Patterns and trends of violence in Mexico are in flux

A new report from a leading think tank provides a snapshot of Mexico's security struggles, exploring the long-term trends and immediate causes of 2016's surge in bloodshed.

The report, titled "Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016," is the latest in a series of annual publications from the Justice in Mexico Project, which operates out of the University of San Diego's department of political science and international relations.

The authors -- professors Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk -- note early in the report that 2016 brought a substantial increase in the number of overall murders and murders related to organized crime.

Relying on statistics from the National Public Security System (SNSP), they tallied 22,932 total killings in 2016, an increase of approximately 20 percent from the 18,650 recorded in 2015. The 2015 total was also a slight increase from 2014, meaning that last year marked not only a decisive end to the increased tranquility of the early Peña Nieto years, but also a deepening spiral of violence.

Twenty-four of Mexico's 32 states registered increases in homicides, reflecting a broad-based trend toward more violence. The increases were especially concentrated in Colima and Zacatecas, which respectively witnessed four-fold and two-fold surges in homicides. Baja California, Michoacán, and Veracruz also registered substantial increases. Guerrero remained the most murderous state in Mexico last year.

With the exception of Veracruz, which lies along Mexico's Gulf Coast, all of these states are key to Pacific trafficking routes. Most of these states have long been among Mexico's most notoriously combative areas, though Colima has largely been spared the worst of the drug-related violence in years past.

InSight Crime Analysis

Analyzing data from three sources that track killings linked to organized crime, the report's authors point to organized crime as the primary driver of the increase in violence nationally. Virtually all of the increases in murders in Colima and Zacatecas stem from an increase in organized crime-related violence, the report concludes. Guerrero, Michoacán, and Nayarit (another small coastal state key to Pacific trafficking routes) also saw a substantial increase in such homicides. Nationally, estimates of the fraction of total killings attributable to organized crime range from 30 percent to more than 50 percent.

One of key drivers the authors point to is the extradition of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán and the end of the so-called Pax Sinaloa, through which the Sinaloa Cartel consolidated control over much of the nation's north and west. The Sinaloa Cartel's victories brought a temporary halt to battles for areas like Tijuana and Juarez around 2010, but its triumphs were not decisive enough to withstand the removal of its foremost leader. Nor, for that matter, was the Sinaloa Cartel ever able to cement enough control over Guerrero to bring the southern Pacific state some semblance of calm.

Today, the resurgence of longstanding Sinaloa adversaries has pushed many regions back toward the intense levels of violence seen during the administration of former President Felipe Calderón. The decline of the Sinaloa Cartel's hegemony has also precipitated the emergence of new rivals, from Fausto Isidro "Chapito" Meza Flores to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG), whose ambitions have further driven the uptick in violence.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

One of the strengths of the Justice in Mexico paper is that it goes beyond the explanation limited to actors within organized crime, important though they are. The authors also focus on deep-seated social problems and broad political trends, whose myriad interactions with public security problems create the dynamic, herculean security challenges that Mexico faces today.

For instance, they describe recently published academic research that points to migration, familial disintegration, and barriers to education as significant drivers of crime. Without addressing these social problems, many of which have decades of inertia behind them, the ups and downs of criminal interactions can only have so much impact. In other words, violence is likely to have a high floor.

They also point to Mexico's economic problems, from a weakened currency to low prices for oil, Mexico's most lucrative export. These and other issues, ranging from the sprawling informal economy to US deportation policies, tend to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable Mexican communities.

The paper also provides an update on Mexico's reformed justice system, whose eight-year overhaul was to be completed last year. The reform, which was one of the signature legislative accomplishments of the Calderón era, was meant to make the Mexican judicial system both more efficient at trying criminals and less vulnerable to the sorts of abuses that generated international embarrassments.

The authors report widespread satisfaction with the ideals of the new trial system, which establishes the presumption of innocence and is based on the adversarial approach in place in much of the developed world. At the same time, many of those charged with operating within the reformed system have been unable to keep their skills up to date with the new provisions, and some continue to exhibit retrograde views regarding prosecutorial conduct:

[B]etween 13% and 29% [of judges, prosecutors, and public defenders who responded to their survey] reported having never been trained in oral litigation or alternative methods to resolve cases. A concerning 48% of prosecutors, 29% of public defenders, and 13% of judges also expressed their view that authorities can operate above the law in order to investigate and punish criminals. The study also highlighted the frequently unreliable use of eyewitness testimony in court, despite the fact that it continues to be the most frequently used form of evidence (68% of the time), followed by physical evidence (53%), and confessions (13%).

As with the social problems referenced above, Mexico faces a mighty undertaking in executing a lasting reform to its judicial system. It entails using changes in the rules to shift viewpoints, habits, and customs that have persisted for decades, if not centuries. Even with an eight-year window for implementation, more time is needed for the men and women who comprise the judicial system to embrace the new provisions, which means the reform's benefits have yet to fully take root.

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