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.

Homicide Rates and Clandestine Graves Highlight Mexico’s Systemic Challenges

06/26/19 (written by kheinle) — The first six months of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s sexenio (2018-2024) have proven to be the most violent such period for a president in Mexico’s recent history. Mexico’s ongoing struggles to combat crime and violence were highlighted of late with the release of data on the increasing homicide rates and clandestine graves throughout Mexico.

Intentional Homicide Rate Continues to Rise

Map of homicide victims by municipality in 2018

This map depicts the distribution of homicide victims by municipality in 2018, as reported by the National Public Security (SNSP). Source: Justice in Mexico, 2019.

According to Mexico’s Secretary General of National Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP), 17,498 people were murdered between December 2018 and May 2019; an average of almost 3,000 per month. Despite a slight drop in the number of intentional homicides reported in April (2,724 homicides) compared to previous months, May saw an increase to the highest tally yet for 2019 with 2,903 killings, or the equivalent of 96 per day. February, however, continues to have the highest number of homicides per day on average in 2019 (102 homicides/day) thanks to similar numbers reported (2,877 homicides) over fewer days in the month (28 days).

The mid-year data also revealed that just over half of Mexico’s 32 state and federal entities saw increases in the number of homicides registered since the start of the López Obrador administration. According to SESNSP’s data, when compared to the same period of time the year before (December 2017 – May 2018), the most significant or “worrisome” increase in homicide rates occurred in Nuevo León. As reported by Animal Político, Nuevo León’s homicide rate increased from 5.3 homicides per 100,000 individuals to 9.2 homicides per 100,000 individuals. The 72% increase far surpassed the rises in Tabasco (50.7%), Mexico City (43.2%), Sonora (43.1%), and Morelos (42.5%). Meanwhile the states with the largest decreases in homicide rates during that time period were Baja California Sur (78.3% reduction), Nayarit (69%), and Guerrero (30.8%).

Map of Mexico and violence

Photo: El Universal.

The media’s role in disseminating information on homicides is also of note. A recent report by El Universal with support from Google News Initiative found that the Mexican media in ten different states have decreased the amount of coverage given to homicides reported in 2019 compared to previous years. In particular, Baja California Sur, Chihuahua, and Nayarit have published the least information proportional to number of homicides committed in 2019. The states of Aguascalientes, Colima, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Puebla, Quinata Roo, Tamulipas, and Zacatecas round out the list of ten. The authors looked at official homicide data spanning from 2005 to 2019 vis-à-vis the press’ reporting on such killings.

Justice in Mexico’s annual report released in April 2019, “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2018,” also took an in depth look at SNSP’s 2018 data. The authors found, for example, that although Baja California had the highest number of intentional homicide cases in 2018 (2,805), Guanajuato had the largest annual increase in total homicides, nearly doubling its recorded number from 2017. To read more about Mexico’s crime and violence at the federal, state, and local levels in 2018, check out Justice in Mexico’s full report here.

Clandestine Graves and Desaparecidos

In addition to Mexico’s record-breaking levels of homicide, the nation continues to grapple with the existence of clandestine graves and associated disappearances (desaparecidos).

Forensic experts move a body found in a clandestine grave on a farm in Guadalajar, Jalisco in April 2019. Photo: Francisco Guasco, EFE.

Forensic experts move a body found in a clandestine grave on a farm in Guadalajar, Jalisco in April 2019. Photo: Francisco Guasco, EFE.

In mid-June, researchers with Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana confirmed the existence of 1,606 clandestine graves throughout Mexico. According to their report, “Violence and terror: findings on clandestine graves in Mexico 2006-2017” (“Violencia y terror: hallazgos sobre fosas clandestinas en México 2006-2017”), the states in which the most sites were located were Guerrero, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, and Zacatecas. The graves documented are from 2006 and 2017, a period of time that spans almost two presidents’ full sexenios (Felipe Calderón, 2006-2012; Enrique Peña Nieto, 2012-2018). According to the Associated Press, the graves found “may just scratch the surface of the true numbers behind what the [Universidad Iberoamericana] study called a ‘building phenomenon.’”

The reported graves contained nearly 2,500 bodies, of which the predominant majority are tied to the ongoing battles between drug-trafficking organizations (DTO) and organized crime groups (OCG). The researchers also clarified that their data was not comprehensive because eight of Mexico’s 32 states and federal entities did not submit data or documentation to their research project, claiming that no graves had been found within their entities during the specified timeframe.

Contextualizing the data, the report out of Universidad Iberoamericana emphasized the role that Mexico’s high levels of impunity have in perpetuating the existence of secret graves. “It is reflective of the level of social decay and dehumanization that the country has reached,” the researchers wrote. Jan Jarab, representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Mexico, also weighed in on the findings. “This horror map of clandestine graves can only be combatted with strategies addressing impunity,” he said.

Such disappearances like the victims’ remains found in the graves have long been a critical issue in Mexico. According to the government’s national search commission, there are more than 40,000 persons estimated missing in Mexico.

Impunity vis-à-vis the NSJP

México SOS Director Alejandro Martí speaks at a conference. Photo: La Otra Opinión.

México SOS Director Alejandro Martí speaks at a conference. Photo: La Otra Opinión.

Mexico’s systemic challenges with crime, violence, impunity, and the ways in which they manifest themselves in society (i.e., clandestine graves) were recently at the center of criticism leveled by human rights activist Alejandro Martí toward the government. According to Martí, who is the head of the organization México SOS, Mexico’s New Criminal Justice System (Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, NSJP) carries some of the responsibility in perpetuating impunity. “The fundamental problem of the [NSJP] is the corruption,” he said. “And corruption produces this terrible impunity, which I have said for years. Impunity is a result of all the wrongs of Mexico.”

Martí also called out elected officials – particularly governors – and the police for the pervasiveness of corruption within their systems. He reminded the media with which he spoke that “half of the group of kidnappers who killed my son were police,” referencing his son’s murder in 2008 that led him to become an activist. Martí leveled his criticisms during a press conference promoting Mexico’s 8th National Forum on Security and Justice (“8° Foro Nacional de Seguridad y Justicia”) held June 7-8.

Whether the New Criminal Justice System does indeed bear some of the responsibility, as Martí alleges, it is clear nonetheless that the López Obrador Administration faces systemic challenges when addressing Mexico’s notorious levels of crime and violence. Homicide rates, clandestine graves, disappearances, and impunity are but a few.

Sources:

Calderón, Laura et al. “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2018.” Justice in Mexico. April 2019.

Dávila, Patricia. “Corrupción en Nuevo Sistema de Justicia produce esta terrible impunidad’: Martí.” Proceso. June 2, 2019.

Román, Esteban. “En 10 estados guardan silencio sobre homicidios.” El Universal. June 13, 2019.

Krumholtz, Michael. “Researchers confirm 1,600 secret graves in Mexico since 2006.” Associated Press. June 20, 2019. 

“México enfrenta abismo de desinformación para encontrar a sus desparecidos.” Agencia EFE. June 20, 2019.

Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública. “Víctimas de Delitos de Fuero Común 2019.” Centro Nacional de Información. June 20, 2019.

Angel, Arturo. “Con 17,500 asesinatos, el primer semestre de AMLO es el más violento de los últimos sexenios.” Animal Politico. June 21, 2019.

“Today in Latin America.” Latin America News Dispatch. June 21, 2019.

Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de Derechos Humanos. “Violencia y terror: hallazgos sobre fosas clandestinas en México 2006-2017.” Universidad Iberoamericana. June 2019.