The Economist, November 26 2011, by Ciudad Juárez
The drug war’s fifth year throws up new trends, for better and worse.
Five years ago next week, Felipe Calderón took office as Mexico’s president and launched a crackdown against organised crime. Since then there has been a horrible predictability about the country’s drug war: each year the number of deaths has risen, most of them concentrated in a handful of cities. But this year both those tendencies look as if they have started to change. The annual death toll seems to have plateaued at around 12,000. Hotspots have cooled, only for violence to invade places previously considered safe.
Ciudad Juárez, in Chihuahua state and on the border with Texas, is the most striking example of this. For several years it has been the most dangerous place in Mexico and, by most counts, the world. A city of 1.3m, it saw more than 3,000 murders last year. Yet this year the number of mafia-related killings in Chihuahua has fallen by about a third, according to a tally by Reforma, a newspaper, as have kidnappings and car thefts. (The government has not released murder statistics in almost a year.) So far this year, Chihuahua state accounts for only around 15% of such murders in Mexico, down from a peak of 32%.
The turnaround is the fruit of better co-operation between the municipal, state and federal branches of government, according to Héctor Murguía, Juárez’s mayor. Such co-operation is not easy in Mexico, where policing is still divided between more than 2,000 separate forces, despite efforts by the federal government to pass a law to consolidate them. Mr Murguía is particularly proud of his new chief of police, Julian Leyzaola, hired from Tijuana, where he presided over a dramatic dip in the murder rate. Mr Leyzaola, a retired army officer, has detractors: on November 17th Baja California’s human-rights commission accused him of torturing detainees in Tijuana, an accusation he rejects.
Others are sceptical about the relevance of the government in reducing the violence in places such as Juárez and Tijuana. In both cities the powerful Sinaloa “cartel” has been pushing to displace incumbent gangs. The dip in violence suggests that it has at last beaten or reached an accommodation with its rivals, believes David Shirk, head of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. The Tijuana mob has been all but wiped out. The head of La Línea, a rival of Sinaloa in Juárez, was arrested in July. Some of these busts may be thanks to rival cartels’ tip-offs. “The government is an instrument that contributes—but whose hand is on the instrument?” asks Mr Shirk. Whatever the cause, both cities now appear increasingly to be the Sinaloa mob’s turf: the army said that $15.3m in cash it seized in Tijuana this week belonged to them.
Though Sinaloa’s expansion may have slowed the violence in Juárez and Tijuana, elsewhere it has stirred it up (see map). Nuevo León, Mexico’s richest state after the capital, was once one of its safest. But Sinaloa’s attempts to dislodge the Zetas, their strongest rivals, from the state capital, Monterrey, have caused almost as many murders as in Chihuahua. Similarly, Sinaloa dispatched a group of “Zeta killers” to cause havoc in previously-quiet Veracruz over the summer. The Zetas have retaliated, sending gunmen to Sinaloa’s Pacific strongholds. Acapulco has already suffered; next may be Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city. It was protected by large numbers of federal police before and during the Pan American games. But the games finished on November 20th.
Predicting the traffickers’ next moves has become harder because many cartels have split into smaller groups. Based on a survey of messages left online and at the scenes of executions, Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexican academic, estimates that in 2007 there were 11 organised-crime groups active in Mexico, whereas in 2010 there were 114. Mr Murguía says that there could be ten different mobs operating in Juárez alone. Separating the big gangs from opportunistic youths is not always easy. Some teenagers are turning to amateurish extortion rackets because there are few other opportunities (see article). “The cry heard in Mexico is employment, employment, employment,” Mr Murguía says.
Juárez must now hold on to its gains with fewer police. Only 2,500 federal cops patrol, down from 5,000 in January. “We don’t know which side the municipal police will play for,” says Hugo Almada, of the University of Juárez. Some believe that the local force has links with the Juárez cartel. But the federal cops are not wholly clean either: several dozen have been arrested over the past year for crimes including kidnapping, extortion and murder. The year has shown that the world’s most dangerous city need not stay that way. Yet violence in places such as Nuevo León “suggests that what has happened in Juárez can happen anywhere in Mexico,” Mr Shirk says. Too soon to celebrate, then.
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