Mexico: 2017 – the most violent year

December 20, 2017

Latin News

According to the latest statistics, a total of 2,764 people were victims of intentional homicides in Mexico in October. The number is important, and sombre: it means that 2017 is likely to be an all-time record year for homicides in the country, effectively undermining the government’s earlier claims to have made citizens more secure. It also confirms that crime and security will be a major issue in the 2018 presidential elections.

According to the Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública (SESNSP), the government body that compiles the homicide data, the 2,764 victims registered in October was the highest number recorded for the same month in the last 20 years. It was also up by 27.4% on October 2016. It meant that on average 89.1 people were murdered in Mexico every day, or around four per hour. In the first ten months of this year the authorities opened 20,878 homicide investigation files, representing around 24,000 victims (some files cover incidents in which there were multiple victims). Even this may involve a degree of under-reporting, as it excludes people initially reported as ‘disappeared’ who may in fact have been murdered. The states with the highest number of homicides in October were Baja California, followed by Guerrero, Estado de México (Edomex), Veracruz, and Chihuahua.

Significantly, if the current trend continues during the last two months of the year, the homicide rate for 2017 will be the highest yet recorded, exceeding the previous peak year of 2011, when there were 22,855 homicide files. Another politically significant point is that during the still unfinished six-year presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) the murder graph is likely to be U-shaped. In his initial years in office after the 2011 peak, the murder rate appeared to be on a consistent downward trend, allowing the administration to claim that the country was becoming more peaceful. But despite that, the trend bottomed out around 2015 and began rising again in 2016 and 2017. As a result the 2018 elections are likely to be fought in an atmosphere of deep concern over what is seen as a resurgent wave of criminal violence.

The big question is “why?” Understanding the causes of the surge in homicides is of course the first step towards coming up with a workable pacification policy. The debate on this issue continues to rage across Mexico and beyond, and there is still no consensus on what must be done. Interestingly, in November the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a short briefing note on rebounding violence in Mexico. It states that between 2008 and 2016 the homicide rate in the country increased from 8 per 100,000 inhabitants to 16.2 per 100,000 (this period coincides with the militarisation of the ‘war on drugs’ that began in 2006). It cites the Justice in Mexico project at the University of San Diego which has concluded that up to half of all intentional homicides since 2006 have been organised crime-related (a total put at between 80,000 and 100,000). Violence is widespread: 24 of Mexico’s 31 states experienced an increase in the homicide rate in 2016. The CRS report was published before the October 2017 crime figures were released by the SESNSP, but it uses data from the first nine months of this year (January-September) to conclude that homicide rates are running at levels up by 20%-30% on last year. “If this trend continues,” it states, “Mexico will end the year with a homicide rate above 18 per 100,000, which would make 2017 its most violent year on record.”

The CRS points to three big drivers of increased violence. These are first, the fragmentation of the Sinaloa cartel; second, the increase in heroin production; and third, the apparently ineffective impact of the ‘kingpin strategy’, the policy of targeting the top cartel leaders for arrest and imprisonment. Referring to the arrest and extradition to the US of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, the CRS argues that it led to period of instability within the criminal organisation, and between it and its rivals. It says, “By 2017, the formerly dominant Sinaloa Cartel started to break into factions, with inter- and intra-organisational tensions spawning increased violence.” It adds that including Sinaloa, there are now six major cartels competing to control drug smuggling into the US, together with various other new entrants.

Increased heroin production is relevant because the cartels (described as transnational criminal organisations or TCOs) have been able to triple their production in 2013-2016, responding to rising demand in the US. This has opened up new markets, with the Mexican TCOs challenging Colombian cartels previously dominant in the East Coast of the US. Finally, the CRS acknowledges that capturing the cartel leaders – something the Mexican authorities have done with a significant level of success – does not necessarily put the gangs out of business or end the violence. It says that the rebound in killings in 2017, despite the removal of more than half of Mexico’s 122 ‘most wanted’ top criminals, suggests that the leaders are replaceable. “Organisations fragmented but did not disappear, and instead, experienced deadly combat until a new leader (or two) replaced the former boss, resulting in new groups emerging,” it says.

AMLO draws fire over amnesty

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the presidential candidate for the left-wing Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena), drew fire from across the political spectrum in early December when he suggested that if elected, he would consider an amnesty for the top leaders of the country’s drug trafficking cartels. On 3 December, López Obrador (widely known as AMLO) said, “If it is necessary we will call a dialogue to consider granting an amnesty, always on condition that it is supported by the victims; we do not rule out forgiveness. Forgiveness is necessary if it can achieve peace and tranquillity for the people.” The candidate also said that if elected next year he would appoint a Truth Commission to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero, in September 2014, as well as other notorious and unsolved crimes. His aim would be to eliminate impunity and “clean the house” to achieve peace.

Considering an amnesty is highly controversial. It has now been 11 years since the armed forces were sent in to fight the drug cartels. The original decision was taken in December 2016 by the incoming president, Felipe Calderón (2006-2012); his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, continued the same policy of militarising the ‘war on drugs’ (some say he had no other option, given the continuing weakness of the police). Estimates of the number of dead as a result of the subsequent fighting have ranged roughly from 150,000 to 200,000. In December last year the chancellor of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) estimated that during the Calderón administration alone some 150,000 people died and 28,000 ‘disappeared’ as a result of the conflict.

Peña Nieto’s spokesman reacted to AMLO’s comments by saying that letting crime bosses go unpunished would be a “very bad idea”; for Mexico the experience of impunity had been “absolutely negative”. Interior minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said “It is unheard of that after so much work and effort, someone should come along to offer forgiveness to assassins, kidnappers, and extortionists.” Defence minister General Salvador Cienfuegos said offering an amnesty would be “a serious error”. José Antonio Meade, who stepped down as foreign minister to secure the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) presidential nomination, said that unlike AMLO, he was “on the side of the victims, not the victimisers”. Ricardo Anaya, a presidential hopeful from the right-wing Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) said the amnesty proposal was “true madness”. The moderate left was also critical. The head of the Mexico City government, Miguel Angel Mancera of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), said the proposal was not sufficiently thought through: it would risk turning Mexico into a “narco-state”.

AMLO countered that his critics could not say the current “absurd and inhumane” strategy of using the armed forces in the battle against organised crime was showing any success. Current policies, he said, were causing the death of 74 people every day. It remains to be seen how the debate will play out as the election campaign gathers pace. Also unknown in the short term is the impact of the amnesty discussion on the relative popularity of the presidential contenders. AMLO has been leading the opinion polls. A survey by Buendía & Laredo conducted between 1 and 4 December placed AMLO in first place with 32% of voter intentions, followed by Ricardo Anaya with 18%, and with José Antonio Meade in third place with 16% support.

Contributor Biography

Latin American Newsletters (LatinNews) was founded in London in 1967 to provide expert political, economic, and security analysis on Latin America and the Caribbean. For nearly 50 years, it has been acknowledged as the foremost authority on the region.

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