2019 Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico Report


Download the full report here  


04/30/19- Justice in Mexico, a research-based program at the University of San Diego, released its 2019 report on Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico, co-authored by Laura Calderón, Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk. This report analyzes the latest available data to broadly assess the current state of violence, organized crime, and human rights in Mexico. The tenth edition in a series is published under a new title to reflect the gradual shift that has occurred to the restructuring illicit drug trade and the rise of new organized crime groups.

In 2018, Mexico saw record violence with 28,816 homicide cases and 33,341 victims reported by the Mexican National Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP). This reflects the continued augmentation in violent crime in Mexico for more than a decade with a notable increase in the last few years. The homicide rate has dramatically escalated from 16.9 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 as reported to UNODC to 27.3 per 100,000 in 2018 based on SNSP figures. In this and past reports, the authors attribute much of the violence, between a third to a half, to the presence of organized crime groups, particularly drug trafficking organizations.

According to the report, violence has become more pervasive throughout the country but remains highly concentrated in a few specific areas, especially in the major drug trafficking zones located in the northwest and the Pacific Coast. The top ten most violent municipalities in Mexico accounted for 33.6% of all homicides in Mexico in 2018, with 24.7% concentrated in the top five: Tijuana (2,246), Ciudad Juárez (1,004), Acapulco (839), Cancún-Benito Juárez (537), Culiacán (500).



Tijuana’s rate of 115 homicide cases per 100,000 inhabitants ranks second to Acapulco’s rate of 127 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. According to Baja California State’s Secretary of Public Security (SSP) reporting, Tijuana saw a significant increase in 2018 of 41% victims up from 2017.

The authors have found that Mexican organized crime groups have become more fragmented, decentralized, and diversified in their activities. Notably, violence in the Mexican state of Guanajuato appears to have risen due to the increased presence of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel and an increase in the prevalence of petroleum theft (huichicol). At least nine municipalities in Guanajuato had a murder rate of more than 100 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

Record violence in Mexico has disproportionally affected certain populations (e.g. politicians, journalist, and men). In 2018, a major election year, there were 37 victims among mayors, mayoral candidates, and former-mayors. These numbers are up slightly from 35 cases in 2017 but demonstrate a significant increase from 14 victims in 2015 and 6 victims in 2016. A 2018 Justice in Mexico study found that in recent years Mexican journalists were at least three times more likely to be murdered than the general population, while mayors were at least nine times more likely. There were 16 journalists and media workers that were killed in 2018. Additionally, the report finds that men are 8.3 times more likely to be homicide victims than women, with 28,522 male homicide victims.

All told, the authors of the report estimate that over 150,000 people were murdered during the six years of the Peña Nieto administration, the most homicides during any presidential term in recent Mexican history. The current Lopez Obrador administration has proposed a new security agenda centered on citizen security, changes in federal law enforcement, and efforts to minimize tensions in U.S.-Mexican relations. Two of the most important measures that the new government has put forward are the creation of a autonomous federal prosecutor and a national guard.



Download the full report here




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). Using comparable data from 2016, Calderón finds that Mexico’s mayors are three times more likely to be killed than journalists in Mexico, and 12 times more likely to be killed than the average person in Mexico. Her findings raise 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.


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

Mayors Targeted in Recent Homicides: Octavio Rodríguez and David Shirk share insights with Latin American Advisor

Ambrosio Soto Duarte became the mayor of Pungarabato, Guerrero in July of last year. Source: Excelsior.

Ambrosio Soto Duarte became the mayor of Pungarabato, Guerrero in July of last year. Source: Excelsior.

9/6/16 —Less than two months ago, on July 23, two of Mexico’s mayors and one vice mayor were killed in seemingly unrelated attacks. The first case is of Ambrosio Soto Duarte, Mayor of Pungarabato—a small town in Guerrero. He was allegedly killed while driving on a freeway in Michoacán when two pickup trucks stopped his car, leading to a shootout between the two parties. The shootout ultimately led to the death of Soto Duarte.

The second case occurred on the same day when Mayor of San Juan Chamula, Domingo López González and the Vice Mayor Narciso Lunes Hernández were meeting with a group of residents, when armed men shot into the crowd, ultimately killing both the mayor and vice mayor. The shootout resulted in the death of three other individuals and the injury of twelve community members.

Following the killings on July 23rd, the Mayor of Huehuetlan El Grande, José Santamaria Zavala was found dead on August 3 of last month with gunshot wounds alongside his truck, which also had visible signs of gunshots. According to El País, the truck was abandoned at a highway near his municipality in the state of Puebla and appeared to have been placed there after he was already killed.

Mayor Gisela Mota at her inauguration ceremony on January 1, 2016. Source: Associated Press.

Mayor Gisela Mota at her inauguration ceremony on January 1, 2016. Source: Associated Press.

These murders are not the only recent attacks on local elected officials. This year alone began with the murder of Mayor Gisela Mota on January 2, just hours after she was sworn in as the Mayor of Temixco, a city outside of Mexico City. In fact, it is estimated that in 2016, more than eight mayors have been murdered in Mexico. According to the National Association of Mayors in Mexico (Asociación Nacional de Alcaldes de México, ANAC), 41 active mayors, 6 elect, and 32 previous mayors have been murdered since the announcement of the Mexican War on Drugs in 2006. As a result, ANAC is now calling for the Mexican government to take active steps to protect public officials in the country.

In response, the Latin American Advisor recently asked government officials, policy experts, and scholars to share their insights on what the Mexican federal government should do to protect local officials from organized crime related attacks. The publication also asked experts to evaluate the degree to which organized criminal groups have impaired Mexico’s democratic institutions and the severity of Mexico’s situation compared to peer countries.

Octavio Rodríguez and Dr. David Shirk of the Justice in Mexico program, both experts on rule of law and security issues in Mexico, affirmed that these repeated homicides targeting local officials reveal a “concern that affects governance, threatens the democratic process, and undermines the rule of law.”

Specifically, Rodríguez and Shirk explain that although Mexico has passed numerous reforms promoting the rule of law over the past decade, impunity remains a core obstacle to the country’s democratic process. Particularly, there still exists a lack of established mechanisms backing these reforms that would allow criminals to be brought to justice or that would prevent corruption.

However, in an effort to deter such impunity and prevent the future targeting of local officials, both Rodríguez and Shirk advocate for the promotion of accountability and a sustained focus on improving judicial and security reforms. For instance, the experts note that there are currently no laws protecting public servants from violence—particularly at the local level.

Overall, Rodríguez and Shirk note that while Mexico is currently experiencing serious security challenges, overall violence is still relatively lower than in several other countries in the Western hemisphere. However, as Mexico has experienced a significant increase in the rate of homicides and organized crime over the past decade, the experts stress that the country must exhibit a “sincere commitment” to evaluation efforts and law enforcement reforms in order to see improvements.


“Should Mexico do More to Keep its Mayors Safe? Latin America Advisor. August 5, 2016.

“Matan a un alcalde en Mexico, el tercero en menos de dos semanas.” El Comercio. August 3, 2016.

Gallegos, Zorayda. “El tercer asesinato de un alcalde en Mexico en menos de diez dias.” El País. August 2, 2016.

Schoichet, Catherine, E. “Killings of 2 Mexican Mayors Spur Call for Stepped Up Security.” CNN. July 25, 2016.

“Two Mexican Mayors Killed in Different Parts of the Country.” CNN Wire. July 24, 2016.

Griollo, Ioan. “Why Cartels are Killing Mexico’s Mayors.” New York Times. January 15, 2016.

Azuela, Maite. “Mexico el pais de los alcaldes asesinados.” El Universal. January 4, 2016.