Justice in Mexico releases 2021 Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico Report

10/22/21- (written by rramos)- Justice in Mexico has released the third edition of Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico, coordinated by Laura Y. Calderón, Kimberly Heinle, Rita E. Kuckertz, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk. Previously titled Drug Violence in Mexico, the release marks the third consecutive year in which the report has been issued under its current name, in recognition of ongoing shifts in the nature of organized crime. During a consequential period for Mexico, this latest edition of Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico seeks to provide a comprehensive analysis of the country’s dynamic public security situation by compiling key statistics and exploring the broader significance of emerging and persistent trends.

Trends in Violent Crimes

Mexico experienced a slight decrease in homicides in 2020. Data from the Mexican National Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP) indicated that 2020 saw a 0.3% decline in the number of homicides compared to the number of homicides in 2019. With data from the first half of 2021 continuing to show modest decreases in the number of homicides, there are indications that the surge in homicides that began in 2015 may be starting to level off. Nevertheless, the number of homicides in Mexico remains at exceptionally high levels.

Additionally, SNSP data showed that the occurrence of other violent crimes, such as extortion, kidnappings, and intentional injuries, decreased in 2020 compared to 2019.  However, the report notes that widespread underreporting of crimes, as well as disruptions of data collection activities and reporting mechanisms caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaves open the possibility that the actual numbers of crimes committed may be higher than official figures. 

Special attention continued to be paid to violence against certain populations, including women and journalists. When combining totals of femicide victims and female victims of intentional homicide, the 2020 daily average of women killed each day was virtually unchanged from the average recorded in 2019. With regards to journalists, Justice in Mexico’s Memoria dataset showed that 2020 was the deadliest year for journalists and media workers, with a 169% increase in killings compared to 2019. 

Impact of COVID-19

Reflecting the widespread and unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the globe since early 2020, the report features a section dedicated to examining the ways in which COVID-19 and measures to contain the pandemic have affected criminal groups in Mexico. Organized crime networks adjusted to the logistical challenges of supply chain disruptions and limited access to key infrastructure through a variety of methods, including artificially inflating drug prices and withholding shipments in order to maximize revenues and compensate for lost profits. As noted by the report, the impact of COVID-19 on organized crime activities may compel criminal actors to reshape and redesign their illicit operations in the future. 

Also of note, criminal organizations demonstrated their ability to exploit economic hardship caused by the pandemic. A number of organized crime groups across the country engaged in delivery of aid packages and similar measures in a bid to attract support within the local communities in which these groups operate. Among those groups that provided humanitarian assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic were some of Mexico’s most well-known criminal organizations, including the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Sinaloa Cartel. 

Mexican Government Responses

The 2021 report also evaluated the potential impacts of certain key policies pursued by the Mexican Government in response to the country’s ongoing security challenges.

Among the topics covered was the continuing role of the National Guard, a critical pillar of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s public security strategy. Despite the National Guard’s continued centrality in efforts to address violence and similar measures that point to ongoing militarization of public security, official data indicates that violence and crime have remained at extraordinarily high levels throughout the López Obrador administration. 

Moreover, the report touches upon the possible implications of recent developments in security cooperation between Mexico and the United States. In particular, the report delves into the ways in which the December 2020 adoption of changes to the National Security Law (Ley de Seguridad Nacional) may interrupt flows of information between Mexican and U.S. authorities or damage efforts to build trust between the two sides. 

Looking ahead

Security and violence in Mexico will remain significant challenges in the foreseeable future. Through a broad, encompassing survey of key data and statistics, Justice in Mexico’s 2021 Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico report seeks to shed further light on the complex trends and patterns influencing the overall trajectory of Mexico’s security situation. Through better understanding of the nature of crime and violence, Justice in Mexico hopes to contribute to efforts to more effectively tackle these issues. 

Totoaba Poaching Seizures Point to Increases in Environmental Crime

08/31/21 (written by rramos) – Officials from the federal Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) seized four properties in San Felipe, Baja California on August 12 after a joint investigation by multiple agencies determined the buildings were being used by a criminal network dedicated to the illegal trafficking of totoaba fish. Along with a cache of totoaba organs and fishnets, FGR officials also discovered firearms, tactical vests, and radio equipment while inspecting the seized properties. Investigators told La Jornada that they believe the totoaba fish found in the confiscated buildings were meant to be exported illegally from Baja California to China as part of a transnational criminal venture. 

The High Price of Totoaba Fish

The totoaba is a species of saltwater fish native to the Gulf of California that is protected under international and Mexican law. It has become increasingly endangered due to poaching. In particular, the totoaba’s swim bladder is highly sought after in parts of East Asia for use in traditional medicines and as a culinary delicacy. The strong demand for totoaba has resulted in remarkably high prices for illegally harvested totoaba bladders and meat. Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, director of the environmental advocacy group Proyecto Vaquita CPR, told Milenio in a 2019 interview that one kilogram of totoaba could be sold for as much as $100,000 U.S. dollars on the black market in China. Similarly, an investigative article published by Excelsior in July 2021 found that one kilogram of totoaba bladder could command a price of up to one million Mexican pesos in Hong Kong. 

The potential for large profits is compelling a growing number of organized crime groups in Mexico to add totoaba poaching to their portfolio of illicit activities. In June 2021, investigators in Baja California reported that criminal cells linked to Los Chapitos—the sons of jailed Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—were seeking to deepen their presence in towns near the Gulf of California like San Felipe in order to forge operational ties with suspected totoaba traffickers. According to a report by non-governmental organization Earth League International, criminal groups in northwestern Mexico may be increasingly attracted to totoaba trafficking because it can generate profits comparable to those gained from drug trafficking, but with a perceived lower risk of being detected by authorities.

Display of totoaba fish organs seized by the National Guard (Guardia Nacional, GN) in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. Photo: Radio Turquesa

Growth in Environmental Crimes

The illegal poaching of totoaba fish is just one example of a range of environmentally-related crimes that are gaining popularity among criminal groups in Mexico. Both the Center for Biological Diversity in Mexico (Centro para la Diversidad Biológica en México) and the Mexican Environmental Impact Academy (Academia Mexicana de Impacto Ambiental) warned in May 2021 that the illicit trade of rare and exotic animals, such as tigers, chinchillas, freshwater turtles, and other species, has increased considerably in recent years. In Mexico City alone, data from the Federal Prosecutor for Environmental Protection (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente, PROFEPA) showed that the number of exotic animals rescued in anti-wildlife trafficking operations skyrocketed from roughly 5,000 in 2019 to over 33,000 in 2020. A joint statement by the federal Secretary of Environmental and Natural Resources (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, SEMARNAT) and the Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera, UIF) affirmed that many wildlife trafficking cases can be linked to organized crime networks. 

Another environmental crime that continues to raise alarm is illegal logging. Statistics compiled by PROFEPA suggest that illegal logging carried out by criminal groups is increasing. In 2020 alone, Mexico suffered the loss of around 127,770 hectares of forest due to illegal logging, an amount greater than the total deforestation recorded between 2010 and 2015.  Heightened interest in the illegal timber trade has not only generated increased fighting between criminal groups in places like Chihuahua, but it has also had a devastating impact on the natural environment in areas in which it occurs. According to Rodrigo de la Garza, a geology professor at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua (Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua), the accelerated growth of illegal logging has begun to result in desertification in previously forested areas of the Sierra Tarahumara mountain range in western Chihuahua. 

Diversification of Illicit Economies

The steady expansion of criminal organizations into illicit activities related to the environment and wildlife is consistent with the broader diversification of criminal enterprises that has been observed in recent years. Although organized crime groups in Mexico have been traditionally associated with drug trafficking, criminal actors have increasingly broadened the scope of illicit activities through which they earn profits. The factors driving diversification are diverse, but one widely cited reason is that as larger criminal organizations in Mexico fragment and splitter into increasingly smaller groups, criminal networks become more localized and therefore turn to revenue sources that “require no supply chains and have very low barriers to entry.” Another possible cause is that stringent enforcement actions by authorities against drug trafficking have reduced profits and increased risks, thereby compelling criminal groups to explore new and emerging revenue sources.

As has been seen with the larger phenomenon of diversification, the increasing visibility of environmentally-related crimes in Mexico is another demonstration of organized crime groups’ ability to remain adaptable and resilient. In the absence of comprehensive efforts to build and sustain the rule of law in Mexico, criminal economies that negatively impact the environment, like totoaba poaching, may continue to emerge and grow in the country.


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Slaying of Sonora Journalist Reignites Calls for More Protections

Protestors gather in response to Ricardo Domínguez López’s killing. Photo: Cristina Gómez Lima, La Jornada

08/05/21 (written by rramos) – On July 22, journalist Ricardo Domínguez López was killed by a group of armed assailants in the parking lot of a shopping center in Guaymas, Sonora. At the time of his death, Domínguez López was director of local media outlet InfoGuaymas and also served as president of the Metropolitan Association of Independent Journalists of Guaymas and Empalme (Asociación Metropolitana de Periodistas Independientes de Guaymas-Empalme). 

The slaying of Domínguez López drew widespread condemnation. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) issued a press release denouncing the murder, and specifically called on Sonora authorities to investigate the possibility that Domínguez López was targeted because of his journalistic work. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador himself expressed condolences to Domínguez López’s family in his morning press conference the day after the killing, and reaffirmed the Mexican Government’s commitment to protecting journalists. 

Back in March 2021, Domínguez López expressed fears over threats and harassment that he claimed he had been receiving from criminal groups. In a formal complaint filed with the federal Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR), Domínguez López asserted that criminal elements were attempting to intimidate him and other journalists in Guaymas specifically because of their reporting. In the filing, he also lamented that although many media workers in the city had made numerous reports to various government agencies, journalists continued to receive threats, including from allegedly corrupt local officials such as the Guaymas public security commissioner

Recent Violence Against Media Workers 

The July 22 killing in Sonora follows a recent string of violent incidents targeting journalists and other media workers. On July 19, just days before Domínguez López was killed, radio broadcaster Abraham Mendoza died after being shot at point-blank range as he exited a gym in Morelia, Michoacán. Mendoza had become well-known in the Morelia area for his work on a radio news talk show in which he often criticized politicians, including some with ties to President López Obrador’s ruling National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, MORENA) party. Similar to Domínguez López’s murder, Mendoza’s killing also attracted widespread attention, including a statement from the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

According to Animal Político, several other journalists throughout Mexico have also been murdered in 2021 so far, including cases in Coahuila, Mexico State, and Oaxaca. Along with homicides, disappearances represent another serious danger for media workers. This year alone in Domíguez López’s state of Sonora, two journalists—Jorge Molontzín and Pablo Felipe Romero Chávez—both went missing in March and have yet to be located. 

Reaction from Journalists

There have been some high-profile successes in resolving acts of violence against journalists recently. This includes the sentencing in June 2021 of one of the participants in the murder of Sinaloa journalist Javier Valdez and the February arrest of former Puebla Governor Mario Marín Torres in connection with the 2005 torture of investigative reporter Lydia Cacho. Nevertheless, the series of killings and disappearances of media workers this year has compelled journalists to demand greater protections, including more police protection for them and their families.

Days after the Domínguez López homicide in Guaymas, media workers from throughout Sonora, including photographers, camerapersons, reporters, and others also marched towards the offices of the state Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de Justicia del Estado, FGJE) in Hermosillo. There, the protestors delivered a document to Sonora Attorney General Claudia Indira Contreras calling for government officials to either redouble their efforts in investigating and prosecuting crimes against media workers, or resign. 

The exasperated response from journalists in the wake of these most recent aggressions appears to be justified. A 2020 report issued by the Reporters Without Borders found Mexico to be the deadliest country for journalists. According to the international non-governmental organization Artículo 19, at least 139 media workers in Mexico have been killed since 2000 for reasons related to their profession. Of these, 43 were murdered during the administration of current President López Obrador, according to data from the federal Secretary of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación, SEGOB). If authorities fail to heed calls for more meaningful actions to safeguard journalists and hold perpetrators of violence accountable, freedoms of expression and access to information may continue to be further jeopardized in the future. 


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Former Top Official Implicated in Ayotzinapa Case Still Eluding Authorities

07/29/21 (written by rramos) – Authorities in Mexico continue to face difficulty in capturing Tomás Zerón de Lucio, the ex-director of the Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia de Investigación Criminal, AIC) in the administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) who led the Mexican government’s controversial response to the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. The inability to detain Zerón represents yet another obstacle to fully resolving the mass disappearance, which has persisted as an enduring symbol of impunity and corruption in Mexico. 

Photo: La Razón de México

According to the New York Times, Zerón, who headed the AIC from August 2014 until widespread criticism of his handling of the probe into the Ayotzinapa disappearances prompted his resignation in September 2016, is currently in Israel even as the Mexican government has requested his extradition. Israeli officials who spoke to the New York Times claimed that the decision to not act on the extradition request is diplomatic retribution in response to Mexico’s frequent criticisms of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in various multilateral fora, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Although Israel’s ambassador to Mexico denied that his government was holding up the extradition for political reasons, he did not indicate whether the Israeli government planned on detaining Zerón, simply stating that they have informed Mexican authorities of the “level of evidence and requirements according to Israeli law” (author’s own translation) needed to carry out an extradition request.

Back in Mexico, Zerón faces various legal proceedings. In March 2020, the federal Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) obtained an arrest warrant against him based on charges related to misconduct during the initial investigation into the Ayotzinapa case. The accusations against Zerón include tampering wth evidence, forcibly disappearing potential witnesses, and using torture to obtain testimony, all part of an alleged effort to distort the results of the inquiry. Current federal Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero also accused Zerón of embezzling “billions of pesos” from government coffers while at the helm of the AIC. An additional arrest warrant was issued in April 2021, this time based on allegations that Zerón had participated in the torture of Felipe Rodríguez Salgado. Known by the criminal alias “El Cepillo,” Rodríguez Salgado is alleged to be a leading figure in the Guerreros Unidos criminal group that has been linked to the Ayotzinapa abductions. Specifically, prosecutors allege that Zerón employed tactics such as death threats and sensory deprivation during Rodríguez’s 2015 interrogation in order to force him to provide confessions that would corroborate the government’s official version of events regarding the disappearance of the 43 students. 

Zerón has dismissed the accusations as “political persecution” on the part of the administration of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2018-2024), and has sought political asylum in Israel since January of this year. Although the Israeli government continues to avoid taking action on both the extradition request and the asylum application, Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has publicly stated that the López Obrador Administration remains committed to apprehending Zerón, even if the process takes a significant amount of time. 

Zerón Case Highlights Broader Corruption-Related Issues in Mexico

Although President López Obrador vowed to reexamine the Ayotzinapa case upon assuming office in 2018, progress towards bringing the perpetrators to justice has remained frustratingly slow. The continuing fallout from the disappearance of the 43 students, including the ongoing saga involving Tomás Zerón, serves as a reminder of some of the foremost corruption-related challenges in Mexico. 

The allegations against Zerón underscore the persistent impunity enjoyed by members of security forces involved in human rights abuses. Indeed, some have suggested that Zerón’s alleged tampering with the investigation was intended to downplay the possible role of military and federal police officers in the forced abductions. Vidulfo Rosales, a lawyer representing the families of the 43 missing students, has stated openly that he believes that the Peña Nieto government sought to protect members of the Army and Federal Police that may have been involved in the mass kidnapping by putting forward an official version of events that focused heavily on municipal police officers. 

Furthermore, the Zerón case highlights the ever-present risk of politicized investigations and prosecutions in Mexico. As mentioned earlier, Zerón has denounced the corruption charges against him as politically motivated. This is not the first time that corruption probes have been criticized as being weaponized for political reasons. Former officials like Ildefonso Guerrero and Rosario Robles, both of whom served as cabinet secretaries in the Peña Nieto government, have rejected corruption investigations against them as “political persecution.” Accusations of the use of corruption investigations as a political tool are not unique to the current López Obrador administration and have persisted for decades, representing a major impediment to genuine efforts to build Mexico’s capacity to combat corruption. 

While a future arrest of Zerón to face the charges against him in Mexico could be a step towards full resolution of the Ayotzinapa tragedy, longer-term progress in Mexico’s broader struggle against corruption will depend on successfully addressing various systemic challenges that have allowed impunity to persist in the country.   


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Mexico’s 2021 Elections Rocked By Political Violence

06/29/2021 (written by rramos) – Against the backdrop of a relatively high voter turnout and a mixed result for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s ruling leftist bloc, Mexico’s 2021 midterm elections were marred by widespread political violence throughout the country. On the polling day of June 6, various high-profile incidents, such as the tossing of a severed human head at a voting booth in Tijuana and the theft of ballot boxes by an armed group in San Luis Potosí, illustrated the climate of insecurity in which the election campaign took place. Indeed, the months leading up to June 6 had been characterized by heightened levels of violence aimed at various political actors, including elected officials, candidates, campaign aides, political party workers, and others. 

According to a report released by Etellekt, a risk analysis firm based in Mexico City, a total of 910 politically-related acts of aggression occurred between September 2020 and early June 2021, which roughly corresponds with the official campaigning period. This included 91 homicides, 48 attempted homicides, 45 kidnappings, and 321 threats of violence perpetrated against political targets, such as candidates, party members, and campaign activists. When compared to all other Mexican elections since 2000, the 2020-2021 campaign cycle saw the second-highest number of politically-linked homicides ever, with this latest election only falling behind the 2018 electoral process in which 152 politically-active individuals were murdered. The total number of 910 acts of political violence compiled by Etellekt, however, represented a 17.5% increase over the 774 incidents recorded in the 2018 election.

The pervasive insecurity surrounding the 2021 elections, as well as authorities’ apparent inability to prevent it, drew condemnation both domestically and internationally. Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) decried the threat posed by violence to citizens’ right to democracy and urged the federal government to fully investigate reported assaults against candidates. On June 8, two days after the election, a group of human rights experts from the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of American States (OAS) put out a press release condemning attacks against candidates and calling on authorities to ensure that future elections will be able to take place under more secure conditions.

Photo: Revista Semana, AFP.

Local-Level Candidates Disproportionately Impacted

Throughout the 2020-2021 election cycle, candidates for municipal offices appeared to be disproportionately affected by political violence. On June 2, CNN Español published a list of candidates and aspiring candidates who were murdered during the campaign using data compiled by DataInt security consulting firm. Of the 32 murdered candidates and aspiring candidates identified by CNN Español, 24 were reported to be running for local-level offices, such as mayor or city council. The high proportion of municipal-level candidates in the CNN Español list was roughly consistent with the Etellekt report, which had found that 77% of candidates murdered in the 2021 election were pursuing offices at the local level.

Furthermore, Observatoria Todas MX, a grouping of various feminist and human rights organizations, held a press conference in which they stated that 80% of female candidates that had been victims of political violence in the 2020-2021 electoral process were running for municipal offices, compared to 15% for state-level positions and only 5% for federal offices. This suggests that gender-based political violence, which has drawn increased attention, tends to occur primarily at the local level. 

Electoral Violence Concentrated in Certain States, Tied to Organized Crime

According to Animal Político, murders of candidates and aspiring candidates that had been reported by the end of May were most heavily concentrated in Veracruz, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Quintana Roo, and Baja California, with nearly three-fourths of all candidate assassinations in Mexico taking place in these seven states. In March, a number of these states had been identified by the federal Security and Citizen Protection Secretariat (Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana, SSPC) as facing the greatest risk of political violence. SSPC Secretary Rosa Icela Rodríguez specifically attributed the heightened possibility of electoral violence to criminal organizations seeking to influence political outcomes through murders and other acts. In the specific case of Veracruz, which led the country in reported cases of political violence in the 2021 election, many incidents of electorally-motivated aggression have indeed been linked to the heavy presence of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG) throughout the state. 

In an interview with Milenio, security analyst David Saucedo argued that organized crime groups carry out attacks against politicians and authorities in order to create a generalized sense of fear and intimidation. This enables criminal groups to then exert a level of control over political decision-making in the territories in which they operate. Moreover, Saucedo added that criminal attacks against elected officials and political candidates tend to take place in two general contexts. Firstly, criminal organizations may launch violent or intimidatory acts against politicians that they believe will attempt to crack down on existing institutional corruption that favors their operations. Secondly, criminal groups may target candidates and officials that are tied to rival organizations, in an attempt to reduce adversaries’ control over certain territories.

Most Cases in 2021 Remain Unsolved

Although President López Obrador has publicly committed to ensuring that there will be no impunity in any case of political violence, the vast majority of candidate murders during the 2021 election have seen little progress towards being solved. Out of the 35 homicides of candidates identified in the Etellekt report, only nine cases have seen at least one arrest. Unless authorities demonstrate a serious and sustained willingness to prevent, investigate, and sanction attacks on candidates and other politically active persons, the use of violence as a political tool may continue to be a regular feature of elections in Mexico. 


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