Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto hailed the dramatic improvement in security in Ciudad Juarez during a recent speech, but though the city’s fortunes are greatly improved, the president’s self-congratulations are not fully deserved.
During a recent trip to the border town, which was the hemisphere’s most violent city during much of Felipe Calderon’s presidency, Peña Nieto touted reductions of 100, 95, and 98 percent in the rate of kidnapping, extortion, and car theft.
A spokesman for the presidency later clarified that based on a comparison of January to November 2014 with the same period in 2012 (during which Calderon was finishing out his term), kidnapping declined by 89.5 percent, while extortion dropped by 98.3 percent. The message appears clear: while insecurity in other parts of the country is eroding his credibility and threatening his popularity, Juarez is one area where the Peña Nieto administration believes it can be positively compared to his predecessor.
The improvement in Ciudad Juarez is certainly genuine, and it is one of the most encouraging stories among a mosaic of security challenges. While Peña Nieto focused on the crimes in which the proportional drops were the largest, the drop in the murder rate is almost as steep and even more significant. In 2010, the city registered more than 3,000 murders, giving it a murder rate that approached 300 per 100,000 residents and making it among the most dangerous cities in the world. In 2014, in contrast, the city registered 427 murders, a far cry from the recent dystopia and good enough for a murder rate beneath that of several American cities.
There are a number of factors to explain the improvement. For those looking for governmental reasons, the reduction in the role of federal troops, who focused on high-impact operations that destabilized the local underworld and who were accused of a litany of human rights abuses, is a big part of the story. The role of the army and the Federal Police, in turn, has been absorbed by a revamped local police under the control of Chief Julian Leyzaola, an ex-army colonel whose tenure in the same post in Tijuana coincided with a similar drop in crime.
The federal government’s investment in Juarez’s improvement is also a key element. Through the program known as Todos Somos Juarez, in 2010 the government began pumping millions of dollars into the local economy, focusing on projects that would help repair a frayed social fabric. The program also brought together local leaders from different realms, all exchanging ideas on how to recover the city’s prior sense of calm.
The developments within the criminal underworld also played a substantial role. The years-long fight between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel and all of their respective proxies has essentially ended, with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s forces taking control. The violent local ally of the Juarez Cartel, La Linea, has also been devastated by a wave of arrests. In short, the primary tensions feeding the bloodshed five years ago, and the individuals that created them, have disappeared.
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Nonetheless, there are various reasons for which Peña Nieto’s comments come off as a bit too self-congratulatory. As far as the kidnapping and extortion numbers he trumpeted, both crimes are notoriously difficult to accurately measure, because victims and perpetrators alike have a strong incentive to avoid reporting them. The so-called “black number” of unreported crimes is virtually impossible to estimate with any precision, and can vary a great deal depending on local circumstances, such as the potential for repercussions for the victim.
It’s also worth noting that as stunning and praiseworthy as the transformation has been, Juarez’s murder rate in 2014 was still 2.5 times the national average. This is evidence that there remains a great deal of work to be done, and that the most basic driving factors of the prior waves of violence — namely, the US drug prohibition and Juarez’s status as a major port-of-entry — remain in place.
Finally, it’s not clear how much Peña Nieto’s government’s policies have contributed to Juarez’s turnaround. Most of the factors analysts have identified have more to do with the local government or the organized crime groups themselves as driving the improvement.
Furthermore, the most substantial improvements in Juarez’s recent history occurred under Calderon’s watch; the more than 3,000 murders registered in 2010 dropped to 2,086 in 2011, and fell further to 750 in 2012, Calderon’s final year in office. Moreover, his government launched Todos Somos Juarez in 2010, giving local leaders a valuable new platform to lock security gains into place.
That isn’t to say that Juarez stands as a Calderon achievement, precisely; his government was also in place during its sudden decline, and adopted a series of ineffective policies over a period of years. But insofar as the federal government is concerned, the Peña Nieto government is a bit player in Juarez’s travails. The current president’s performance on security has far more to do with his handling of hotspots that have emerged under his administration, of which there is unfortunately a long list.