Gang Breakdown Coincides with Kidnapping Rise in Mexico States

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A sudden spike in kidnapping in Guerrero and Baja California has coincided with the ongoing deterioration of the organized crime structures that dominate the two west Mexico states.

According to statistics published by the NGO Observatorio Virtual, the kidnapping rate in Baja California and Guerrero ticked upward in the first three months of 2016 even as the national rate has continued the decline it began in 2013.

In Guerrero, (pdf) the registered figure of 2.34 kidnappings per 100,000 residents is only a slight bump from the 2.27 registered last year, but it bucks a long-term trend, as Guerrero registered substantial declines in 2014 and 2015. The figure is the third-highest of any Mexican state this year, and nearly three times the national average of 0.80 per 100,000 residents.

The kidnappings reported by Observatorio Virtual are concentrated in a relatively small number of Guerrero’s municipalities,16-06-12-ObserVirtual largely along the coast and in several small inland towns. Over the past 12 months, General Canuto A. Neri and Pedro Ascencio Alquisiras, both inland towns with populations under 7,000, saw kidnapping rates of 16.03 and 14.17 per 100,000 residents, respectively. Cualac, a comparably sized town near the state’s border with Oaxaca, registered a rate of 13.99. The figure for Chilpancingo, the state’s capital, was 7.49.

While the prevalence of the crime in these hotspots was more than enough to make Guerrero one of the nation’s most dangerous states for abductions, 48 of the state’s 81 municipalities reported no kidnappings at all.

In Baja California, (pdf) Observatorio Virtual’s data indicates circumstances that are largely better than in Guerrero. The border state’s kidnapping rate for 2016 is 0.68 per 100,000 residents, just below the national average and 10th among the 32 Mexican states. This would seem to indicate a situation that is under control. However, the recent trend is more alarming. Baja California’s kidnapping rate has more than doubled in 2016, driven by a rash of abductions in Tijuana, the state’s largest city. The kidnapping rate in Tijuana (pdf) over the first three months of 2016 has more than doubled compared to 2015.

InSight Crime Analysis

Kidnapping statistics are notoriously difficult to track, as many victims, believing that a ransom payment without the involvement of the police is the safest way to secure freedom, have a powerful disincentive to reporting it. As a result, any official kidnapping statistic vastly understates the real figure. But assuming these statistics reflect a genuine trend, and they probably do, then there are a few different factors likely driving them, with one in particular standing out.

One key factor specific to both states is the years-long decline of the dominant criminal groups in each: the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) in Guerrero and the Tijuana Cartel in Baja California. Both have suffered years of setbacks with captures and killings decimating the leadership that built the organizations.

SEE ALSO: Tijuana Cartel Profile

The Arellano Félix family, which built the Tijuana Cartel out of an offshoot of the Guadalajara Cartel in the 1990s, has virtually ceased to operate. Founders Ramón and Benjamín Arellano Félix were killed and arrested, respectively, in 2002. After inheriting the operation, their brothers Javier and Eduardo were arrested in 2006 and 2008. Other relatives and subordinates have also taken up the reins, but none — including Enedina Arellano Félix, the sister of the founders and reputed leader today — have managed to restore the group to its prior influence.

The result has been a period of substantial reorganization in Baja California. Reports have been somewhat contradictory, with some sources describing attempts by Arellano Félix veterans to recapture their influence, while more recently a government official indicated that the Jalisco Cartel was moving into the area. Whatever the case — and these two possibilities are not mutually exclusive — no single group has control of Baja California.

Similarly, the BLO, once a dominant force along Mexico’s southern Pacific coast, has declined precipitously. The erstwhile boss of the family, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, was killed in 2009 in a shootout with security officials in Cuernavaca, a tourist haven between Mexico City and Guerrero. His brother Alfredo was captured shortly before then in an arrest that sparked the group’s split from the Sinaloa Cartel, while Carlos was arrested shortly after. The last holdout, Héctor Beltrán Leyva, was arrested in 2014.

The disintegration of the BLO has spawned a tangled network of splinter groups, such as Guerreros Unidos, Independent Cartel of Acapulco, Los Ardillos, Los Rojos, and many others. Without a hegemonic actor organizing these groups and divvying up responsibilities and profits, they have naturally come into conflict with each other, as well as other new actors tempted by the power vacuum.

SEE ALSO: BLO Profile

The absence of a single controlling entity at the top of the local food chain has long contributed to the rise of small-time crime, from bank robbery and car theft to extortion and kidnapping.

There are different explanations for this phenomenon, which has manifested itself around the country. One is that the single hegemonic group is able to outlaw certain behaviors among local criminals, acting as a sort of underworld police. But when the hegemon loses its control, and the real police aren’t able to step in to adequately punish kidnapping or other such crimes, then criminal actors are free to pursue actions that were previously beyond the pale.

Another related explanation is that the big groups tend to have the readiest access to drug producers, whether South American cocaine or Mexican heroin, and the means to move major shipments. In effect, this means access to high profit margins. When a larger organization disintegrates, the revenues that come with trafficking substantial amounts of drugs dry up as well. As a result, the smaller cells that operate within the newly weakened group must find ways to replace their lost income, with extortion and kidnapping in particular emerging to take the place of drug shipments.

It remains to be seen if the recent uptick in Guerrero and Baja California is a blip or the beginning of a new trend, but the collapse of the BLO and the Tijuana Cartel has certainly created the conditions for kidnapping to continue to rise in these troubled states.

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