What Mexico can Learn From Declining Violence in 2 Border States

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A new study examining the evolution of security in the Mexican states of Nuevo León and Chihuahua may offer lessons for the rest of the nation, though many of the successes could be difficult to replicate.

The study was published in the February edition of the Mexican magazine Este País. As authors Arturo Ramírez Verdugo and Reyes Ruiz González point out, recent security developments in both states share similarities. Both states saw an extreme deterioration in security after longtime criminal allies split apart, during the era of President Felipe Calderon. This was followed by a dramatic drop in violence in recent years.

According to the National Public Security System (SNSP), murders in Chihuahua peaked in 2010 with nearly 4,000. The figure topped out the following year in Nuevo León with 2,003 killings. However, in 2015 murders in Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon had slipped to 945 and 451, respectively, drops of just over 75 percent in both cases. The Este País study seeks to uncover what is behind the decline in homicides. 

Both Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon share a number of basic characteristics which influenced why security declined and why, in some ways, it then began to improve.

Both are large border states with one city dominating the economy and the demographics — Juárez in Chihuahua’s case and Monterrey in Nuevo León. In both cases, the rise in bloodshed was largely precipitated by a split between two erstwhile allies who had cooperated in managing lucrative drug trafficking routes. After years of tension, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juárez Cartel and their respective proxies launched an open war against one another in 2008, with Juárez serving as the focal point of the fight. The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas broke their alliance in 2010, and Nuevo León emerged as a key conflict hub.

Both Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon share a number of basic characteristics which influenced why security declined and why, in some ways, it then began to improve.

According to the Este País study, just as the two states shared several factors that contributed to their decline, several common characteristics helped aid their remarkable reversal.

One such characteristic is an active civil society, led by local business and community leaders, supporting governmental changes. Another is a focus on augmenting and improving the local government’s role in protecting public security, particularly the local courts and the local police. Crucially, local authorities in both states worked to coordinate with their federal and state counterparts, so that official efforts have a multiplier effect, instead of working at cross-purposes in such a way that undermines security.

Neither of these observations is entirely original, particularly in regard to Juárez. The local community’s participation in Todos Somos Juárez has been widely commented on, as has the expanded operations of the local police department, particularly under the leadership of former chief Julián Leyzaola. Moreover, oceans of ink have been spilled discussing the impact of defective local governments’ in exacerbating security problems across Mexico.

But the importance of local government and an engaged civic community remains widely underappreciated, as public attention is far more likely to settle on the activities of the president. For that reason, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s efforts to establish a gendarmerie have attracted far greater a media spotlight than any innovations within municipalities, despite the gendarmerie’s limited mandate and minuscule size relative to the nation as a whole. What has been largely ignored in Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua is reflective of what has been overlooked across the nation.

The authors of the Este País study also highlight a number of other factors. One is the implementation of the new trial system stemming from the 2008 judicial reform, and consequent improvements in the local conviction rate as well as the system’s capacity for supporting the integration of released criminals into mainstream society. 

What has been largely ignored in Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua is reflective of what has been overlooked across the nation.

Other successes included substantial boosts in budgets for the top judicial authorities at the state levels, who are responsible for trying many of the so-called “high-impact crimes” associated with criminal groups, including murder, kidnapping, and extortion. In Nuevo León, spending by the state’s justice ministry leapt from 2.3 billion pesos in 2010 to 4.5 billion pesos in 2014. In Chihuahua, the corresponding increase was from 2.1 billion to 4.1 billion pesos. In other words, a nearly 100 percent increase in both cases in just four years, during which the Mexican economy’s increased by only approximately 12 percent.

The authors conclude that the reasons behind the drop in crime in Nuevo León and Chihuahua amounts to a substantial institutional improvement. If one accepts this, these developments in Nuevo León and Chihuahua are genuinely historic. Mexico’s corrupt, ineffective security agencies have long resisted reform efforts, to the detriment of an entire nation. Ramírez Verdugo and Ruiz González appear to be suggesting that the two states have at last found their way to overcome this.

Some of the conclusions in the Este País study are better supported than others. Institutional improvement is extremely hard to measure, and supporting such a conclusion simply by pointing to the amount of money being spent can turn into circular logic.

Additionally, the authors arguably go too far in de-emphasizing the shifts within the organized crime landscape, which are somewhat insulated from government actions. It is also not clear to what degree the approach in these two states is replicable: Nuevo León and Chihuahua are two of Mexico’s wealthiest states, with highly engaged civil societies. The circumstances in, say, Guerrero, are far more different.

Nevertheless, the Este País study seeks the sort of precise analysis that is too-often absent in analyses of Mexican security. Similarly, the authors’ chief virtue in carrying out this study is conceptually very simple, but somehow very rare: rather than lamenting all that is going wrong, they attempt to identify why certain things have gone right. Refining and expanding this knowledge could bring a world of benefits in Mexico.

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