Mexico Murder Report Points to Criminal Evolution

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Mexico’s newly released crime statistics for 2015 reveal a mild uptick in murders last year, the first such increase the nation has experienced since 2011.

According to the newly released data (pdf) from the National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública – SNSP), Mexico registered 18,650 murders in 2015, an increase of 7.6 percent compared to the final figures of 2014, and the largest total since 2012. It also ends a prolonged period of steadily declining murders for Mexico that has lasted the duration of the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The total number of killings gives Mexico a murder rate of approximately 16 per 100,000 residents. While this remains far higher than most developed countries, it remains well below the high of the Felipe Calderón era, when it broke 20, to say nothing of Mexico’s southern neighbors. El Salvador, for instance, registered a national murder rate of more than 60 per 100,000 residents in 2014. The corresponding statistic for Venezuela was 54, while in Colombia it was 26.

The increase, while relatively slight, represents another crack in Peña Nieto’s narrative on security, which holds that under his watch Mexico’s government has managed to bring a chaotic situation under control. The previous declines allowed Peña Nieto to point to a broadly improving climate, notwithstanding scandals like the escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero. Now, however, the news is bad on several different fronts, and Peña Nieto would have a difficult time arguing that his policies are contributing to a continued improvement in the nation’s public security.

InSight Crime Analysis

The monthly murder figures did not vary a great deal; the low figure came in February, with 1,413, while the high was in August, when 1,709 people were killed. In both cases, the outlier months were followed quickly by regressions toward the monthly mean.

This suggests that rather than a fundamental shift in the criminal landscape, Mexico witnessed a general deterioration, or perhaps a regression to the mean of violence following what might now be considered an outlier year in 2014.

Similarly, while some states saw notable increases, no region in Mexico witnessed the sudden explosion of violence comparable to that of Ciudad Juárez from 2008 through 2010, where the fight between the Sinaloa and Juárez Cartels generated a remarkable number of the nation’s murders. In 2010, the city was home to nearly 15 percent of the nation’s murders but little more than 1 percent of its population.

SEE ALSO: InDepth: Homicides

With a murder rate of 57 per 100,000 residents, 2015’s most violent state was Guerrero, a designation it has grown familiar with in recent years. With 2,016 killings, Guerrero also delivered the second highest total of murders, behind only Mexico State, which has almost five times as many residents and where 2,303 people were killed. This represents a substantial increase in bloodshed in Guerrero from 2014, during which 1,514 people were murdered, but it falls well within the recent range of violence in the state.

But the laudable trends of the Peña Nieto era, including the pacification of the North, have plateaued, and the initial improvements have failed to deepen.

Rounding out the five states with the highest murder rates were Sinaloa (with a rate of 34 per 100,000 residents), Chihuahua (32), Morelos (27), and Baja California (27). As with the nation as a whole, these states witnessed only marginal decreases in their security situations. Collectively, they registered 364 more murders than in 2014, a relatively small jump in a group whose residents number nearly 12 million.

The reasons behind the violence in these regions differs. Guerrero has experienced a long-term societal breakdown in various regions, from the inland Tierra Caliente to the coastal areas of Acapulco and Zihuatanejo, that has sparked the upsurge of dozens of competing organized crime groups, each of them unable to assert much control.

Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Baja California, in contrast, are the traditional territories of some of Mexico’s largest trafficking organizations: the Sinaloa Cartel, the Beltrán Leyva Organization, the Tijuana Cartel, and the Juárez Cartel.

In Mexico’s Northeast, another principal area of operation for what are traditionally Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations, the picture is largely similarly. There were substantial upticks in Tamaulipas (which leapt from 628 murders in 2014 to 763 in 2015) and Veracruz (which increased from 487 to 615), two traditional centers of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, former allies that have been locked in conflict for the past half-decade. However, those increases were partially offset by relative calm in two other states long associated with Gulf Cartel and Zeta operations: Nuevo León, where murders dropped from 490 to 451, and Coahuila, where the stat dropped from 390 to 340.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

The overall picture suggests that Mexico is settling into a new equilibrium. It is substantially safer than it was five years ago, during the nadir of the Calderón era. Absent any external stimulus that shakes up the Mexican underworld, it is unlikely that the nation will return to the bad old days.

But the laudable trends of the Peña Nieto era, including the pacification of the North, have plateaued, and the initial improvements have failed to deepen. This suggests that the fundamentals in Mexico will be resistant to further gains. Furthermore, the recent lack of any external shock that could initiate a new spiral of violence is not permanent, and, indeed, may have already happened.

In other words, one clear lesson from the SNSP report is that any sense of complacence is misplaced.

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