Is Mexico Really The World’s Most Dangerous War Zone?
Villagers mount roadblocks with burning tires to protest an army crackdown the day after a clash between soldiers and alleged fuel thieves known as ‘huachicoleros.’ Photo: JOSE CASTANARES/AFP/Getty Images.
Spring 2017 has been marked by a number of alarming reports in Mexico. In the central state of Puebla civilian gunmen in bulletproof trucks attacked a military patrol on May 3, killing several soldiers. As Mexico’s federal government has sent in a heavy military presence to try and clamp down on a billion dollar oil theft racket local residents have responded with large protests, blockading highways, burning piles of tires, and sending noxious black plumes of smoke into the air. A few days earlier in a coordinated assault Mexican marines killed a senior Gulf Cartel member in the border city of Reynosa just south of Texas. In response to the operation cartel enforcers burned businesses, set up blockades and torched trucks. Residents heard a series of explosions and in the morning they found seventy buildings had been burned. Over the course of one recent weekend in the border state of Chihuahua gunmen killed 17 people. In one shootout over 2,000 shots were fired and police found shell casings from AK-47 and R-15 assault rifles.
In recent years Pepsi and Coca-Cola have seen assaults against their delivery trucks in Mexico. A senior Pepsi executive was kidnapped. An employee of ArcelorMittal was killed. Recently police in the US found marijuana hidden inside a shipment of Ford trucks that were manufactured in Sonora, Mexico. Beer producer Grupo Modelo, an AB-Inbev company, has also faced threats from organized crime against its employees.
Mexico’s Drug War has now dragged on for over ten years. Despite some achievements, in 2016 and 2017 violent crime looks like it is rising again. In a recent article for Bloomberg Marc Champion explained, “Mexico has surpassed Iraq and Afghanistan to become the world’s second-most deadly conflict zone after Syria, according to a study of wars around the globe. The number of fatalities from the expanding war among Mexico’s criminal cartels grew to 23,000 in 2016, compared with 17,000 in Afghanistan and 16,000 in Iraq.”
While Mexico’s absolute number of murders is stunning, per capita data shows a different story. On a population-adjusted basis Mexico is far from the most violent country in Latin America, let alone the world’s second most dangerous conflict zone. To try and put Mexico’s current security dynamic into context I reached out to David Shirk, a researcher from the University of San Diego, the co-author of a recent report on violent crime in Mexico.
Nathaniel Parish Flannery: After declining for a few years, violent crime in Mexico seems to be worsening again. What trends do you see in the murder rate in Mexico over the past few years?
David Shirk: We’ve been monitoring organized crime and violence pretty closely for over a decade now, and there are three major trends of importance. The first is that firm numbers on homicide, especially those committed by organized crime, are problematic in Mexico for various reasons — including the problem of disappearances, clandestine graves, and poor criminal investigations — so even the best available data are somewhat problematic. That said, we have a good sense of the overall direction of the trend and, for a span of about five years, from 2007-2011, we know that the rate and number of homicides rose more in Mexico than any other country in the region, increasing from about 8.1 to over 22 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. This period alone saw more than 95,000 homicides in Mexico, perhaps a third to half of which bore characteristics typical of organized crime involvement. That’s about 13,000 more homicides than the United States, a country with three times Mexico’s population, experienced in the same time period. After 2011, Mexico seemed to turn a corner, with homicides dropping slightly by about 6% in 2012 and by double digits, about 13%, in 2013 and 2014. This brought the homicide rate down to about 17 per 100,000 in 2014, and some much needed relief for many Mexican communities. However, in mid-2014, the downward trend began to reverse, bringing a slight increase, about 2.1%, in homicides in 2015 and a major increase, roughly 18%, in 2016. All told, our figures suggest that there were around 25,000 homicides in Mexico in 2016, comparable to the level of violence in 2010 or 2011, the peak of the first big wave of violence mentioned here. In other words, Mexico appears to have relapsed into a period of very high violence, with a rate of about 20 or 21 per 100,000 inhabitants. Still, all told, over 210,000 people were murdered in Mexico from 2007 to 2016.
Parish Flannery: Overall levels of violent crime are increasing and a high percentage of this crime appears to be linked to organized crime. But are we seeing a repeat of the trends that led to an explosion of violent crime after 2006 or is the current wave of violent somehow different?
Shirk: What is somewhat different in the last few years, particularly 2016, is that violence is somewhat more dispersed at lower levels of aggregation, and perhaps somewhat less public and extreme than what we saw in 2010 and 2011. Still, several states still had relatively high numbers of homicides in 2016. The state of Guerrero logged 2,213 murders. The State of México recorded 2,053. Michoacán tallied 1,287. Veracruz reported 1,258. The tiny state of Colima logged a staggering 1,232 killings. Together the Pacific Coast states of Baja California, Sinaloa and Jalisco tallied 3,492 murders last year. Overall, the state with the largest increase in the number of organized crime-style homicides was Colima, which saw a jump from 55 such killings to 385, a six-fold increase. The elevated violence in several of these states appears to be the result of clashes between the Sinaloa Cartel and the New Generation Cartel of Jalisco (CJNG), a criminal organization with long-standing links to its current rival.
This points to an important contributing factor which we document in our drug violence report. Many people have pointed out that socioeconomic factors and “social disorganization” i.e. family problems and other issues are major predictors of who is likely to be a culprit or victim of a homicide in Mexico, these factors are fairly constant and pervasive. So it’s hard to explain Mexico’s violence without looking at the factor that seems to be most important in explaining the sudden increases and spikes: the dynamics among organized crime groups. Again, since 2007, between 75,000 and 95,000 people were killed in Mexico under circumstances appearing to involve organized crime, including the use of high powered weapons, execution style killings, mutilation, and other signs. But the nature of Mexican organized crime groups and the conflicts among them has changed somewhat over time. While powerful illicit drug trafficking organizations once colluded to divide Mexico up into monopolies of territorial control, like “real” cartels in the business world, today the major drug cartels have all suffered serious leadership disruptions and schisms. Once Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was re-captured in 2015, for example, we saw growing internal divisions and encroachment from rival organizations, which appears to explain much of the increase in violence in Mexico over the last year or two.
Parish Flannery: A lot of your research addresses the problem of violent crime in Mexico, but what are some potential solutions? Mexico is clearly experiencing a backslide right now in terms of security. Are there any public policy issues that you think need to be addressed in the short term?
Shirk: First we have to recognize that the problem has in some ways been exacerbated by recent policies, particularly the disruption of major criminal organizations through the targeting of drug “kingpins” for arrest, extradition, or elimination. The resulting fragmentation and competition within and among criminal organizations has led many Mexican organized crime groups to diversify into a variety of other illicit activities, including predatory crimes like robbery, extortion, and kidnapping. Part of the problem is that smaller and splinter organizations don’t have the capital, connections, or supply chain to sustain major drug trafficking operations, where the big money is, so they go into industries with low barriers to entry, but also low profit margins. Also, those that do continue to engage in drug trafficking have increasingly focused on cultivating home grown product, heroin, to substitute for lost proceeds from the increasingly legal marijuana market. Even if we could legalize heroin over night, which only a small fraction of U.S. voters would support, this would likely lead to more atomization of criminal groups and more predatory crime. Meanwhile, someone — maybe the CJNG — will figure out how to re-establish the cocaine pipeline from the Andean region to Wall Street and K Street, and they probably already have.
Thus, while on the one hand Mexico badly needs to address long term socioeconomic deficits, the lack of education and employment. It also needs infrastructure and strategies to better tackle the problem of organized crime, particularly with regard to promoting greater citizen security in the face of increased criminal predation. Part of that strategy has to involve increasing the integrity and capacity of police and the judiciary. Of course, that can’t happen without politicians committed to good government, and the rash of recent corruption scandals in Mexico provides mixed hope at best: Mexicans have transparency and revelations of corruption without accountability or punishment. That’s the formula for frustration and cynicism that has contributed to record low public approval of government officials and widespread desire for a major political change.
Additional reading: From glamour to gunfire: the tourist city of Acapulco torn apart by violence.