Christ statue in Torreon, Mexico

A new article examines the dilemmas stemming from the recent increase in violence in Torreon, a northern Mexico city emblematic of the nation's struggles.

As reported by Reuters, Torreon, once a beacon of peace and development in Mexico's blood-soiled north, is now second only to Acapulco in its annual murder rate. The metropolitan region known as La Laguna -- which spans Torreon and Matamoros in the state of Coahuila, as well as Gomez Palacio and Lerdo in Durango -- suffered 830 murders through the first nine months of 2012, according to newspaper reports. Torreon, the largest of the cities in La Laguna, had been the site of 606 murders this year as of October 10.

[See InSight Crime's coverage of Mexico]

The reason for the increase in violence is simple: the arrival of the Zetas in 2007, after years of the local drug trade having been controlled by more subdued capos from Sinaloa. As detailed in "Cronicas de Sangre," by Ricardo Ravelo, and numerous other sources, upon their arrival, the Zetas attacked the Sinaloa-backed boss who had controlled the region, and embarked on a campaign of intimidation of local business and political leaders. The intervening years have brought to the region some of the worst manifestations of Mexican criminal violence: decapitations, mass killings, attacks on government officials, and accusations of police infiltration.

[See InSight Crime's Zetas Profile]

As a result of the Zetas operations in Torreon, crimes like extortion, kidnapping, and carjacking also skyrocketed, as the new gang used activities beyond drug trafficking to supplement their income. Furthermore, the local rivals of the Zetas did not disappear from the scene. For the most part, they merely retrenched on the other side of the dried riverbed of the Rio Nazas, in neighboring Gomez Palacio. The existence of two rival territories bordering one another inevitably served as a motor of violent activities.

The Reuters piece describes the current situation as one in which the election in 2010 of Eduardo Olmos, a mayor bent on attacking the Zetas, has served as the primary driver of Torreon's violence. What's more, the sudden spike in violence has boosted support for a "pact" with the criminals.

The idea of a pact is a significant oversimplification and is largely contradicted by the reporting within in the piece. The most obvious issue is that no one quoted in the piece voices support for a pact with the narcos. The article has quotes from politicians and businessmen musing on the potential of a narco-pact, and cites an unspecified poll from Chihuahua in favor of such a truce. However, with one partial exception, no one quoted in the article, much less a representative sample of the population, advocated a truce. As the author points out, large majorities have rejected a truce time and again across Mexico. Modern Torreon seems to be no different, despite its unusually high levels of violence.

Furthermore, the metropolitan area's decline began long before Olmos' arrival to Torreon's city hall. As mentioned above, the group arrived in 2007, and murder rates began to jump shortly thereafter. According to Inegi, Mexico's statistical agency, the number of murders in Torreon more than tripled from 2007 to 2008, the first full year after the Zetas' arrival, from 26 to 91 killings. This represents the biggest jump in violence in the city’s recent history.

The Zetas also aren't the only traffickers subjecting the city to acts of terror. As mentioned above, the Zetas' enemies have continued to operate across the river on the Durango side of La Laguna, and these groups were behind the series of machine-gun attacks on customers in bars during the first months of 2010, among the most blatant recent examples of terrorist-style acts involving Mexican organized crime.

In short, the article describes the situation as one in which the honest citizens of Torreon suddenly face a stark choice between an unholy peace and an unacceptably violent struggle. The reality, of course, is far more complicated.

The Reuters piece does, however, demonstrate something very important about the nature of Mexican violence: it is no longer a simple issue of drug trafficking groups warring with one another. According to officials quoted in Torreon, the Zetas have suffered a series of significant blows in recent months, and have been virtually cleared from the city. Even allowing for some official exaggeration, what is striking is that in a context where the Zetas are gravely weakened, Torreon remains increasingly violent.

The rise in violence despite the Zetas' decline suggests that local criminals -- whether taking advantage of the widespread lawlessness with a more aggressive approach to petty crime or merely filling the vacuum in drug trafficking by the weakened Zetas -- are making up the difference. It also means that an improvement to life in Torreon is much more complicated than removing one gang from stage.