In Depth

Mexico murder rate hits all-time high

Nearly 35,000 people were killed in 2019 despite government pledge to curb cartel violence

Mexico’s murder rate soared to a record high of 34,582 last year - an average of 95 killings a day, according to newly released official data.

The annual total represents a 2.5% increase from 2018, when 33,743 victims were recorded, according to a report from the Central American country’s Secretariat of Public Security.

Mexico has been “plagued with violence since 2006, when the government deployed the military to wage the so-called war on drugs”, says Al Jazeera. So what has gone wrong - and can anything be done to cut the death toll?

What is the current situation?

Drug cartels have long fuelled a cycle of violence in Mexico that has seen millions of guns flood into the country from the US.

In turn, an estimated 90% of illegal drugs in the US come from Mexico - most notably cocaine, the illegal trade of which is a multibillion dollar industry for rival cartels battling for control of the key trade routes.

In 2006, Mexico’s newly elected president Felipe Calderon launched what has been dubbed the Mexican Drug War, sending 6,500 government soldiers to the state of Michoacan to battle drug traffickers.

This government policy of “decapitation” focused on “eliminating high-value targets” and “deploying military patrols to the streets”, says the Brookings Institution

“But it failed at its most basic goal: to boost public safety,” the Washington D.C.-based think-tank continues.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, “better equipped military and police spurred the cartels to improve their arsenals, primarily by smuggling even more weapons from the US”.

The results have been catastrophic. According to official figures, nearly 275,000 people have been killed in Mexico since the drug war started, with a further 60,000 currently missing.

Why is the homicide rate still rising?

The rate of year-on-year increases in Mexico’s homicide levels is slowing after steep annual hikes from 2015 to 2018, when the growth rates were 26%, 28.1% and 16.9% respectively.

All the same, the 2019 homicide total is the highest since records began more than 20 years ago.

The figures make for grim reading for the country’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who came to power in December 2018 on a platform of reducing violent crime and curbing Mexico’s out-of-control murder rate.

The left-wing leader pledged to “pacify the country with a less confrontational approach to security”, Reuters reports. 

But as the killings continue, his government has “faced criticism that it lacks an adequate security strategy to deal with the country’s rampant violence”, reports The New York Times.

That failure has been “underscored by recent cases like the siege of the city of Culiacan by the Sinaloa cartel and the massacre of nine members of a Mormon sect in northern Mexico” last November, the newspaper adds.

Recent comments by Lopez Obrador have sparked further controversy, with the president repeating his oft-made complaint that corruption - not cartel violence - is the nation’s biggest problem.

“We are giving the almost the same weight to (fighting) white-collar crime as we do to drug cartels,” he said. “I maintain that the greatest damage to Mexico has been done by white-collar criminals.”

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What is being done?

Mexican officials last week presented politicians with a proposal to overhaul the criminal justice system, including measures that could “facilitate security cooperation” with the US, Reuters reports.

The news agency has obtained a draft of the reforms that suggests the legislation would pave the way for private communications to be used as evidence, and limit legal challenges to avoid delays in extraditions of suspects to the US and other countries.

Attorney General Alejandro Gertz told senators that the reforms would attack entrenched corruption and impunity as well as the roots of criminal activity.

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