The number of murders in Mexico rose by 33 percent in 2018, the second consecutive year in which the country has broken the record for its homicide rate as it continues its grim battle with cartel-related violence.
According to figures released by the Interior Ministry on Sunday, Mexico recorded over 33,000 murders last year, surpassing 2017’s figure by 8,000. The State of Guanajuato in Central Mexico was particularly badly hit with 3,290 homicides, three times as many as it recorded in 2017. There was also a significant rise in the number of women killed, from 735 in 2017 to 861 in 2018.
For context, when the drug war was thought to be at his zenith in 2011 — five years after former Mexican President Felipe Calderon decided to use the military to confront the cartels — Mexico recorded around 12,000 homicides. Under the current rate, Mexico can expect a homicide every 15 minutes.
The matter is made even worse by corrupt and poorly trained police and judiciary, which makes it nigh-on-impossible to solve the homicides. According to the Mexican publication Animal Político an estimated 95 percent of all homicides between 2010 and 2016 went unsolved. Under the current rate, it would take the Mexican judiciary an approximate 124 years to solve their backlog of homicide cases.
High-profile arrests and trials, like the one currently underway for kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán have been used by both U.S. and Mexican authorities as some sort of tangible example of “success” in the war against the cartels. But the on-the-ground reality is that that approach has simply led to the fragmentation of cartels into smaller, more violent criminal groups all vying to stamp their control on particular areas by whatever means necessary.
The numbers highlight the scale of the challenge facing Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador or AMLO. During his presidential campaign in 2018, AMLO offered a series of bold promises that break away from the militarized approach Mexico has been trying (and, it seems, largely failing) since 2006. He pledged to improve police salaries, probe the idea of regulation from marijuana and poppies (which are used to make opium), and improve opportunities in neighborhoods where cartel activity is common.
However, there are already signs of a backlash. A few weeks before taking office on December 1, AMLO said he would support the creation of a National Guard as a temporary “stop-gap” which would allow for more long-term solutions to be formed. For a supposedly reform-minded president, this measure reads remarkably similar to the strategies employed by former Mexican Presidents Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has consistently talked a hard line on the cartels, arguing that a wall is the only way to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and stop it from being a “pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl.” Experts, however, agree that a wall will not only fail to stop drugs from entering the border, it will make smugglers change to focusing on more potent — and hence more profitable — drugs.
“The iron law of prohibition is you end up with more potent substances that are more compact and easier to smuggle,” Sanho Tree, the director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Drug Policy Project, previously told ThinkProgress. “Even if the wall stops 30 to 40 percent of heroin from Mexico, dealers will respond by using more fentanyl, which will cause overdoses to skyrocket.”
But while Trump may claim to be standing up to cartels (and hence the soaring Mexican homicide rate) with simplistic solutions like the wall, his business approach, and specifically his focus on deregulation, has also been a gift to the more powerful cartels in Mexico — allowing them to stash their cash with a significantly reduced risk of outside scrutiny. As if to further emphasize this, a 2017 report by the non-profit Global Witness claimed that the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama City was a major location for money laundering operations, including by drug cartels.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, seems determined to further destabilize Mexico. Included in the mammoth 1,300-page bill to re-open the government introduced on Monday night, was a proposal capping the number of asylum seekers allowed entry into the United States to 15,000 per fiscal year, as well as establishing centers outside the United States where people can apply for asylum.
In essence, the GOP is seeking to limit as much immigration as possible, while also outsourcing as much as possible to Mexico. This in turn, would not only give Mexico’s overburdened security services another problem to deal with but also drive potential human trafficking victims — and hence profit — towards the cartels.