With Mexico registering more murders in the first six months of 2019 than any year in recent history, its spiral of violence shows no signs of slowing.
According to preliminary numbers from the National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública – SNSP), 17,608 people were killed in Mexico from January through June 2019, Animal Politico reported. This represents a nearly 5 percent increase when compared to the same six months in 2018.
Mexico’s most comprehensive registry of murders, conducted by its National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía – INEGI), does not publish its annual tally until well after the close of every year. But INEGI’s figures are typically larger than the SNSP’s, meaning that the figures for early 2019 are likely to rise further.
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According to INEGI, Mexico’s national murder rate clocked in at 29 per 100,000 people in 2018, and, absent a sudden improvement, the figure is poised to hit 30 in 2019. The current number is triple Mexico’s murder rate from 2007, the first year of Felipe Calderón’s tenure, and represents a 75 percent increase from 2015.
InSight Crime Analysis
One of the key factors affecting violence in Mexico in recent years is likely the rate of political turnover. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s victory in the 2018 election was the culmination of a years-long collapse of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI), in which the previous ruling party lost control of the presidency, various governorships and statehouses, and hundreds of local governments.
The party principally responsible for governing Mexico was summarily tossed out in one jurisdiction after another.
According to pioneering research by Mexican academics Sandra Ley and Guillermo Trejo, political turnover has long correlated with increased rates of violence. The logic behind their findings is clear: Criminal groups establish modes of coexistence with governments –ranging from tacit acceptance to outright cooperation — which tend to promote underworld stability.
But when governing parties change, these patterns of interaction are upset, which injects of a jolt of uncertainty into the criminal landscape, with increases in violence often the result. Since 2018 was a historic year for political turnover, a subsequent rise in violence as criminal groups seek a new equilibrium with their competitors and with the new political administrations is a logical consequence.
The rising violence also illustrates López Obrador’s inability to craft an effective strategy to combat insecurity. As noted in InSight Crime, the steps López Obrador has taken on security lack coherence.
During the campaign, López Obrador promised a policy based on “hugs, not bullets.” Once in office, with the creation of the National Guard through constitutional reform, he, like many of his predecessors, has instead bet on increased militarization. Neither his campaign rhetoric nor his initial reform alone amounts to anything like a genuine strategy, but taken together, they reflect an administration working at cross-purposes with itself.
But even if López Obrador’s response has been insufficient, the violence is primarily a product not of government policies but of long-ascendant factors intrinsic to the nation’s underworld.
One of the most striking elements of the current bloodshed is how it is driven by a small cohort of exceedingly violent cities. According to a recent report from a non-profit organization, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, five of the six most murder-wracked cities in the world are in Mexico: Tijuana, Acapulco, Ciudad Victoria, Ciudad Juárez, and Irapuato. Each of these has a murder rate above 80 per 100,000 citizens. Tijuana alone accounts for approximately 1.5 percent of the nation’s population but has thus far contributed to around 7.5 percent of Mexico’s murders in 2019.
In some sense, this is typical: individual hotspots have long had a disproportionate impact on Mexico’s national murder rate. But in other ways, the current wave of violence is very different from what came before.
Historically, when a city has suffered a prolonged uptick in violence, the cause has been two large organizations fighting for control of it. Such was the case in Juárez from 2008 to 2011, where the Sinaloa Cartel squared off with the Juárez Cartel. A similar dynamic was at play in Torreón during much of the same period, where the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel fought for domination. Similar examples abound.
However, much of the current violence appears to be the product of low-level gangs fighting over retail drug markets. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that in Tijuana, officials attribute the wave of killings to the local players operating in the consumer market for methamphetamine. In Mexico City, a comparatively mild surge in violence has, by virtue of the capital city’s size, nonetheless contributed substantially to Mexico’s overall murder rate. There, too, officials say the vicissitudes of the local drug market are the chief factor.
The growing role of smaller gangs and the retail drug market dovetails with phenomena affecting the largest groups. As with many capos before him, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s arrest and extradition struck a blow to the power of the Sinaloa Cartel, opening up a vacuum that other gangs have fought to fill.
In recent years, the gangs that fill the voids left by the demise of a capo tend to be smaller, more erratic organizations than the giants they replaced. This dynamic, often referred to as fragmentation, has largely erased the military-like, hierarchical groups capable of bullying the state, but it has left in their place a chaotic tangle of groups collectively capable of spilling just as much blood.