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What’s Behind Mexico’s Historic Spike in Violent Crime?
On July 20, more than 1,000 Mexican Marines and federal and local police descended on a southeastern suburb of Mexico City to try and capture a notorious, alleged drug cartel boss. In the clash that ensued, the Marines killed eight suspected drug traffickers from the Cartel de Tlahuac, including its reputed leader, Felipe de Jesus Perez Luna. In response, the cartel’s members hijacked and burned buses in the streets.

The operation put to rest a longstanding Mexican government narrative that the country’s drug cartels, present in the majority of Mexican states, do not operate in the capital. It has also become the most vivid image from what government statistics suggest will be the most violent year in Mexico since aggregate crime figures were first collected in 1997.

The same day that buses burned in the streets of Tlahuac, a branch of Mexico’s Interior Secretariat, known as Segob, published national figures on violent crime for the past 20 years. The data indicate that Mexico had 12,155 murders in the first six months of 2017, on course for just over 24,300 for the year, which would eclipse 2011 as the most murderous on record. The single-month homicide figures for May and June of this year are the highest since Segob began collating the data two decades ago.

The spike in homicides is part of an across-the-board increase in violent crime in Mexico. Over the first six months of 2017, kidnappings rose 14 percent nationwide compared to the same period in 2016. Extortion grew by 26 percent and violent carjackings by 29 percent, according to Segob. In May alone, there was a violent robbery in Mexico every 2.2 minutes on average, according to a study by the Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano, a civil society group.

Although the crescendo seems to have caught many by surprise, extreme violence, as measured by the Segob metrics, had been steadily returning to daily Mexican life for at least two years. After year-on-year drops in murders nationwide from 2012 to 2014, which coincided with the first 30 months in office of Mexico’s current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, homicides rose by 8.7 percent in 2015 and more than 20 percent last year.

These brutal trends almost certainly have multiple causes, but the absence of an effective federal security strategy has been a key factor. For more than a decade and under several presidents, Mexico’s government has responded to insecurity across the country by deploying federal forces to augment or replace local police. Where cartel clashes drove the violence—which they often have—a military surge to capture or kill kingpins has been the standard response. In the strategy’s most recent incarnation, Pena Nieto announced in August 2016 a focus on the 50 municipalities where more than 40 percent of all the country’s murders were concentrated. Results after the first year, as reported by Mexican national media late last month, revealed an overall 21 percent increase in homicides across those 50 municipalities, with 33 registering a rise in homicide cases after the federal intervention.

Mexico has struggled to deal with the flurry of smaller, opportunistic actors that its security strategy inadvertently helped create.
An overreliance on military force and emphasis on removing senior drug cartel leaders have had the unintended effect of making crime more diffuse. The killing or capture of kingpins has caused many of Mexico’s most emblematic cartels to splinter into smaller criminal cells that vie to control territory, rather than traffic contraband on an industrial scale. The Tlahuac Cartel, which ran retail drug sales in seven of the capital’s 16 boroughs, reportedly traces its origins to a remnant of the Beltran Leyva Cartel, which itself had broken away from the infamous Sinaloan trafficking alliance formerly known as the Federation. Turf wars among such surviving cells have contributed to rising murder rates in multiple regions. In tandem, increases in other violent crimes, such as extortion, kidnapping and robbery, as reflected in the Segob statistics for 2017, are consistent with the ways these smaller cells try to profit from any territory they control.

At the same time, Mexico has struggled to build the institutional strength needed to deal with the flurry of smaller, opportunistic actors that its security strategy inadvertently helped create. Longstanding, systemic weaknesses in the courts and police continue to promote a perception of impunity. Eight years of judicial reform, officially concluded last year, replaced Mexico’s traditional approach to criminal justice, in which a prosecutor would present written evidence that the defense had little chance to contest, with a model where lawyers argue cases verbally before a judge and defendants benefit from presumed innocence and the right to an attorney. The changes portend fairer proceedings for the accused, but perpetrated crimes are still estimated to end in conviction less than 5 percent of the time.

Similarly, the creation in 2014 of a national gendarmerie as a branch of Mexico’s federal police was, in theory, an important step toward demilitarizing the country’s approach to combating organized crime. In practice, a 2015 review of its operations by Mexico’s federal audit body found that it had a negligible impact on crime reduction.

Efforts to weaken criminal groups by attacking their finances are at an early stage. In 2015, the Mexican Secretariat of Finance introduced the country’s first domestic sanctions list, requiring banks to freeze funds linked to named individuals, including organized crime figures and their money launderers. The list, reminiscent of the U.S. Treasury’s own sanctions list, helped Mexico freeze the equivalent of roughly $95 million over the past year. While an auspicious beginning, the frozen funds put only a modest dent in the approximately $10 billion that Mexico’s Senate has estimated are laundered in the country every year.

Similarly, Mexico only recently took its first steps to combat corruption in a systematic way, which is critical to reduce criminal access to public servants and the privileged information they hold. The scale of corruption in the country has been estimated to be as high as 9 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Consejo Coordinador Empresarial, an industry association. While it’s unclear how much of this reflects bribes paid to public officials by organized crime, entire municipal police forces have been disbanded in recent years for collusion with criminal groups.

Local officials have had a hand in some of Mexico’s most notorious organized crime-related atrocities, including the so-called San Fernando massacre in Tamaulipas in 2011 and the mass kidnapping of 43 trainee teachers in Iguala, Guerrero, in 2014. A “national anti-corruption system,” signed into law in 2016, finally came into force in skeletal form this past July following repeated delays. Based on a constitutional reform, the system aims to promote transparency in the handling of public funds and greater collaboration between all branches of government to investigate and punish instances of official misconduct. Yet the appointment of an anti-corruption prosecutor to administer cases is still pending, and multiple states have yet to adopt the reform and write its tenets into local law.

However preliminary they may be, such institutional steps toward a more holistic security strategy are essential if Mexico is to bring the violence back under control. After more than a decade on the front lines, the military is tired. If it is not reinforced soon with other elements of national power, it is unlikely to be able to prevent more buses from burning in the streets of the capital.
Más vale pocos pelos, pero bien peinados.


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