New Justice in Mexico Working Paper: Assassinations Target Local Candidates and Officials in Lead Up to 2018 Mexican Elections

01/07/18 (written by David A. Shirk) — Late on the afternoon of Saturday, December 9, 2017, Jose Santos Hernández, the mayor of the town of San Pedro el Alto, Oaxaca, was assassinated. The town is known for its internationally recognized forestry management program and recent damage from Mexico’s September 2017 earthquakes than as a place for drug trafficking. Santos Hernández’s murder took place on an unpaved road near the 175 highway, as the mayor and his family were returning from a religious festival celebrating the Virgen de Juquila in the town of Santa Catarina Juquila. Santos Hernández was forced from his car and fatally wounded by several gunshot wounds, including a close range shot to the head.

According to a new Justice in Mexico working paper entitled An Analysis of Mayoral Assassinations in Mexico, 2000-17″ by Laura Y. Calderón, Santos Hernández was among the nine mayors killed in 2017, including three in December 2017 alone. All told, Calderón found that at least 78 mayors have been assassinated since the year 2000 and taking into consideration candidates and former officials, more than 150 of Mexico’s mayors have been killed in the past fifteen years (See Figure 1). This finding raises serious concerns about the dangers facing the country’s local politicians, particularly as Mexico looks to an important election year in 2018.


According to Calderón, since 2000 there has been an unprecedented number of assassinations targeting current, former, and aspiring local elected officials in Mexico. Drawing on information from Memoria, a database of individual homicides in Mexico compiled and managed by the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego, Calderón examined all 156 assassinations involving sitting mayors, former mayors, and candidates for mayoral office in Mexico’s 2,435 municipal governments. In total, the Memoria dataset identifies 79 mayors, 68 former-mayors, and 9 mayoral candidates that have been murdered under various circumstances.

Calderón’s study underscores Mexico’s alarming rate violence targeting local officials, and illuminates a number of interesting trends related to mayoral assassinations. Drawing on the Memoria dataset, Calderón identifies a former PRI mayor from the state of Tamaulipas, who was shot in 2002, as the first victim of violence targeting mayors, former-mayors, and mayoral candidates. In 2005, for the first time in decades, a sitting mayor was assassinated in the town of Buenavista Tomatlán, located in the state of Michoacán.

This was followed by a dramatic increase in the number of assassinations targeting mayors, mayoral candidates, and former mayors as Mexico experienced a major increase in drug-related and other criminal violence starting in 2008. Calderón points out that some mayoral killings appear to have patterns associated with drug production and trafficking activities. For example, mayors assassinated in smaller towns tend to be located in rural areas well suited to drug production and transit. Those assassinated in larger cities tend to be located closer to the U.S.-Mexico border, which serves as an important transshipment point for drugs headed to the U.S. market.

Indeed, Mayor Santos Hernández was killed the rural mountain town of San Pedro el Alto, located in a region—the “Costa Chica” located on the southwestern portion of the Oaxacan coast between the resort cities of Acapulco and Puerto Escondido—known as a trans-shipment point for drugs smuggled in small vessels. In recent years, farmers and fishermen in the Costa Chica region have been threatened or harmed by drug trafficking organizations, and there have been reports of criminal organizations engaged in public shootouts.

However, it is not clear that the motive of Santos Hernández’s murder was attributable to organized crime. On Thursday, January 11, authorities arrested the city treasurer of San Pedro El Alto, Francisco Javier, for being the alleged intellectual author of the murder. Local investigators arrested a man identified in newspaper reports as “Francisco Javier,” the treasurer of the local government, who authorities believe to have orchestrated the attack on Mayor Santos Hernández as a result of a feud over local financial matters. The matter remains under investigation.

Mayor Santos Hernández’s murder underscores that many factors can play into violence targeting local officials. For example, according to Calderón, the assassination of local politicians has affected all three of Mexico’s major parties, as well as a number of smaller parties. While mayors from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) head roughly 60% of Mexico’s local governments, they represented only 37% of those mayoral candidates and 39% of sitting mayors that have been assassinated in recent years. Although the number of mayoral candidates assassinated was fairly small (9 total), three were candidates from Mexico’s leftist fringe parties, including the Movement for National Renovation (Morena), the Social Democratic Alternative (ASD), and the Partido Único (PUP).

Assassinated Mayoral Candidates, Mayors and Former Mayors by Political Party from 2000 to 2017

Source: Justice in Mexico Memoria dataset.

Meanwhile, among the 71 sitting mayors killed, 21% were from the National Action Party (PAN), 17% were from the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and the remaining 23% were from smaller third parties. Partly because of its historically dominant role in Mexican politics, a much greater share of assassinated former-mayors heralded from the PRI (52%), while the next largest shares came from the PRD (25%) and smaller third parties (14%); a relatively smaller share of former PAN mayors (9%) have been killed after leaving office. A 2016 article by Beatriz Magaloni and Zaira Razu suggests that PAN officials at the state and local level may have been insulated from violence through better coordination with the federal government as violence spiked during the government of President Felipe Calderón (2006-12), a member of the PAN.

What is clear is that local authorities have taken the brunt of violent attacks against public officials since the start of a decade-long, nationwide surge in homicides. A 2015 study by Guilermo Trejo and Sandra Ley analyzed roughly 500 violent threats and attacks against local politicians in Mexico and found that the vast majority involved local officials (83%) and that most occurred between 2007 and 2014 (90%).

As Santos Hernández’s case appears to illustrate, many local politicians are assassinated for complex reasons seemingly unrelated to organized crime, including political rivalries, inter-personal conflicts, and intra-familial violence. Also, as Calderón’s study reveals by including former-mayors in her analysis, a large number of former government officials are also targeted for violence, presumably well after they are of strategic value to criminal organizations. This raises important questions that require further investigation into the motives and incentives behind the murders of Mexico’s former mayors.

What is quite certain is that the recent wave of violence against local officials is unprecedented in Mexico, and has few parallels elsewhere. Recent trends also underscore the precarious situation for current aspirants to local elected office as Mexico gears up for the 2018 elections. One of the front runners in this year’s presidential election is Andres Manuel López Obrador, a former member of the PRD who defected to found Morena, a new leftist party that has gained ground rapidly in recent years. The prospect of a Lopez Obrador victory has heightened political tensions and could contribute to recent patterns of violence targeting local candidates and officials.

SOURCES:

Raul Laguna, “Lío de dinero motivó crimen de presidente municipal de San Pedro El Alto,” El Imparcial de Oaxaca, December 12, 2018. http://imparcialoaxaca.mx/policiaca/110247/lio-de-dinero-motivo-crimen-de-presidente/

“Asesinan a alcalde mexicano de San José Alto, Oaxaca,” Telesur, December 9, 2017, https://www.telesurtv.net/news/Asesinan-a-alcalde-mexicano-de-San-Jose-Alto-Oaxaca-20171209-0022.html

Darwin Sandoval, “Matan a president municipal de San Pedro El Alto, Pochutla, Oaxaca,” El Imparcial de la Costa, December 9, 2017. http://imparcialoaxaca.mx/policiaca/96409/matan-a-presidente-municipal-de-san-pedro-el-alto-pochutla-oaxaca/

Patricia Briseño, “Ejecutan a tiros al alcalde de San Pedro El Alto, Oaxaca,” Excelsior, December 8, 2017. http://www.excelsior.com.mx/nacional/2017/12/08/1206643

Juan Carlos Zavala, “Asesinan a presidente municipal de San Pedro El Alto, Oaxaca,” El Universal, December 8, 2017. http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/estados/asesinan-presidente-municipal-de-san-pedro-el-alto-oaxaca

Archivaldo García, “Incomunicado San Pedro el Alto, Oaxaca; viviendas dañadas,” October 3, 2017, El Imparcial, http://imparcialoaxaca.mx/costa/65167/incomunicado-san-pedro-el-alto-oaxaca-viviendas-danadas

Beatriz Magaloni and Zaira Razu, “Mexico in the Grip of Violence,” Current History, February 2016, p. 57-62. http://www.currenthistory.com/MAGALONI_RAZU_CurrentHistory.pdf

Guillermo Trejo y Sandra Ley, “Municipios bajo fuego (1995-2014),” Nexos, February 1, 2015. https://www.nexos.com.mx/?p=24024

Ernesto Martínez Elorriaga, “Hallan el cuerpo de ex edil michoacano secuestrado la mañana del jueves,” La Jornada, May 10, 2008, http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2008/05/10/index.php?section=estados&article=026n1est

Remembering the Allende Massacre

The destruction of the 2011 Allende massacre is still evident to this day. Source: ProPublica

The destruction of the 2011 Allende massacre is still evident to this day. Source: ProPublica

6/27/2017 (written by Lucy Clement La Rosa)- Over six years ago, a small ranching community near the Texas border of Mexico bore witness to the vengeful assault of Las Zetas, one of Mexico’s historically violent drug trafficking organizations. A recent publication by Ginger Thompson, a Pulitzer distinguished senior reporter at ProPublica, offers a unique account of the Allende massacre. Titled “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico”, the article was co-published by ProPublica and National Geographic. The article is centered around eyewitness testimonies on both sides of the tragedy, including families of the Allende victims, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents, and ex-Zetas informants, reverberating the voices of Allende.

The publication follows how the Zetas cartel descended upon Allende and neighboring towns in the northern state of Coahuila. The Zetas were acting upon rumors that Jose Luis Garza, Jr., affiliated with the cartel, had snitched to U.S. authorities. The Garzas were one of the oldest Allende families, owning multiple livestock ranches in and around the region. Armed Zetas arrived in Allende on the evening of March 18, 2011, and began by targeting the Garza ranches. Then, the Zetas moved north of the region, pillaging, kidnapping and killing those unfortunate to cross their path. Emergency management personnel from the region were pressured by the cartel to ignore cries for help. Evaristo Treviño, Allende’s fire chief at the time, said, “The only thing we could do is stand down, out of fear of the threats we faced… We were afraid for our lives. We couldn’t fight bullets with water” (ProPublica).

As specified by Thompson’s publication, the Zetas’ violent retribution can be traced back to premature information sharing by the DEA and institutional corruption in Mexico. Several months before the Allende massacre, the DEA persuaded Jose Vasquez, Jr., a Zetas operative, to submit the personal identification numbers (PINs) of Miguel and Omar Treviño’s cell phones. The Treviño brothers were powerful Zetas leaders, highly sought after by the DEA. After Vasquez procured the PINs, the information was released to a DEA supervisor in Mexico, who regrettably shared it with a Mexican police force with a reputation of collaborating with criminal organizations.

It was not difficult for the Zetas to trace the leak to Allende, due to the small number of people with access to the Treviños’ PINs. Although the Zetas misidentified Garza as the leak, Vasquez also held ties to Allende. Both Garza and Vasquez fled Allende into the U.S. in return for cooperating with U.S. law enforcement, leaving the town to bear the brunt of the Zetas’ wrath. Still today, the Allende massacre is testimony to the importance of information security in a country fraught with institutional corruption. In a recent email correspondence, Thompson commented, “I worry that this story, and the accountability issues it raises for American security agencies working in Mexico, could be lost.”

Accountability for Allende

Thompson’s fears are not unfounded. The Allende massacre was left largely unacknowledged and uninvestigated by the Mexican government. Three years after the fact, Rubén Moreira Valdés, governor of the state of Coahuila, finally launched an investigation into the Allende massacre. However, families of the victims in Allende touted the overdue government efforts as a publicity stunt. Victim associations report about 300 people dead or missing from the Allende massacre. Whereas, according to a 2016 interview of Coahuila attorney general Homero Ramos Gloria, the Mexican government has identified only 28 human remains and 54 disappearances in relation to the Allende massacre.

The failure of Mexican institutions to hold the Zetas accountable for the violence in Allende did not go unnoticed. Renowned Mexican human rights activist, Sergio Aguayo, actively led a research campaign in 2016, highlighting the institutional corruption that both perpetuated and obscured the violence in Allende. Soon after, former Governor of Coahuila, Humberto Moreira Valdés, sued Aguayo for defamation of character due to an opinion piece labeling Moreira as “corrupt”. Aguayo publicly postulated that Moreira was attempting to indirectly intimidate him for his investigation into Allende.

Six years later, the violence and corruption that led to the Allende massacre is un-abated. As reported by The Guardian, government statistics disclosed a record-breaking number of 2,186 homicides in May of 2017, eclipsing the previous high of 2,131 in May of 2011. Additionally, Mexico has experienced an approximately 30% increase in homicides this year, in comparison to January-May of 2016. These numbers are significantly impacting the popularity of current Mexican President, Enrique Peña Nieto, who campaigned on the promises of reducing violence. Viridiana Ríos, a Wilson Centre analyst, remarked, “The increase in violence is a clear sign that the strategy Enrique Peña Nieto sold us has failed” (The Guardian).

Although the 2011 massacre is a sore reminder of violence and corruption in Mexico, commemorating the voices of Allende is an important step in addressing the institutional problems Mexico faces still today. In the words of Thompson, “[The Allende] story [is] about the permeability of the border… of what it’s like when a cartel infiltrates your town and most of all, what it’s like to live in a country where you don’t trust anyone enough to help.”

Sources

Ginger Thompson. ProPublica.

Former Governor sues Mexican academic and activist Sergio Aguayo for editorial.” Justice in Mexico. August 9, 2016.

Martinez, Marcos. “¿En qué está la investigación de la masacre Mexicana de Allende, en la que mataron a 300 personas?” Univision. August 15, 2016.

Malkin, Elisabeth. “Report Criticizes Mexican Officials for Ignoring 2011 Masscre.” New York Times. October 9, 2016.

Thompson, Ginger. “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico.” ProPublica. June 12, 2017.

Agren, David. “Mexico’s monthly murder rate reaches 20-year high.” The Guardian. June 21, 2017.

Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016

Drug Violence in Mexico 2017 report Cover

Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016 (2017)

Justice in Mexico, a research and public policy program based at the University of San Diego, released its 2017 special report entitled, “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016.”

Drug Violence in Mexico (2017 Special Report)

Click here to download the full report. DOWNLOAD

Thanks to the generous funding of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, this is the project’s eight annual study on organized crime and violence in Mexico. As in previous years, this report compiles the latest available data and analysis to evaluate trends related to drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico.

This year’s report builds on past findings and seeks to provide new insights into Mexico’s recent security situation. The authors find that after a decline in 2012-2014, homicides began to rise again in 2015 and jumped 20% in 2016, and the worsening of security conditions over the past two years has been a major setback for President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), who pledged to reduce violence dramatically during his administration.

 

 

Comparison of Homicide and Organized Crime Homicide Data for Various Sources, 1990 through 2016

Notably, the largest increases were registered in Colima with a 600% increase from 2015 to 2016, Nayarit (500% increase), and Zacatecas (405% increase), all of which have an important role in drug production or trafficking and are contested by rival organized crime groups. Meanwhile, several states registered noticeable decreases, including Querétaro with a 69% decrease in intentional homicides and Campeche with a 24% decrease. Authors also found that “El Chapo” Guzmán’s arrest and extradition appear to be partly fueling violence. What is particularly concerning about Mexico’s sudden increases in homicides in recent years is that much or most of this elevated violence appears to be attributable to “organized crime” groups, particularly those involved in drug trafficking. While there are important methodological problems with compiling data on organized crime-related killings, tallies produced over the past decade by government, media, academic, NGO, and consulting organizations suggest that roughly a third to half of all homicides in Mexico bear signs of organized crime-style violence, including the use of high-caliber automatic weapons, torture, dismemberment, and explicit messages involving organized-crime groups. In 2016, there was greater disparity in the estimated number of organized crime-style killings documented by some sources (6,325 according to Reforma newspaper and 10,967 according to Milenio), but the proportion of total homicides was at least 25% and perhaps greater than 40%.

The analysis in this report suggests that a significant portion of Mexico’s increases in violence in 2015 and 2016 were related to inter- and intra-organizational conflicts among rival drug traffickers in the wake of Guzmán’s re-arrest in 2016.

 

Authors believe that, as the U.S. President Donald Trump wants to push the Mexican government to reinvigorate its counter-narcotics efforts and also work to increase U.S. security measures along the 2,000 mile Southwest border, tensions between the two countries could undermine the close law enforcement and security cooperation achieved under the administrations of presidents George W. Bush (2000-2008) and Barack Obama (2008-2016).

“Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016” was co-authored by Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk.

Click here to download the full report. DOWNLOAD

“Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2015” special report

Drug Violence in Mexico 2015 cover image

On Friday, April 29, 2016, Justice in Mexico, a research and public policy program based at the University of San Diego, released its 2016 special report entitled, “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2015.”

Drug Violence in Mexico (2016 Special Report)

Thanks to the generous funding of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, this is the project’s seventh annual study on organized crime and violence in Mexico. As in previous years, this report compiles the latest available data and analysis to evaluate trends related to drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico.

This year’s report builds on past findings and seeks to provide new insights into Mexico’s recent security situation. The authors draw on the latest available data from multiple sources, with a focus on the rise in organized crime-related homicides in Mexico that reverses a three-year declining trend, as well as the emergence of cartelitos—smaller, fragmented cartel branches—in Mexico’s shifting drug trafficking landscape, and the Peña Nieto administration’s missteps and tone-deaf responses in a series of human rights tragedies and scandals in recent years. In fact, President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) saw the public’s lowest approval rating and highest dissatisfaction rating not just for his first three years in office, but also surpassing that of his predecessors, Presidents Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Felipe Calderón (2006-2012).

Sources: INEGI, SNSP, Reforma, milenio, Lantia, CNDH.

Sources: INEGI, SNSP, Reforma, Milenio, Lantia, CNDH.

 

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2013. Global Study on Homicide 2013: Trends, Context, Data. Vienna: UNODC.

Source: Justice in Mexico Memoria dataset.

Source: Justice in Mexico Memoria dataset.

Source: Justice in Mexico Memoria dataset. Map generated by Theresa Firestine.

Source: Justice in Mexico Memoria dataset. Map generated by Theresa Firestine.

Among the study’s most important findings is the increase in homicides in Mexico in 2015, up 8.1-8.7% from the number of homicides registered in 2014. The authors also found that between a quarter and a half of all homicides in Mexico in 2015 were attributed to organized crime groups. Meanwhile, there were increases in cases of intentional homicides registered in all but a handful of states, with the highest increase in Guerrero jumping from 1,514 cases in 2014 to 2,016 cases in 2015.

“Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2015” was co-authored by Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk.

To read the full report, click here.

Drug Violence in Mexico (2015 Special Report)

2015 Drug Violence in Mexico-Portada

On Wednesday, April 28, 2015, Justice in Mexico, a research and public policy program based at the University of San Diego, released its 2015 report entitled “Drug Violence in Mexico (2015 Special Report)”.

Drug Violence in Mexico (2015 Special Report)

Thanks to the generous funding of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, this is the project’s sixth annual study on organized crime and violence in Mexico. As in previous years, this report compiles the latest available data and analysis to evaluate trends related to drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico.

This year’s report builds on past findings and seeks to provide new insights into Mexico’s recent security situation. The authors draw on the latest available data from multiple sources, with a primary emphasis on the first two years in office for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). In contrast to his predecessor, Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), President Peña Nieto appeared to deliberately downplay Mexico’s security problems, while at the same time moving aggressively to take out some of the country’s top drug traffickers, including Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and top leaders of the Zetas, Gulf Cartel, Knights Templar Organization, and other organized crime groups.

As noted by Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) analyst Maureen Meyer in a recent USA Today article on the report, while there is substantial evidence of a decline in certain forms of crime and violence associated with organized crime, the security situation in Mexico remains problematic. Despite a slight decline, kidnapping and extortion remain at elevated levels. The past year saw a series of security crises for the Peña Nieto administration, including the rise of vigilante self-defense forces in Michoacán, the extrajudicial killing of 20 civilians by the Mexican armed forces in the state of Mexico, and the massacre of dozens of student protestors in the state of Guerrero.

Extortion. Source: SNSP.

Extortion. Source: SNSP.

Kidnappings. Source: SNSP.

Kidnappings. Source: SNSP.

Homicides-Monthly

Among study’s most important findings is the apparent decline between 9-15% in homicides in 2014. The authors also found that between one third and half of all homicides in Mexico in 2014 were attributed to organized crime groups, which may signal a slight reduction in the proportion of such homicides. Meanwhile, even as the states of Jalisco and Mexico have emerged as new trouble spots in Mexico’s battle against organized crime there were dramatic reductions of violence in key cities, like Acapulco, Chihuahua, and Ciudad Juárez.

Drug Violence in Mexico (2015 Special Report) was co-authored by Kimberly Heinle, Cory Molzahn, and David A. Shirk.

To read the full 46-page report (21.3 mb PDF), click here.