2 maps reveal the hotspots driving Mexico's worsening violence

  • So far in 2020, 22 of Mexico's 32 states have seen a decrease in homicides, but the country as a whole has seen a 1% increase.
  • That upward trend is driven by a few violent hotspots: Five states have over 30 homicides per 100,000 population and an increase of more than 10% this year, according to James Bosworth, author of the Latin America Risk Report newsletter.
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This is an excerpt from a recent edition of the Latin America Risk Report, a newsletter by James Bosworth, founder of political-risk advisor Hxagon.

Violence in 5 states overwhelms security gains made elsewhere

I have two new maps to share today. The first provides the number of homicides per capita in each state over the past 12 months in Mexico.

The second map looks at the percentage change in homicides in the first seven months of 2020 vs. the first seven months in 2019.

While Mexico has seen a 1% increase in homicides nationally in 2020, 22 of Mexico's 32 states have seen a decrease in homicides this year.

It's the states that are dark pink/red in both maps above that are the challenge. A few violent hotspots that are worsening overwhelm the security gains made elsewhere.

Five states have over 30 homicides per 100,000 population and an increase of more than 10% this year: Chihuahua, Sonora, Zacatecas, Guanajuato and Michoacan.

Chihuahua and Sonora — Sonora was once indisputably Sinaloa Cartel territory and relatively safer because of it. States that have a single criminal group dominating the landscape are usually safer than states where groups clash. Three things have happened to make Sonora a battleground.

After the arrest and extradition of El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel has seen its own top-down command and control diminish. It is increasingly reliant on small franchise groups that it does not totally control. This isn't a cartel civil war. The group is still relatively cohesive and does not have factions regularly shooting at each other. But that loss of unified command structure has increased the levels of violence.

The Sinaloa Cartel has aggressively pushed into Chihuahua to take on areas that have long been controlled by the Juarez Cartel. The Juarez cartel, in turn, has pushed in Sonora. That feud (with some CJNG prodding), has increased the violence in both states.

The three-way battle of Sinaloa vs CJNG/CTNG vs Tijuana Cartel remnants continues to cause high levels of violence in Baja California Norte. That fight has bled over into the western edge of Sonora, with the CJNG making a play for several coastal towns in the state.

Zacatecas — If you want to move illicit goods including fentanyl from Guerrero, Michoacan, Colima or Jalisco to the northern border, the most viable routes run through Zacatecas. Geographically, the state is uncomfortably in between the territories of the largest criminal groups in Mexico, making it a battleground.

The CJNG has pushed into Zacatecas in the past 12 months, making public shows of force in areas that were previously considered Sinaloa or Zetas territory. Adding to the tensions and violence, the prison situation in the state is more complicated because prisoners from so many rival groups are held in the same locations.

Guanajuato — I've covered Guanajuato's violence several times over the past two years. Oil theft, extortion and drug trafficking led to a violent battle between the CSRL and CJNG. The AMLO administration has recently claimed that violence is going down due to the capture of El Marro, the leader of the CSRL.

Lopez Obrador's often grabs on to short term (one or two week) trends to promote successes on security policies. Unfortunately, over the past 10 years, the removal of top criminal leaders led to greater violence more often than it led to less violence. It has been more violent in 2020, and AMLO shouldn't declare victory until he sees several consecutive months of reduced violence.

Michoacan — This was the first state where President Calderon sent the military in 2006, an action that many regard as the start of the current era of conflict. While other states have seen ebbs and flows of conflict over the past 15 years, Michoacan has seen an almost steady worsening as a variety of groups (including La Familia, Knights Templar, Los Viagras and the CJNG) have fought for dominance.

In 2020, the CJNG continues to battle against a diverse set of local groups. The Lopez Obrador government's failure to respond forcefully to CJNG ambushes of government security forces in late 2019 was a demonstration of the government's inability to set a red line for criminal violence. The CJNG is emboldened to push forward and eliminate their rivals.

The CJNG expansion and the Lopez Obrador government's failure to respond are the problem

In Zacatecas, Guanajuato and Michoacan, the key driver of violence is the CJNG expansion. That is also true to a lesser extent in Sonora. The Lopez Obrador government has been slow to counter the CJNG and has arguably been more focused on the group's rivals in each of those states.

Looking at that maps above, two additional states — San Luis Potosi and Hidalgo — have also seen an increase that is of concern. While both of these states remain safer than the five states I wrote about above, their notable homicide increase this year should be a red flag for Mexican authorities and companies operating in Mexico. In both cases, the CJNG has moved in and fought against local groups including remnants of the Gulf Cartel and Zetas.

The Lopez Obrador government's failure to respond to the worst cases of rising violence is the unifying factor in all the states listed above. From the massacre of the LaBaron family in Sonora to the ambushes of police patrols in Guanajuato and Michoacan, AMLO has failed to detain, prosecute and convict those responsible. The National Guard has been spread thin across nearly every state and diverted to blocking and detaining Central America migrants instead of providing focused security to the highest risk areas.

Thanks for reading. One more note

Yucatan — It's the safest state in the country. I wanted to stress that as I know someone is going to see that map above and wonder why Yucatan is dark red in terms of the increase in homicides. It sometimes happens when dealing with small numbers. The state saw 26 homicides in the first seven months of this year vs. 16 over the same time period in 2019.

It's a large increase in terms of percentages, but not a strategically important issue. Yucatan is also the state where homicides are most likely to be investigated and prosecuted, a fact that is not coincidental to its security. Alejandro Hope had a great column last year on "La excepción yucateca" for those that want to read more.

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