President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is coming under mounting pressure eight months into his ‘sexenio’ to get a handle on violent crime. Figures released by the national public security system (SNSP) and the national statistics institute (Inegi) over the course of the last week make disturbing reading.
“there are times when out of the 32 states, in half of them there are no homicides
President López Obrador acknowledged that public security had not improved since he took office in December last year and that it was practically the same as under his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) but, if anything, it has actually deteriorated. The SNSP figures showed that the number of intentional homicides in the first half of 2019 totalled 17,138, an increase of 7.2% on the same period last year. In June there were 3,001 homicides, up 8.4% on the same month last year, second only to July 2018 (3,158) since the compilation of these statistics began, and an average of 100 per day.
López Obrador is hoping that the deployment of the new national guard (GN), which was officially launched on 30 June, will start to bring homicide figures down. While he recognised that insufficient progress had been registered yet, he argued that violence was concentrated in 10 states and that “there are times when out of the 32 states, in half of them there are no homicides”. This did not wash with the president of Mexico’s powerful business sector lobby Confederación Patronal de la República Mexicana (Coparmex), Gustavo de Hoyos Walther, who, on 24 July, refuted the claim that violence had become focalised. “The increase in insecurity is evident in national terms, not regional,” De Hoyos said. “We suffer it everyday in practically all of the country,” he added.
The truth lies somewhere between the two. Violent homicides are a serious problem nationwide, but they are concentrated. Indeed, in just seven states – Baja California, Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Jalisco, Estado de México (Edomex), and Michoacán – there were 19,804 homicides in 2018, according to Inegi, 55% of the national total, although these same states make up 35% of the national population. Yucatán has a murder rate of just 3 per 100,000 inhabitants, while Colima is as high as 98 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest for the third straight year in relative terms, Inegi reported. In absolute terms, Guanajuato, Baja California (BC), and Edomex remain out front.
Certain states, such as Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, Sonora, and Nuevo León, experienced a sharp increase well in excess of 50% in the number of homicides year-on-year in the first six months of 2019, according to the SNSP figures, while others, such as Baja California Sur (BCS) and Nayarit, saw a similar decline.
One of the big challenges that is not being undertaken by this government, or previous ones, is trying to find an explanation for why homicides surge in certain states and fall away in others. It sometimes appears to defy explanation; other times it appears to make sense. The sudden increase in homicides in Hidalgo, for instance, appears to owe to a surge in oil theft in the state, which has acquired the tag ‘Rey del Huachicol’ from Guanajuato. In the first five months of 2019, according to figures obtained via freedom of information requests from the state-owned oil firm Pemex, the number of clandestine oil taps in Hidalgo increased by as much as 182% on the same period last year.
The López Obrador administration claims to have made inroads into combating corruption networks within Pemex as it seeks to tackle huachicoleros. And on 18 July Mexican authorities arrested retired Brigadier General Sócrates Alfredo Herrera Pegueros, a former head of security at Pemex, on suspicion of oil theft and collusion with organised crime. But while the government might be dismantling these networks it is yet to result in a substantial decrease in oil theft.
In the whole country, Pemex registered 6,621 illegal oil taps in the first five months of this year, up 1.39% from the 6,530 over the same period last year. From January to May there were 2,170 oil taps in Hidalgo alone; followed by Edomex with 923, and Puebla, with 677 (down by 33%). The fall in Puebla can be attributed to the pressure exerted in the state by the military. But the increase in Hidalgo, and elsewhere, suggests that, just as with efforts to target illicit drug crops and drug trafficking routes in Colombia, for instance, there is a balloon effect with oil theft.
As the López Obrador administration is coming under pressure to spell out a clear strategy for reducing violent crime, the federal lower chamber of congress approved an asset forfeiture law, ‘Ley Nacional de Extinción de Dominio’, on 25 July, which is designed to choke off some of the finances of organised criminal groups. The new law sets out to expand and unify all the processes currently in place under which the state can confiscate illicitly obtained assets.
- Asset forfeiture law
In practice, under the ‘Ley Nacional de Extinción de Dominio’, the attorney general’s office will be able to investigate the origins of assets of suspected criminals in a parallel process to the criminal investigation, with a judge ruling whether these can be confiscated by the state before the conclusion of the trial. All assets associated with kidnapping, organised crime, oil theft by huachicoleros, people trafficking, corruption, concealment, vehicle theft, extortion, and crimes committed by public officials will be fair game under the asset forfeiture law.
The idea of an asset forfeiture law is not new. It was first approved in 2009 and beefed up under the Peña Nieto administration. But López Obrador wanted to widen its scope and improve its efficacy in order to channel the proceeds into his Instituto para Devolverle al Pueblo lo Robado (IDPR), a new entity which his government established in May. López Obrador confidently asserted that by the end of 2019 the IDPR will have M$1.2bn (US$62.79m) worth of ill-gotten gains to fund social spending, such as schools, and sport and community centres.
On the same day as the new law was approved, López Obrador symbolically handed over to Patricia Durán, the mayor of Naucalpan in Edomex, a large ranch, ‘Los Tres García’, located in the municipality, for the construction of a university. It was confiscated back in 2010 from Carlos Montemayor González, the father-in-law of Édgar Valdez Villareal (‘La Barbie’), the top hitman of the Beltrán Leyva drug trafficking organisation (BTO), who was arrested that year.
According to the Inegi report, there were 35,964 homicides in Mexico in 2018, bringing the total for Enrique Peña Nieto’s sexenio to 155,711, up 28% on that of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). In relative terms, there were 21.3 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants under Peña Nieto as opposed to 18 per 100,000 under Calderón and 10 per 100,000 under Vicente Fox (2000-2006). Between 2014 and 2018, the number of homicides in absolute terms increased by 80% and in relative terms by 71%. The geography of violence has also changed dramatically. Durango was the second most violent state by homicides in 2012 but only 27th in 2018. Guanajuato, meanwhile, jumped from 18th to fifth place.