Airport Shooting Not an Omen of Mexico City Crime Wave

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Three federal police officers were killed during a shootout in Mexico City’s international airport, but while the event was disturbing, it does not necessarily mean the capital is set to see an explosion of drug-related violence.

Federal police officers arrived in the airport yesterday to arrest two other members of the force suspected of involvement with drug trafficking. Three agents were shot dead in the food court during the confrontation that ensued. After the shooting, the suspects, who were among more than 180 people identified in an 18-month investigation into cartel operations in the airport, managed to escape.

The investigation began in late 2010, when law enforcement uncovered a drug trafficking ring operating within the airport that used flight attendants from AeroMexico, the country’s largest airline, to smuggle cocaine to Spain. Employees of the private security firm that manned the airport’s security checkpoints were also arrested in connection with the case.

InSight Crime Analysis

As InSight Crime has reported, there has been much speculation in recent years that Mexico City could be becoming a contested territory among drug traffickers. Speculation is renewed after occasional brutal attacks, like a double beheading in October last year.

Mexico City, however, has thus far escaped the levels of violence seen elsewhere in the country, including in the second- and third-largest cities: Monterrey and Guadalajara. In 2010, the murder rate in the capital was eight per 100,000 residents, far lower than hotspots like Ciudad Juarez, where in the same year it stood at nearly 300.

It is unlikely that Mexico’s capital will become a site for jockeying between larger cartels. The city is the home base for the federal security forces, considered to be less corruptible than their municipal counterparts, and there are an estimated 70,000 soldiers and 80,000 police and security guards, according to a 2011 report by M Semanal magazine. Mexico City is also home to the country’s rich and powerful, who are unlikely to allow rampant violence to take hold in their backyards.

In addition, it seems there is a de facto truce in Mexico City amongst the national cartels. Some cartel leaders are believed to live in the city, buying lavish homes and living in anonymity amongst the millions of inhabitants. The drug violence that the city has seen so far has likely been fueled by smaller organizations struggling to control the local drug market.

Mexico City is more strategically important for the big cartels as the primary way to move drugs overseas via the international airport. In April, the brother of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias “El Mayo,” was extradited to the US following his arrest in 2008 for overseeing the movement of cocaine and methamphetamine precursor chemicals through the airport. Monday’s attack, while tragic, does not necessarily indicate that drug violence is going to hit Mexico City. In fact, it confirms the importance of the airport for the cartels’ international smuggling activities, business which is usually conducted quietly and without violence so as to not attract attention.

Nonetheless, the airport is the gateway for foreigners entering Mexico’s largest city and capital, and as the Christian Science Monitor points out, this incident will reinforce the perception that Mexico’s violence is getting out of control.

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