Environmental Activists Under Attack in Mexico

05/26/20 (written by mvillaseñor in collaboration with aherrera) – Mexican environmental activists have increasingly been under attack. Just in the last five months, at least six environmental activists have been murdered. According to a 2019 report from the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental, CEMDA), homicides are increasingly becoming the primary form of attack against environmental activists in the country. According to the report, environmental activists are at a particularly high risk of retribution due to their vocal criticism against political and economic interests, such as large infrastructure projects and developments. 

Between 2012 and 2019, Mexico has seen a total of at least 499 attacks against environmental activists, including but not limited to threats, criminalization, assault, and homicide. According to data from CEMDA, the number of attacks gradually increased from 24 in 2012, 64 in 2013 and 78 in 2014 to its peak of 107 in 2015 and 85 in 2016. This represents a 346% increase in attacks against environmental activists from 2012 to 2015.

Mexico’s Energy Reform

These observed increases in attacks against environmental activists coincide with the implementation of Mexico’s energy reform. In fact, the aforementioned 2019 report from CEMDA notes the ratification of the energy reform as a relevant factor in the significant increase in homicides of environmental activists. The energy reform was first introduced by Enrique Peña Nieto on August 12, 2013. The reform was backed by his political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) as well as the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, PAN) and was intended to modify the constitution to allow foreign investment in its energy sector. Prior to the energy reform, state-owned Mexican Petroleum (Petróleos Mexicanos, PEMEX) ran the country’s energy industry after President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río expropriated Mexico’s oil sector in 1938. The constitutional reform was debated by congress and approved on December 12, 2013. This was the first time in 75 years that private and foreign investment became allowable in Mexico’s energy sector. On August 2014, further legislation was approved that leveled the playing field for all investors in the sector.

Read more about Mexico’s New Energy Reform in this 2018 report from the Mexico Center at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Read more here about how legislation from the Energy Reform has impacted transparency and human rights as well as infringed on citizen participation at the local and national level. 

Increase in Attacks Against Environmental Activists

Overall the number of attacks has been decreasing with 53 in 2017, 49 in 2018, and most recently 39 in 2019. However, homicides, within this time span, have seen an increase. According to CEMDA, in 2019, homicide was the primary form of aggression with 21.1% of incidences resulting in death, followed by threats with 19.3%, criminalization with 15.8%, and intimidation with 14%. Moreover, CEMDA points out that the primary aggressor is often the government itself. CEMDA attributed 40.5% of overall attacks committed towards environmentalist in 2019 to the government, tied with unidentified aggressors and followed by community members and organized crime each with 4.8%. Attacks perpetrated by the government are primarily attributed to local prosecutors, the National Guard (Guardia Nacional), and state police.

Environmental Activist Homicides in 2020

Mexico has lost at least six environmental activists in 2020. The first case surrounds the murder of 50-year-old Homero Gómez González, an outspoken critic of illegal logging and manager of El Rosario’s monarch butterfly sanctuary in the state of Michoacán. He was last seen on January 13 and was found dead more than two weeks later on January 29. His body was floating in a holding pond near the mountain forest reserve Gómez González was protecting. Initial reports from Michoacán’s state prosecutors pointed to drowning as the cause of death, but a more detailed autopsy later revealed evidence of a head injury. Days before Gómez González was found, another environmental activist from the same region was reported missing. Raúl Hernández Romero, a 44-year-old conservation activist and part-time tour guide at El Rosario was reported missing on January 27. His body was found five days later at the top of a hill in El Campanario monarch butterfly sanctuary. According to news reports, he too had a head injury and his body was covered in bruises.

Following the deaths of these two activists, a third activist was reported missing on March 19, 2020. Paulina Gómez Palacios Escudero, a 50-year-old environmental activist from the state of San Luis Potosí disappeared when she was traveling from Matehuala in her home state to the community of El Salvador in the neighboring state of Zacatecas. Her body was later found on March 22, according to the autopsy, she died from a gunshot wound to the face. She was considered a guardian of the sacred territory Wirikuta and a friend of the indigenous community, Wixárika. According to a report published by Intercontinental Cry, the Wixárika community has been actively fighting for years to protect their sacred lands from mining companies. On September 2013, a federal district judge approved a temporary suspension on all concessions to mining companies in the sacred territory of Wirikuta. In 2009, 36 concessions had been granted to Canadian mining company, First Majestic Silver, 70% of these concessions were within the Wirikuta territory.

A day after Gómez Palacio Escudero’s body was found, the fourth environmental activist was murdered. On March 23, 2020, Isaac Medardo Herrera Aviles was murdered in his home in Jiutepec, Morelos when gunmen knocked at his door and shot him point blank, fleeing the scene before they could be apprehended. Herrera Aviles was a longtime activist and lawyer in the state of Morelos. Most recently he had stopped the company, Casas Ara, from developing a real estate project in the premises of “Los Venados,” a 56,000 square meter forest in the middle of Jiutepec. Herrera Aviles and community members had successfully stopped the project and were waiting for local authorities to deem the land a natural reserve. In 2007, the activist had legally represented advocates of 13 communities who were attempting to stop another real estate development project in Emiliano Zapata, Morelos, near the Chihuahuita natural spring where developers were also seeking to extract the water.

Two weeks later, Adán Vez Lira became the fifth environmental activist to be murdered in Mexico. He was from the state of Veracruz and founder of the ecotourism cooperative, “La Mancha en Movimiento”. According to news reports, Vez Lira was shot to death on April 8 while riding his motorcycle from La Mancha to Palmas de Abajo, Veracruz. He had dedicated more than two decades of his life to defending the bird observatory in La Mancha Ecological Reserve and El Llano. According to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, he had also actively opposed mining projects by Almaden Minerals and Candelaria Mining, both Canadian mining companies with interests in the region.

The most recent homicide targeted Eugui Roy Martínez Pérez, a 21-year-old environmental activist from the state of Oaxaca murdered in San Agustín Loxicha, Oaxaca. Martínez Pérez was studying biology at the Technological Institute of the Valley of Oaxaca (Instituto Tecnológico del Valle de Oaxaca, ITVO) and was a member of the Organization for Environmental Protection in Oaxaca. Additionally, people close to Martínez Pérez indicated he had a particular passion for the care, defense, and conservation of reptiles and amphibians. According to Oaxaca’s Attorney General office, he was murdered on May 7 when a group of armed individuals forcefully entered his home and removed him from the premises. He was later found nearby with signs of torture and a gunshot wound. According to his sister, Martínez Pérez decided to spend his quarantine in San Agustín Loxicha, “collecting insects, studying, writing for a magazine, looking after a few deer’s, [in addition to] creating content for his blog.”

Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has called these deaths “regrettable” and “painful,” but human rights groups are demanding the government do more. For example, the Center for Human Rights Zeferino Ladrillero is asking the government to prioritize the lives of individuals defending the environment, land, forests, and water over the interest of private entities. Others are calling for better monitoring and prevention mechanisms to protect marginalized communities, particularly indigenous groups, who are vulnerable to the loss of land and private interest groups entering their territory. Furthermore, environmental activists point out that at least 80% of activists murdered defending the environment have been indigenous. A recent released report from Front Line Defenders, an international foundation based in Ireland that seeks to protect human rights around the globe, showed Mexico and Brazil tied as the fourth most dangerous countries in the world for activists. However, it is worth noting that Front Line Defenders’ report encompasses all human rights activists, not only environmentalists.  Nonetheless, looking forward, it is imperative that the government analyze and address the divisive culture it is promoting against activists.

Sources:

“Adán Vez Lira.” Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, www.business-humanrights.org/en/08042020-ad%C3%A1n-vez-lira.

Román, José Antonio. “Presenta Hoy Peña La Reforma Que Abre Los Energéticos a Particulares.” La Jornada. August 12, 2013. www.jornada.com.mx/2013/08/12/politica/003n1pol

Palma, Lilian. “A Struggle for Sacred Land: The Case of Wirikuta.” OpenDemocracy. September 26, 2013. www.opendemocracy.net/en/civilresistance/struggle-for-sacred-land-case-of-wirikuta/

“Terminan 75 Años De Veto a Privados En Energía; Diputados Aprueban Reforma.” Animal Político. December 13, 2013. www.animalpolitico.com/2013/12/diputados-aprueban-en-lo-general-la-reforma-energetica/

de la Fuente, Aroa. “La Reforma Energética En México: Retrocesos En La Gobernanza Democrática De Los Recursos Naturales.” Fundar. November 10, 2014. www.fundar.org.mx/la-reforma-energetica-en-mexico-retrocesos-en-la-gobernanza-democratica-de-los-recursos-naturales/

Wood, Duncan, and Jeremy Martin. Mexico’s New Energy Reform. Wilson Center. October, 2018. www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/publication/mexicos_new_energy_reform.pdf

“El 80 % De Los Activistas Ambientales Asesinados En México Son Indígenas.” Infobae. August 1, 2019. www.infobae.com/america/mexico/2019/08/01/el-80-de-los-activistas-ambientales-asesinados-en-mexico-son-indigenas/

Fuentes López, Guadalupe. “La Cifra Presiona a AMLO: Ya Van 7 Periodistas y Además 14 Activistas Asesinados En Apenas Seis Meses.” sin embargo. June 12, 2019. www.sinembargo.mx/12-06-2019/3595702

“Wixárika: ‘We Will Not Give up Protecting the Wirikuta Territory.’” Intercontinental Cry. July 26, 2019. www.intercontinentalcry.org/wixarika-we-will-not-give-up-protecting-the-wirikuta-territory/

Global Analysis 2019. Front Line Defenders. 2020. www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/global_analysis_2019_web.pdf

Sieff, Kevin. “He Told Me of His Battle to Save the Monarch Butterfly from Illegal Loggers. Now He’s Missing.” The Washington Post. January 23, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/he-told-me-of-his-battle-to-save-the-monarch-butterfly-from-illegal-loggers-now-hes-gone-missing/2020/01/23/353a6a94-3dea-11ea-afe2-090eb37b60b1_story.html

“Mexican Anti-Logging, Monarch Butterfly Activist Found Dead, Sparking Fears of Murder.” NBC News. January 31, 2020. www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/mexican-anti-logging-monarch-butterfly-activist-found-dead-sparking-fears-n1127721

“Second Mexico Monarch Butterfly Activist Found Dead.” BBC News. February 3, 2020. www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-51356265

Srikanth, Anagha. “A Second Monarch Butterfly Conservationist Found Dead in Mexico.” TheHill. February 3, 2020. https://thehill.com/changing-america/sustainability/environment/481198-a-second-monarch-butterfly-conservationist-has

Leyva Hernández, Alejandra, et al. Informe Sobre La Situación De Las Personas Defensoras De Los Derechos Humanos Ambientales. Edited by Andrea Davide Ulisse Cerami and Anaid Velasco Ramírez. Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental. March, 2020. www.cemda.org.mx/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/informe-personas-defensoras-2019.pdf

Bacaz, Verónica. “Asesinan a Activista y Defensor De Reserva Natural ‘Los Venados’, En Morelos.” El Financiero. March 23, 2020. www.elfinanciero.com.mx/nacional/asesinan-a-activista-y-defensor-de-reserva-natural-los-venado-en-morelos

“Exigen Justicia Para Paulina Gómez, Defensora Del Territorio Sagrado De Wirikuta.” Servicios Para Una Educación Alternativa A.C. March 24, 2020. https://www.educaoaxaca.org/exigen-justicia-para-paulina-gomez-defensora-del-territorio-sagrado-de-wirikuta/

“Nature Reserve Activist Shot to Death in Central Mexico.” Star Tribune. March 24, 2020. www.startribune.com/nature-reserve-activist-shot-to-death-in-central-mexico/569070472/?refresh=true

Valadez Rodríguez, Alfredo. “La FGJZ Abre Investigación Por Asesinato De Campesina De SLP.” La Jornada, March 24, 2020. www.jornada.com.mx/ultimas/estados/2020/03/24/la-fgjz-abre-investigacion-por-asesinato-de-campesina-de-slp-8052.html

den Held, Douwe. “Ambientalistas De México Asesinados Por Su Resistencia a Proyectos Energéticos.” InSight Crime. April 7, 2020. www.es.insightcrime.org/noticias/noticias-del-dia/ambientalistas-de-mexico-asesinados-por-su-resistencia-a-proyectos-energeticos/

Pradilla, Alberto. “Asesinan a Adán Vez Lira, Defensor Del Área Natural De La Mancha, En Veracruz.” Animal Político. April 8, 2020. www.animalpolitico.com/2020/04/asesinan-adan-vez-lira-defensor-veracruz/

“Asesinaron a Adán Vez, Ambientalista Opositor De Mineras En Actopan.” Infobae. April 9, 2020. www.infobae.com/america/mexico/2020/04/09/asesinaron-a-adan-vez-ambientalista-opositor-de-mineras-en-actopan/

Soberanes, Rodrigo. “COVID-19 No Detiene El Asesinato De Defensores Ambientales En México.” Mongabay Latam. April 13, 2020. www.es.mongabay.com/2020/04/mexico-covid-19-violencia-defensores-ambientales/

Bermúdez Liévano, Andrés. “COVID-19 Crisis: Attacks on Environmental Defenders Continue in Latin America.” OpenDemocracy. April 29, 2020. www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/covid-19-crisis-attacks-environmental-defenders-continue-latin-america/

“Condenan Asesinato De Joven Ambientalista Mexicano En Municipio De Oaxaca.” Los Angeles Times. May 11, 2020. www.latimes.com/espanol/mexico/articulo/2020-05-11/condenan-asesinato-de-joven-ambientalista-mexicano-en-municipio-de-oaxaca

Rodríguez, Óscar. “Asesinan a Biólogo Ambientalista En Oaxaca.” Milenio. May 11, 2020. www.milenio.com/estados/oaxaca-matan-ambientalista-eugui-roy-martinez

Miranda, Fernando. “Environmental Activist Eugui Roy Martínez Was Murdered in Oaxaca.” El Universal. May 12, 2020. www.eluniversal.com.mx/english/environmental-activist-eugui-roy-martinez-was-murdered-oaxaca

Nine Members of Local Mormon Family Killed in Cartel-Related Ambush in Mexico

One of the vehicles seen here, torched from the ambush. Photo: Meghan Dhaliwal, The New York Times.

11/22/19 (written by T McGinnis) On November 4, 2019, nine members of a local Mormon family were killed in a cartel-related ambush in northeastern Sonora. Among the deceased, officials found and identified the bodies of three women and their six children, all belonging to the LeBarón family.

Ambushed en Route

According to El Universal and The Wall Street Journal, at 10:00am on the morning of November 4, the mothers and 14 of their children left their homes in the small village of La Mora in three separate vehicles. Two of the vehicles were traveling to the neighboring state of Chihuahua , while the third was headed to Phoenix, Arizona, all to visit family. Witness accounts from affected family members who survived say that around 10:20am, one of the SUVs was discovered engulfed in flames. Three armed men were seen fleeing the scene.

About 40 minutes later, closer to 11:00am, the other two SUVs were attacked ten miles further down the road. One of the vehicles contained Christina Marie Langford and her seven-month-old baby. The other was driven Dawna Ray Langford and her seven children. Dawna’s 13-year-old son, Devin, survived the ambush along with several of his other siblings. After fleeing the attack and hiding in bushes along the roadside, the surviving children then walked 14 miles back into La Mora to alert authorities.

Suspects Behind the Massacre

The attacks were the result of a clash between rival gangs in the surrounding area. General Homero Mendoza Ruiz, the Chief of Staff for Mexico’s National Defense, said that two criminal groups had previously engaged in a shootout along the U.S.-Mexico border in the town of Agua Prieta. They were identified as Los Salazar, based in the state of Sonora, and La Línea, based in the neighboring state of Chihuahua. The New York Times thenreported that in an effort to create barriers of entry for Los Salazar, La Línea had dispatched gunman to the region that straddles Sonora and Chihuahua, which is where the attacks took place.  

Motives Involved

The motive behind the massacre has been debated. One theory is that it was a case of mistaken identity. General Mendoza noted that the suburban model of the SUV driven by two of the three mothers is commonly used by criminal gangs, which could have led to confusion about who was inside the vehicles. Additionally, investigators cited that because the children in one of the vehicles were allegedly able to flee, this suggests that the attack was not specifically directed toward the families.

Family and friends mourn the death of their loved ones following the November 4 attack. Photo: Meghan Dhaliwal, The New York Times.

Another theory, however, speculated that the LeBarón family was somehow more intimately entangled and actively engaged in the rivalry. Even some family members themselves said that what transpired on November 4 was most likely a targeted, intentional operation by criminal groups. According to Milenio, Julián LeBarón, the cousin of a victim, stated that although the community remains bewildered by the guiding motivations of the involved groups, there is no doubt that “they [were] intentionally murdered.”

Still, accounts differ with regard to the relationship between the Mormon community and local cartels. Some investigators suggested that the motive behind the attack may be linked to the community’s “cordial” relationship with Los Salazar criminal group, which controls most of the activity in that region. Los Salazar are thought to be aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – a stringent enemy of La Línea. Some speculate that the ambush served as a message to the Sinaloa factions that La Línea, and more broadly the Juárez Cartel, control the road and therefore the drug trafficking routes that lead into the state of Chihuahua.

Mormon History in Northern Mexico

Although various news stories have portrayed the massacre as a violent attack against visiting U.S. citizens, the community of over 5,000 Mormons living in northern Mexico dates back to the early 20th century and consists of many dual nationals. According to El Universal, the LeBarón family initially made the move into Mexico to practice polygamy, a convention that since then, has largely faded out among members.

While some press accounts have focused on this aspect—including conspiracy theories attempting to link the victims’ families to the human trafficking ring known as NXIVM—others have focused on the family’s activism in advocating for the rights of crime victims and local disputes over land tenure and water. A decade earlier, two members of the LeBarón family were kidnapped and murdered following their confrontation of the drug gangs that control the borderlands south of Arizona. That incident spurred family members to organize locally and nationally to pressure the government to act to improve citizen security and victim protections.

U.S.-Mexico Relations

Source: The New York Times.

Though authorities are still working to identify possible suspects and uncovering the real motivations for the massacre, the implications for the U.S.-Mexico relationship remain much more evident. Since the attack occurred approximately 70 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border and against dual U.S.-Mexico citizens, U.S. politicians have become increasingly vocal regarding the security policy of Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador. According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. President Donald Trump offered help in combating cartel violence. “This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth…the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!” he tweeted. Given the historical legacy of U.S. interventionism in Mexico and apprehensions about armed U.S. agents operating in Mexico, President López Obrador swiftly declined the offer.

Jorge Chabat, an analyst at the University of Guadalajara, stated that this incident will likely “raise the temperature among conservative sectors in the U.S. precisely during election season.” Other political actors, such as U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), have asserted that Mexico remains dangerously close to assuming the classification of a failed state, especially given the violence seen in Culiacán and Veracruz. “Mexico’s president hasn’t taken the threat seriously and innocent lives have been lost again.” He urged Mexico to heed President Trump’s advice and join U.S. military forces to launch a “full-scale offensive against these butchers.”

Trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Ironically, sources point out the underlying complicity of the U.S. in the recent violence targeting La Mora’s Mormon community. The New York Times reports that at a news conference two days after the attacks, Mexican government officials offered additional details regarding the incident. According to investigators, “the ammunition used in the attack were .223 caliber cartridges manufactured in the United States by Remington” and usually associated with AR-15 and M16 rifles. Each year, approximately 200,000 American guns illegally cross the border into Mexico, many of which land in the hands of the criminal organizations that fight to control the multibillion drug trade to the United States.

Since taking office, President Obrador has issued public statements signaling that his time in office would constitute the end of entrenched political corruption and Mexico’s “War on Drugs.” With Obrador’s strategy of “hugs, not bullets,” he discusses a prioritized focus on alleviating the poverty that drives individuals to join gangs and fall prey to cartel influence. However, record homicide rates in 2019 alone have caused many to call this strategy into question. To intensify an already escalated situation, the incident on November 4 happened only two weeks after the Sinaloa Cartel laid siege to the city of Culiacán following the military’s arrest of El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán. For many, the subsequent release of Guzmán and retreat of military forces signaled a weak government security strategy. María Elena Morera, director of civil society organization Causa in Común, told The Wall Street Journal that, “Mr. López Obrador’s strategy is clearly not working. He can’t keep thinking that a government using legitimate force against criminals is what generates violence.”

Next Steps

Mexico’s Secretary of Security and Civilian Protection Alfonso Durazo initially reported that a suspect had been brought into custody, but information later gathered indicated he was not involved. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, at the alleged request of the Mexican government, later agreed to join the investigation into the massacre. With internal and external pressures equally intensifying, it remains to be seen whether President López Obrador’s security strategy will evolve in the face of increased scrutiny and international political pressure.

Sources:

Belmont, José Antonio. “Familia LeBarón cree que ataque a mujeres y niños fue directo.” Milenio. November 5, 2019.

Kaleem, Jaweed. “La masacre de ciudadanos estadounidenses apunta a la comunidad mormona con profundas raíces en México.” Los Angeles Times. November 6, 2019.

Linthicum, Kate. “For Mexico ambush victims, there was no safety in numbers.” Los Angeles Times. November 6, 2019.

Santiago, Patricia Vélez. “Autoridades presumen que ataque a familia LeBarón en México se debió a lucha territorial entre dos grupos delictivos.” Univisión. November 6, 2019.

Ahmed, Azam. “After Mormon Family’s Terror in Mexico, a Message Emerges: No One Is Safe.” The New York Times. November 7, 2019.

Diaz, Lizbeth. “The LeBarón Case: Drug Cartels & the Fight to Control Drug Trafficking Routes.” El Universal. November 7, 2019.

Semple, Kirk. “Mormon Massacre in Mexico May Be Tied to Gang War, Officials Say.” The New York Times. November 8, 2019.

Ahmed, Azman. “9 Members of Mormon Family in Mexico Are Killed in Ambush.” The New York Times. November 8 2019.

Allyn, Bobby. “FBI Joins Investigation Into Killing Of 9 Members Of Mormon Family In Mexico.” NPR. November 11, 2019.

Kryt, Jeremy. “A New Twist in the Horrific Massacre of American Moms and Kids in Mexico.” The Daily Beast. November 11, 2019.

The Capture and Release of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán, Sinaloa

11/05/19 (Written by T McGinnis) – On October 17th, heavy fighting erupted in the Mexican city of Culiacán, Sinaloa after security forces detained Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of the jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. According to El País, authorities initially reported that they found Guzmán during a routine search and arrested him due to the significant role he has played in his father’s illicit activities. However, as noted by the Los Angeles Times, the story evolved rapidly. Mexican officials later acknowledged that the operation had been planned, but suggested that it was physically carried out by rogue security forces without proper authorization. In either case, authorities lacked a search warrant upon entering Guzmán’s property, calling the legality of the mission into question from the beginning. Following this blunder, the cartel launched a large attack in retaliation. As videos and pictures of dead bodies and families scrambling for shelter surfaced and subsequently flooded the media, the public watched as the death toll gradually rose in the days following the violence. Univision later confirmed on October 21st that at least 13 people were killed and dozens more were injured.

According to Milenio, in reaction to the violence, authorities ultimately freed Ovidio Guzmán López and retreated, subsequently defending this course of action by arguing that the most important objective remains to avoid the loss of human lives. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke publicly regarding the matter stating, “We don’t want bloodshed. We do not want that. From anyone. We are also hurting with respect to the loss of the life of an alleged criminal. We are not oblivious to the pain caused by the death of any person.” Reiterating the position that his administration has taken from the outset, Obrador insisted that “you can’t fight fire with fire.” However, this response raised strong criticisms of López Obrador’s security strategy, which thus far has failed to quell Mexico’s rising tide of violence, which has reached more than 3,000 murders each month as noted by El Universal.

Indeed, critics charged that the cartel’s victory represented a stunning “humiliation” for the Mexican government. According to The New York Times, though Obrador rightly maintains that he inherited the problem of unchecked corruption, those who oppose the strategy of release and retreat utilized by the government last month argue that these actions send the wrong message and set a dangerous precedent. Cartels may now more strongly assume that through the leveraging violence, they can get their way and further their interests. Additionally, while the López Obrador administration may opt not to go after drug traffickers, vocal critics like Ioan Grillo point out that the drug “war does not stop even if the government is not attacking them.”

López Obrador has also been criticized for the lack of an effective security strategy, despite his efforts to build a new National Guard to restore order. Indeed, many members of the National Guard have been diverted from their public security role to focus on stopping Central American migrants from entering the United States. Meanwhile, López Obrador’s efforts have been beset by protests from federal law enforcement officers who object to the dissolution of their agency, the Federal Police, and their incorporation into the National Guard during the recent reorganization of security forces, as noted last month by Justice in Mexico. Engelbert Ruiz, a Federal Police Officer, commented that “What is really happening is that they are simply changing our uniforms [with] no explanations, clarity, no rights or guarantees.”

According to the Diario de Yucatán, compounding an already complicated set of internal tensions, “Mexican media outlets reported that elements in the army were unhappy with the outcome of Thursday’s debacle in Culiacán.” As noted by sources, such as Mexican News Daily, this rift between President López Obrador and military forces continued to grow in the days following the operation. On October 22nd, retired military general Carlos Gaytán gave a highly critical speech regarding the worrisome status of “today’s Mexico” under the Obrador administration. “…We cannot ignore that the head of the executive has been legally and legitimately empowered. However, it’s also an undeniable truth that fragile counterweight mechanisms have permitted a strengthening of the executive, which has made strategic decisions that haven’t convinced everyone, to put it mildly.” Though Gaytán never explicitly referred to the Culiacán operation, established sources within the military informed The Washington Post that the speech served as a response to the mission on behalf the armed forces.

However, other sources point out that the story of Ovidio Guzmán’s release remains subject to two very different interpretations. According to Consulta Mitofsky for El Economista, “in Sinaloa, 79% of the population and 53% nationally, considered that the federal government did the right thing by freeing Ovidio Guzmán López from the threat of the Sinaloa Cartel to attack the citizens.” The state of Sinaloa, the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking, is overwhelmed by the presence of crime and an ever-increasing tendency of cartels to use insurgent tactics to achieve their political aims, such as the use of roadblocks to hinder military reinforcement. Vladimir Ramirez, a political scientist in Culiacán, explained that although the gunmen did not intentionally target noncombatants initially, the menace posed by the cartel remained clear. The citizens of Sinaloa, who have been subject and well-exposed to cartel reign, recognized this. The usual elusive quality of cartel gunmen had, in this case, materialized; their visible and violent presence forcing families to hide in small, anxiety-provoking spaces as described by Televisa. “It was a threat of terrorism,” Ramirez said. “The government acted with great responsibility.” Additionally, El Universal reports that during the operation, Aguaruto prison experienced a breakdown in security, resulting in the escape of approximately 50 prisoners, most of whom originally forfeited their rights due to ties with organized crime. Additionally, many approve of the government’s strategy of release and retreat because according to Milenio, cartel hitmen threatened to kill hostage soldiers and their families if Guzmán remained held by authorities.


Photo: El Economista 

Moving forward, it remains to be seen whether the Mexican president will heed critics’ warnings by cracking down on drug traffickers or continue to pursue a self-described approach focused on “hugs, not gunfights” (abrazos, no balazos). Clearly, though, what occurred in Sinaloa on October 17th has increased pressure on the López Obrador administration to develop a coherent and effective strategy to reduce both violent crime and the threat of Mexico’s powerful organized crime groups.

Sources:

Camhaji, Elijah. “Ovidio Guzmán, el hijo de El Chapo cuya detención ha desatado la violencia en Culiacán.” El País. October 18th, 2019.

Milenio Digital. “Gobierno va tras hijo de ‘El Chapo’; ‘que no haya impunidad’, dice AMLO.” Milenio. October 22, 2019.

Espino, Manuel. “Semestre récord en violencia en México.” El Universal. 2 Jul. 2019. 

“En Sinaloa, Gabinete de Seguridad optó por proteger la vida de las personas: presidente AMLO.” Sitio Oficial de Andrés Manuel López Obrador. 18 Oct. 2019. 

Consulta Mitofsky. “Liberación de Ovidio Guzmán: dos visiones diferentes.” El Economista. 22 Oct. 2019. 

Heinle, K. “AMLO deploys National Guard amidst controversy.” Justice in Mexico. 24 Jul. 2019. 

Linthicum, Kate & Sanchez, Cecelia. “Eight killed in Mexico as cartel gunmen force authorities to release El Chapo’s son.” Los Angeles Times. October 18, 2019. 

Grillo, Ioan. “Drug Cartel Control Is No Peace.” The New York Times. October 22, 2019. 

Megamedia. “Trasciende molestia del jefe del Ejército con AMLO tras la fallida operación en Culiacán.” Diario de Yucatán.October 20, 2019. 

Noticieros Televisa. “Miedo y ansiedad: lo que dejó la violencia del Cártel de Sinaloa en Culiacán.” Televisa. 29 Oct. 2019. 

Beauregard, Luis Pablo. “El hijo de El Chapo, tras su detención en Culiacán: ‘Ya paren todo, ya me entregué, no quiero más desmadre.’” El Universal. 30 Oct. 2019. 

Homicide Rates on Pace for Record-Breaking Year

Map of homicides in 2018 by municipality

Homicides by municipality in 2018, according to data from SNSP. Source: Justice in Mexico.

08/18/19 (written by kheinle) — Mexico is on pace to have the deadliest year on record, according to data released in mid-July by Mexico’s Secretary General of National Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP).

The agency reported 17,608 killings in the first six months of 2019, which is 894 more than the number recorded during the first half of 2018 or a 4% increase. If that number repeats in the second half of the year, Mexico could expect to see more than 35,200 homicides for all of 2019. That could be almost 1,900 more homicides than SNSP reported in 2018. For more information on 2018’s official numbers, check out Justice in Mexico’s “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico: Analysis Through 2018.”

Geographic Dispersion of Homicides

The majority of the homicides from January through June of 2019 were concentrated in 18 of Mexico’s 32 states and federal entities. Nuevo León had the highest increase (70%) in the number of homicides during that time period compared to that in 2018. Sonora saw a 65% increase, followed by Hidalgo (52%), Morelos (43%), Tabasco (42%), Jalisco (31%), Tlaxcala (30%), Coahuila (26%), and the State of México (21%). Another six states had increases at lower levels, falling between 10% and 20% compared to 2018. Guanajuato, which had the single largest increase in all of 2018 from the year before, fell into this category for 2019. Three other states – Puebla, Zacatecas, and Querétaro – had increases less than 10%.

The remaining 14 states all saw decreases in homicide levels, most notably that of Baja California Sur, which experienced a 66% decline in recorded killings in the first half of 2019. This continues the downward trajectory that Baja CA Sur had in 2018. During that year, the state registered the largest decrease in homicides nationwide with a 74% decline, dropping from 448 cases in 2017 to 162 in 2018. In the first six months of 2019, Nayarit followed Baja CA Sur with a 64% decrease, then Guerrero (30%), Tamaulipas (29%), Sinaloa (27%), and Durango (20%).

Government Strategy

solder in uniform on patrol

A member of Mexico’s military sports the National Guard insignia while on patrol in El Manguito, Mexico. Photo: Oliver de Ros, Associated Press.

The increase in homicide rates in 2019 continues a multi-year upward trend that began in 2015. Eyes are now on the López Obrador administration for its response since taking office in December 2018.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took a significant, yet controversial step to implementing his strategy to address crime and violence when he launched the National Guard in June. Created from the ranks of the Mexican military and police, the National Guard will serve as a means to combat the record-breaking levels of crime and violence. President López Obrador is also approaching crime and violence through economic policies. Writes Reuters, “[the President] has blamed the economic policies of previous administrations for exacerbating the violence.” He has taken a hard stance on cultivating fiscal austerity in the country, revamping previous policies while trying to decrease the deficit and increase incoming funds.

Time will tell if the López Obrador administration’s militarized and economic strategies affect Mexico’s staggering levels of crime and violence. As the administration nears the end of its first year in office, however, the upward trend on homicide rates continue.

Sources:

Calderón, Laura et al. “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico.” Justice in Mexico. April 2019.

“President López Obrador continues to prioritize fiscal austerity.” Justice in Mexico. July 7, 2019.

“Murders in Mexico surge to record in first half of 2019.” Reuters. July 21, 2019. 

“Mexico sets 1st half murder record, up 5.3%.” Associated Press. July 22, 2019.

Angel, Arturo. “Aumentan homicidios en 18 estados; en Nuevo León y Sonora el incremento fue superior al 65%.” Animal Político. July 23, 2019.

“AMLO Deploys National Guard amidst controversy.” Justice in Mexico. July 24, 2019.

“Today in Latin America.” Latin America News Dispatch. July 24, 2019.

Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública. “Víctimas de Delitos de Fuero Común 2019.” Gobierno de México. July 20, 2019.

A Look at Violence in Mexico City: Femicides and Underreporting

Source: SESNSP.

08/07/19 (written by kheinle) — Both the country of Mexico and the nation’s capital city, Ciudad de México (CDMX), have garnered attention for their high levels of crime and violence in recent months.

National Context

As a nation, Mexico is on pace to have the deadliest year on record, according to data released in mid-July by Mexico’s Secretary General of National Public Security (SESNSP). The government registered more than 17,000 intentional homicides in Mexico from January through June 2019, which is 94 victims of homicide per day thus far this year. Another 84,000 cases of intentional assault were reported that time frame, as well as more than 750 cases of kidnapping and 4,230 incidences of extortion.

Mexico City is also seeing elevated levels of homicide with estimates pointing to increases of 10-20% during the first six months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018. According to SESNSP, by the end of June, Mexico City had 10,616 victims of violent crime, including homicide, assault, femicide, kidnapping, rape, extortion, and corruption, among others. Mexico City also had the highest rate of mugging (street-level theft) during that time period with a rate of 117.8 cases per 100,000 residents. Animal Político noted that this rate is almost four times that of the national average for such crimes.

Mexico City’s Mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, weighed in on the levels of violence in the capital with regards to women and to the accuracy of reported data.

Violence against Women in Mexico City

 

Mayor Sheinbaum speaks at conference

Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum speaks at an event with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in December 2018. Photo: Javier Ríos, Milenio.

In early July, Sheinbaum vowed to eliminate violence against women, also known as femicide. “To avoid and eliminate violence against women … finally, that is the objective,” she said. “It’s not fighting it – the objective is ultimately to eradicate violence. That should be the goal.” Sheinbaum is Mexico City’s first elected female mayor.

Femicide has long been a serious problem in Mexico. Almost half of all women (45%) in Mexico reported being victims of abuse at the hands of their partner, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, INEGI). Another 18% said the violence was specifically physical violence. In the first half of 2019, there were 470 cases of femicide with an average of just over 78 cases per month, according to Mexico’s Secretary General of National Public Security. It is also worth noting that in just the first five months of 2019, more than 80 women were murdered in Mexico City alone.

Mayor Sheinbaum’s announcement is another step in the government’s strategy outlined to eliminate violence against women. As reported by Reuters, “such protective measures have quadrupled [in Mexico City] since last year,” which includes “the strengthening of the city’s 32 legal and psychological support shelters known as ‘Lunas.’”

Verifying Crime Rates

In mid-July, Mayor Sheinbaum’s administration made more news when it released government data on crime levels that call into question the previous administration’s reporting. Since taking office in December 2018, Sheinbaum has been criticized for escalating levels of violence in the nation’s capital. Some estimates said homicides had risen by more than a third since December. The data released in July, however, show that although murders in Mexico City have increased by 12%, violent crimes overall have decreased by 8% since Sheinbaum was elected. Thus, while some numbers continue to rise at lower rates in Mexico City, other crimes have actually reversed course.

Image from Mexico Evalua's Fallas de Origen report

Source: México Evalúa.

Sheinbaum’s administration argued that previously reported data was inaccurate or incomplete. For her part, Mexico City Attorney General Ernestina Godoy stated that the previous registry used by officials “was distorted.” She continued to explain that upwards of 24,000 ‘high impact criminal cases’ out of 214,000 reported cases had been doctored and misclassified when entered into the registry. For example, “In cases of rape,” she said, “they were classified as sexual harassment or abuse, or just injuries.” The United Nations stepped in to help reclassify the cases.

A Focus on CDMX

It is not uncommon in Mexico to underreport cases of crime and violence. México Evalúa addressed this topic in its publication, “Fallas de origen: Índice de Confiabilidad de la Estadística Criminal (ICEC).” The study measured the reliability of homicide data that prosecutors and attorney general’s report to SESNSP. Overall, Mexico City scored a 7.20 on the ICEC scale, just slightly below the national average of 7.62. Colima had the best score with 9.57 and the State of México (Estado de México, EDOMEX) scored the lowest with 2.50.

With a score of 7.20, Mexico City “ranks in the second half of the scoring, sitting in the 21st position in the ICEC ranking” of 32 Mexican states and federal entities, according to México Evalúa. The report noted that “there are federal entities that do not have similar conditions and resources [compared to CDMX] yet scored better…” Thus, Mexico City’s reporting of data on violent crimes like homicide falls below national averages and indicates an opportunity for the capital to strengthen its processes.

For more information on México Evalúa’s report, click here.

Sources:

“Homicide Rates and Clandestine Graves Highlight Mexico’s Systemic Challenges.” Justice in Mexico. June 26, 2019.

“Fallas de Origen 2019: Índice de Confiabilidad de la Estadística Criminal.” México Evalúa. July 2, 2019.

Lopez, Oscar. “Mexico City mayor promises to eradicate violence against women.” Reuters. July 9, 2019.

Cattan, Nacha. “Mexico City Says Ex-Government Changed Data to Hide Crime.” Bloomberg. July 20, 2019.

Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública. “Víctimas de Delitos de Fuero Común 2019.” Gobierno de México. July 20, 2019.

“Today in Latin America.” Latin America News Dispatch. July 22, 2019.

Angel, Arturo. “Aumentan homicidios en 18 estados; en Nuevo León y Sonora el incremento fue superior al 65%.” Animal Político. July 23, 2019.