Homicides in Mexico rose by 16% in the first half of 2018, as the country again broke its own records for violence.
The interior department said over the weekend there were 15,973 homicides in the first six months of the year, compared with 13,751 killings in the same period in 2017.
The number is the highest since comparable records began being kept in 1997, including the peak year of Mexico’s drug war in 2011.
At current levels, the department’s measure would put national homicides at 22 per 100,000 population by the end of the year – near the levels of Brazil and Colombia at 27 per 100,000.
Security analyst Alejandro Hope noted: “The figures are horrible, but there are some signs that are halfway encouraging.”
Mexico’s war on drugs
On 10 December 2006, president Felipe Calderón, launched Mexico’s war on drugs by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacán, where rival cartels were engaged in tit-for-tat massacres.
Calderón declared war eight days after taking power – a move widely seen as an attempt to boost his own legitimacy after a bitterly contested election victory. Within two months, around 20,000 troops were involved in operations across the country.
The US has donated at least $1.5bn through the Merida Initiative since 2008, while Mexico has spent at least $54bn on security and defence since 2007. Critics say that this influx of cash has helped create an opaque security industry open to corruption at every level.
But the biggest costs have been human: since 2007, around 230,000 people have been murdered and more than 28,000 reported as disappeared. Human rights groups have also detailed a vast rise in human rights abuses by security forces.
As the cartels have fractured and diversified, other violent crimes such as kidnapping and extortion have also surged. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by violence.
Improved collaboration between the US and Mexico has resulted in numerous high-profile arrests and drug busts. Officials say 25 of the 37 drug traffickers on Calderón’s most-wanted list have been jailed, extradited to the US or killed, although not all of these actions have been independently corroborated.
The biggest victory – and most embarrassing blunder – under Peña Nieto’s leadership was the recapture, escape and another recapture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel.
While the crackdown and capture of kingpins has won praise from the media and US, it has done little to reduce the violence.
Mexico’s decade-long war on drugs would never have been possible without the huge injection of American cash and military cooperation under the Merida Initiative. The funds have continued to flow despite growing evidence of serious human rights violations.
For example, the growth in homicides seems to be flattening out; murders were up only about 4% compared to the second half of 2017. “The curve may be flattening out,” Hope noted, though he cautioned it was too early to tell.
Some areas, like the northern border state of Baja California, showed big jumps in murder rates, while others saw sharp drops.
Home to the border city of Tijuana, Baja California saw 1,463 homicides in the first half of the year, a 44% increase over the same period of 2017.
Authorities have attributed the spate of killings to battles between the Jalisco and Sinaloa drug cartels for control of trafficking routes in Baja California. The state is now Mexico’s second most violent, with a homicide rate for the first six months of the year equivalent to 71 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
By comparison, Honduras and El Salvador, two of the deadliest countries in the world, have homicide rates of about 60 per 100,000.
Mexico’s most dangerous state is Colima, on the Pacific coast, which saw a 27% rise in killings and now has a homicide rate of about 80 per 100,000. The Jalisco cartel is also active there.
The central state of Guanajuato, home to the colonial city of San Miguel Allende, saw a 122% increase in homicides, which were running at a rate of about 40 per 100,000. Authorities say much of the killing is related to gangs of fuel thieves who drill taps into government pipelines.
But in Baja California Sur, home to the resorts of La Paz and Los Cabos, a stepped-up police presence apparently helped reduce killings. The 125 homicides in the state, which sits to the south of Baja California, were less than half the number registered in the first six months of 2017 and a quarter the number in the latter half of 2017. Extra police and troops were sent in after warring drug gangs increased killings in the state in 2017.
Hope noted that in about half of Mexico’s 32 states and the capital, murder rates did not rise much or at all. “Now the growth is becoming concentrated” in some areas.
It is hard to tell why growth in homicide rates seem to have tapered off in historically violent states such as Guerrero, which is a main growing area for opium poppies, although Hope speculated that it could be related to the growth in the use of fentanyl.
Farmers in Guerrero say prices for opium paste have dropped to unprofitable levels because drug cartels are substituting it for cheaper, easier to obtain synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
The Caribbean coast state of Quintana Roo, home to resorts like Cancún, Tulum and Cozumel, saw homicides rise by 132%, to the equivalent of about 35 killings per 100,000.
The state accounts for almost half of Mexico’s national tourism income. Mexico has seen international resorts such as Acapulco and Zihuatanejo, both in Guerrero, dragged down by a reputation for violence in the past.