Veracruz: More than a Temporary Calm?

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Mexico‘s authorities have claimed a recent drop in violence in crime-ridden Veracruz as the fruit of military operations, but given the preceding months of spiralling violence, it remains unclear if this more than a blip.

Jose Luis Vergara Ibarra, a spokesman for the marines, said that in the last three months of 2011, during the implementation of Operation Safe Veracruz, there were 445 murders around the state, 396 of them linked to organized crime. The spokesman said that there were more than 2,500 extortion complaints and hundreds of weapons seizures during the operation, as Excelsior reports.

This represents a significant fall from the explosion of violence in the preceding few months, which saw Veracruz become one of the most dangerous places in Mexico. According to recently released data from the federal government, Veracruz city, the state capital, witnessed a more than 20-fold increase in murders linked to organized crime in the first nine months of 2011 (to a total of 155), while murders across the state, numbering 542, rose almost four-fold.

Adding the numbers from the marines, Veracruz state was evidently home to just under 950 murders linked to organized crime in 2011. Extrapolating from the available data, the total number of murders was likely to have totaled between 1,050 and 1,100 — almost three times the number seen the previous year, which totalled 382.

This three-fold rise in killings shook once-tranquil Veracruz, Mexico’s third most populous state. During the past decade, the state’s murder rate has fluctuated between five and seven per 100,000 residents, a figure only slightly above that of the US. The outbreak stems from a dispute between the Zetas, who have long been dominant in the region, and the recently emerging Mata Zetas, or Zeta Killers, an offshoot of the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG, for its initials in Spanish). In addition to the steady drumbeat of isolated murders, dozens of bodies were dumped en masse around Boca del Rio and Veracruz City in two separate incidents in September and October.

After coming to prominence in Guadalajara, where they have also fought with the Zetas, the CJNG first made their appearance in Veracruz in July, with a video threatening the Zetas in the city. The group’s place in Mexico’s underworld is itself a matter of some debate. While they have been described as a proxy for the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas’ foremost enemy, one at least one occasion they have apparently left signs on murder victims taunting Sinaloa.

While both government sources and outside analysts have trumpeted the Zetas as the most powerful and dangerous band in Mexico, the ability of a little-known group, even one with the backing of a larger organization, to move into the Zetas’ turf and fight for control of the region demonstrates that all gangs have become vulnerable to the prevailing chaos.

The spike in killing in Veracruz also exemplifies the fact that the parts of Mexico with the most significant recent rises in violence are not the border towns notorious for wanton killings, such as Juarez or Tijuana. Indeed, the violence has decreased in each of those border cities and in other regions that have long been closely tied to the drug trade. In recent months, however, it is in coastal states like Michoacan, Guerrero, and Jalisco, as well as staging-area cities just a few hours from the border like Monterrey and Torreon, where the most significant increases have been witnessed.

While the news from Veracruz has been bleak in recent months, marine spokesman Vergara Ibarra emphasized that murders have dropped by 62 percent during January. While the news may be positive for the new year, it’s not uncommon for a couple of relative calm months to interrupt an area’s ongoing descent.

For instance, in Juarez, a robust army deployment in early 2009 brought the rash of killings that had started the previous year to a standstill lasting several weeks; however, within months, the violence was worse than ever before. Indeed, the army’s deployment has coincided with some of the city’s most violent recent spells. For Veracruz, as in ther parts of Mexico, the effects of any governmental security operation need to be analyzed in the long term, not against the backdrop of the week-by-week ups and downs.

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