cultivation and trafficking, a fact that’s reflected in its high murder rate. Last year, Guerrero registered a homicide rate of about 70 per 100,000 people. There are at least six major drug trafficking organizations – Jalisco New Generation Cartel, La Familia Michoacana, Guardia Guerrerense, Sangre Nueva Guerrerense, Los Viagras, and Los Cornudos – operating in the state and competing for territory. Other groups active in the state include Los Ardillos and Los Rojos. Some areas of Guerrero, most notably the Chilpancingo-Chilapa corridor, have almost no government presence and are controlled mainly by drug cartels that offer to “protect” local residents in exchange for their labor in poppy fields. The cartels’ willingness to intimidate and even attack local officials prompted the government, military and federal police this month to extend special protection to political candidates ahead of federal elections scheduled for July.

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The state’s demographics and terrain make it ripe for exploitation by drug trafficking organizations. Guerrero is the second-largest poppy producing state in Mexico after Sinaloa, thanks in large part to its climate and soil. In addition, the state’s population is very young, with an average age of 23, making it an attractive target for drug cartels that need people to join their ranks, work their land and traffic their goods. Some 98 percent of Guerrero’s economically active population is employed, but 79 percent of its workforce is employed in the informal sector, meaning those workers do not have access to health care and retirement plans and are generally paid much lower wages. Nearly 20 percent of the working population is underemployed or underpaid, and according to Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, nearly a quarter of the population lives in extreme poverty. The average person living in Guerrero has just eight years of education. Only about half of workers have some primary-level education, and only a quarter completed high school. Among a population that is undereducated and underemployed, cartels have had little trouble finding recruits for the lucrative drug trade.

History of Rebellion

Why have these conditions developed in Guerrero, while other parts of the country have prospered? There is no single, easy answer, but Mexico’s colonial past is a good place to start. Though named after Vicente Guerrero, a celebrated general from Mexico’s War of Independence, the state has a rich history of rebellion against authority. Guerrero, which translates as “warrior,” had unique beginnings: For years, local residents pressured the national government to establish a separate entity for Guerrero, which was previously divided among three states – Mexico, Michoacan and Puebla. Its population was among the first to rise up in several conflicts: the War of Independence, in support of constitutional reform, against French intervention, against the Porfirio Diaz government and against the government in Mexico’s Dirty War.

Colonial rule established a strong social hierarchy and concentrated land ownership in the hands of elites. Though existing population centers were allowed to survive, the Spanish distributed land, economic opportunities and investment according to the crown’s needs rather than those of the local population. Resentment against colonial rule existed throughout Mexico – the country did, after all, fight a war for independence – but the population in Guerrero was more isolated than most, with a weaker presence of the colonial government, which had limited resources with which to control a vast area. Guerrero, then, was often the starting point for social unrest that led to different rebellions. The state continued its rebellious streak even after colonialism ended. Nineteenth-century President Porfirio Diaz ruled with an iron fist, re-enforcing the public’s distrust of centralized authority. Diaz was especially tough on Guerrero, fearing it could inspire a rebellion against his government, and kept it a weak state.

Guerrero’s history of dissent is now reflected in the formation of self-defense groups – vigilante forces that have sprung up because of the growing insecurity in the state and the government’s inability to address it. The government’s response to the violence can be described as containment. Eight military bases encircle Guerrero along a federal highway that follows the state’s borders. This strategy may help limit the spread of the violence to other states, but it leaves the center unprotected and mostly lawless. At the municipal level, local police forces are ill-equipped to control the vast land for which they are responsible. Only four of the state’s municipalities have 10 or more agents from the Ministry of Public Security assigned to them, and over a dozen have fewer than four. Federal-level public security agents are practically non-existent outside of the resort town of Acapulco and the state capital of Chilpancingo.

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Poor Infrastructure

Another reason for the disorder in Guerrero is the lack of infrastructure. Mexico experienced a wave of infrastructure development after the second French intervention in the 1870s and during the early years of the Diaz government in the 1880s. In 1860, Mexico had but 150 miles of disjointed railway. Just 24 years later, this grew to 7,500 miles. Initially, officials wanted to construct a rail line linking Veracruz on the east coast with Acapulco, a port city in Guerrero, via Mexico City. But ultimately, they did not follow through, and Guerrero was largely left out of the infrastructure boom, a fact that has limited the state’s development ever since.

The state was left out because its mountainous terrain makes infrastructure development costly. Heavy rain during summer months also makes construction harder and increases the cost of maintenance for existing tracks. At the start of the railway boom, private companies and investors from the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere funded infrastructure projects and choose which projects to invest in based on their own business interests. In Guerrero, business interests mainly related to mining. The northern part of the state is rich in minerals and metal deposits. There was thus enough financial incentive to construct a railway from Mexico City to Iguala, located in the mining region and relatively close to Mexico’s capital.

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But when metal prices fell at the end of the 19th century, investor interest in the state waned. It was around this time, in 1898, that the federal government stepped in to regulate railway construction and, in so doing, put the final nail in the coffin for Guerrero’s development. The federal government intervened for two reasons. First, it needed to fill the gap left by the private sector. The fall in metal prices hit Guerrero particularly hard, but it affected the mining industry, and therefore infrastructure development, across the country. This would have almost immediate impacts on local populations and economies that the Diaz government had been so dedicated to supporting in the previous decade. Second, the government wanted a national approach to infrastructure development to ensure that the decisions being made on which projects to support and which areas received the most investment were in the best interests of the country. This resulted in legislation that limited foreign participation in infrastructure, gave the government more control and introduced a period in which projects needed government subsidies before they could move forward. But the central government did not consider Guerrero a priority for rail construction, and therefore the extension of the railway to Acapulco was abandoned.

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Guerrero is also poorly connected by roads. The first and only major highway in Guerrero connects Acapulco to Mexico City. It was built in 1927 and followed the original dirt road that connected the cities. The construction of the highway significantly affected the state’s development, as economic activity and population centers grew in areas with access to it. These areas included Acapulco, Chilpancingo and Iguala, as well as somewhat smaller centers just off the highway like Taxco and Chilapa. A third of the state’s population lives in the first three municipalities, and when the other three are added, it’s nearly half the population. Even today, the areas of Guerrero that are not along the main highway are underdeveloped, desolate and disconnected from economic activity in the rest of the country. Securing these areas would require heavy investment, both in terms of finances and personnel. This in part helps explain why federal security forces have adopted a containment approach there. It is costly for the government to cover this barren area, and therefore easy for others to take over.

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Limited Coastal Development

One key advantage Guerrero does have is its access to the Pacific Ocean. Ports usually serve as engines for economic growth and development because they help facilitate trade. Port cities offer benefits for businesses in terms of logistics and often develop into economic hubs themselves. But this hasn’t been the case in Guerrero’s main port, Acapulco.

Discovered by Spanish conquistadors in 1532, Acapulco was among the earliest ports established by Spain. But multiple factors have prevented Acapulco from developing into a major Mexican port. From 1565 to 1814, Acapulco was one of the primary ports used by New Spain and then Mexico for trade with China and other Asian countries, although trade with these countries was secondary to trade with Europe, which meant that ports on Mexico’s Atlantic coast took priority.

It was difficult for Acapulco and the surrounding area to fully capitalize on trade with Asia. The port received large shipments from Asia only twice a year. Crossing the Pacific Ocean took an incredibly long time given the distance between Mexico and China and the limits of maritime navigation and technology at the time. A trip that now takes two to three weeks took several months back then. Goods were unloaded at the port and a local fair was set up to sell them. After four to six weeks, the fairs would close and the goods would be sent to Mexico City, where they would be consumed or delivered to other parts of the viceroyalty. Thus, Acapulco was mainly used as a transit point for commerce and goods on their way to the capital and didn’t develop into a major commercial hub itself. Acapulco port did conduct trade with other viceroyalty cities along the Pacific coast – like Guayaquil (in present-day Ecuador) and Lima (in present-day Peru) – but the volume and value of such trade didn’t match that of, for example, Veracruz, Mexico’s main port on the east coast. The extreme seasonality of trade and the port’s limited development into a business center meant that it couldn’t support major development and growth in the rest of the state.

Once Acapulco lost its position as a major Pacific shipping port for New Spain, it never claimed it back. Mexico’s fight for independence severely disrupted Spanish control over trade and territory, including in Acapulco. Mexican Gen. Jose Maria Morelos took the city of Acapulco in 1814, at which point Spain redirected trade to other ports. In the years that followed, Mexico’s central government focused on securing territory from incursion by the U.S., France and even residents of Guerrero, which was not yet a state of its own. In the early 20th century, construction of the Panama Canal was in full swing, further stagnating development in Acapulco because goods could be shipped to Mexico’s east coast faster and more inexpensively through the canal. Within Mexico, Manzanillo Port, also on the Pacific coast, quickly started surpassing Acapulco in terms of infrastructure development, and in 1908, Porfirio Diaz designated Manzanillo as an official port of entry.

Today, the ports of Manzanillo and Lazaro Cardenas dominate Mexico’s Pacific maritime trade. Despite increasing trade between Mexico and Asian markets and the fact that, globally, Pacific trade is starting to overtake Atlantic trade, Acapulco cannot take advantage. The private sector continues to shy away from investing there, partly because of the security concerns in Guerrero and partly because of competition from more developed and reliable ports in other areas of Mexico. This leaves the government as the primary source of funding for major infrastructure projects, but even the government is reluctant to sink money into this part of the country.

Playing Catch-Up

Over time, Guerrero became isolated from the rest of Mexico, limiting the central government’s ability to govern the state and rein in violence there. Geography initially served as the underlying cause of Guerrero’s lack of connectivity. Its isolation from other major population centers bred a strong sense of regional identity and made it difficult to integrate the state with the rest of the country. Its only major center of commerce, Acapulco, was far from the country’s main trade routes and markets, thus making it more a transitory stop than an economic center. Guerrero’s natural resources were taken out of the region, particularly under colonial rule, and little was reinvested into the state. In the early days of major infrastructure development, Guerrero drew the short end of the stick, as other states presented more attractive business prospects.

The lack of connectivity resulted in the state’s developing an economy based on subsistence farming, tourism and basic manufacturing – all low-value economic activities. The lack of economic opportunities, a large, young labor force, and a climate prime for poppy cultivation have made Guerrero an attractive location for drug trafficking organizations, which have easily filled the power vacuum left by the central government.

Technology has come a long way, and much of the state’s geographic barriers could be overcome. But other states have gotten a head start, and Guerrero is still stuck playing catch-up. Major investments are needed to bring Guerrero on par with other Mexican states, but the security environment will make that difficult. Guerrero needs more economic and infrastructure development if it wants to really tackle the violence and drug problem. But it has a long way to go.