Rising Violence in Chihuahua, Mexico Points to Homegrown Disputes

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The border state of Chihuahua, Mexico is confronting a resurgence of violent crime, but the fight seems more about local revenue streams than international trafficking routes.

Data from the Mexican government shows that Chihuahua logged a total of 791 gun murders in 2016, a 40 percent increase over the number of gun murders recorded in the state in 2015.

The violence has continued in 2017. According to statistics obtained by InSight Crime from Chihuahua’s Attorney General’s Office, the state logged a total of 321 murders during the first two months of 2017.

Many of these killings appear to be hits targeting individual victims. And in many cases there are signs that the recent wave of attacks is tied to organized crime and local level retail drug dealing.

On March 20, for example, Chihuahua’s State Attorney General’s Office confirmed the death of suspected local crime leader César Raúl Gamboa Sosa, alías “El Cabo,” in a confrontation with a rival group the previous day.

Less than a week earlier, on March 14, armed civilian gunmen attacked a group of police officers in the town of Bachiniva south of Ciudad Juárez in the center of the state of Chihuahua. One officer was killed and two were injured in an attack that mirrored a similar incident in the same area one week earlier.

On February 5, three college students were killed at a taqueria in Ciudad Juárez, the largest city in the state. Prosecutors allege that the three men were involved in local level drug dealing.

And on January 23 two men were killed and two others were injured in an ambush while driving through Villa Bravo in Chihuahua City. Police found more than 300 .223 mm and 7.62 X 39 mm shells at the crime scene, ammunition used in AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles. Prosecutors in Chihuahua have stated that the victims were alleged members of La Línea, one of the state’s major organized crime groups.

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Chihuahua’s State Attorney General César Peniche acknowledged last year that “since the start of [2016] an increase in the number of homicides in Ciudad Juárez as well as Chihuahua and other towns has been reflected in the statistics.”

But the battles are not just urban. In one particularly dramatic incident on October 12, 2016, a large convoy of heavily armed men near the rural town of Madera confronted police in a gunfight that lasted several hours and left ten dead, including three municipal police.

And on October 27, gunmen killed seven people at a motel outside of Ciudad Juárez, in a shooting prosecutors said was linked to competition over street-level drug dealing.

InSight Crime Analysis

The recent crime wave in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua is different from the hyper-violent period of 2008-2012 because the fight appears to be mostly focused on retail drug dealing rather than a wider battle for control of smuggling routes.

“We attribute this [uptick in violence] to the repositioning of certain criminal organizations that are fighting for territory for the retail drug trade,” Peniche explained, specifically citing the methamphetamine business as a flashpoint.

But while incidents of violence in the world of retail drug dealing have become more frequent, Chihuahua is not experiencing a similar rise in murders of taxi drivers and street vendors who often work as informers and lookouts for organized crime groups engaged in cross-border drug smuggling.

Additionally, the rise of gangland violence does not appear to have been accompanied by a commensurate increase in crime targeting innocent residents or local police officers and police captains. The number of kidnappings reported in Chihuahua in 2016 is around 7 percent of the level recorded in 2011. Even as violent crime rose in 2016 the state recorded only nine kidnappings.

In fact, current levels of violence in state are still far below levels experienced during 2008-2012, when the Juárez and Sinaloa Cartels battled for control of the lucrative Juárez corridor. For instance, in 2010 Chihuahua recorded 3,210 gun murders. Since 2010, however, the overall level of violence in Chihuahua diminished. The state logged 2,382 gun murders in 2011, 1,093 in 2012, and a low of 393 in 2013. 

Since 2012, Ciudad Juárez has enjoyed major improvements in overall security. And the recent crime wave has not erased the broader trend of improving security for ordinary citizens. So far, the violence appears to be highly concentrated among low income, low-level drug dealers or in rural areas like the Sierra Madre.

“The current uptick in Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez probably has a lot to do with competition within Chihuahua to control the domestic trade in meth and heroin. The killings we’re seeing appear to be fairly low-level people, street dealers,” Julián Cardona, a researcher from Ciudad Juárez, told InSight Crime.

Researcher Molly Malloy of New Mexico State University agreed, telling InSight Crime, “A lot of the violence in Juárez may have to do with local street gangs and their fight to control their territory to sell heroin and meth. They kill people because they want to sell drugs. That’s where the violence is generated. There are violent street gangs that control neighborhoods and fight each other.”

The dynamic is complicated by the fact that international trafficking groups often use local street gangs as soldiers and enforcers. The Sinaloa Cartel, for instance, has been allied with groups such as Los Artisas Asesinos and Los Mexicles, while the Juárez Cartel has its own enforcement arm, La Línea, as well as an alliance with the street and prison gang Barrio Azteca. 

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