After years of flying beneath the organized crime radar, the state of Baja California Sur in Mexico has fallen into a spiral of bloodshed during the past 12 months, sparked by a broader underworld upheaval involving two of the country's most powerful crime groups.
Best known to the rest of the world as home to the Los Cabos beach resorts, Baja California Sur has experienced a surge in violence in the last year. As a February report from Justice in Mexico details, the number of murders in the state leapt to 560 in 2017, a nearly 300 percent increase over the 192 registered the prior year.
Baja California Sur is Mexico's second-least populous state, with just over 700,000 inhabitants. But its 2017 murder rate of 78.6 per 100,000 residents was the second-highest figure in the nation -- more than triple the national average of 22.5 per 100,000.
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This represents a sudden acceleration of a long-building trend. For most of the 2000s, Baja California Sur registered somewhere between 25 and 50 murders per year. In 2014, however, the state set a local record with 70 murders. The following year, the figure climbed to 151. Now, the state is one of Mexico's most deadly on a per capita basis.
Much of the violence has been the sort of pseudo-military spectacle typically associated with places like Juárez and Acapulco. In January, for instance, videos of an intense gun battle that lasted half an hour in the state capital La Paz were uploaded to the internet. After the event, five alleged members of a criminal group were detained in possession of an arsenal of high-powered weapons and tactical gear.
The killings have been accompanied by surges in other illicit activities associated with organized crime, such as extortion.
This wave of violence has tested the social fabric. In October 2017, hundreds of municipal police in La Paz threatened to walk off the job in protest of the termination of 65 officers who failed anti-corruption measures. Local civic organizations have called for the resignation of top security officials, and the state’s attorney general left his post in December. A former governor labeled the worsening situation a “crisis of insecurity” following the murder of a human rights activist in November last year.
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According to the Justice in Mexico report, the violence in Baja California Sur is one of the many ripples in the criminal landscape generated by the arrest and extradition of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Two competing factions, one led by Guzmán’s sons and another by an influential lieutenant named Dámaso López, alias "Licenciado," have fought to take over the organization following El Chapo's demise, with neither side achieving success. This has fueled violence across the expanse of territory the Sinaloa Cartel has dominated, including Baja California Sur.
López’s clique has persisted even after his arrest in May 2017. It also sought support from the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), which has emerged as one of the largest organizations in the country over the past several years. This has served to aggravate the challenges, as the group’s gunmen have inundated Baja California Sur and its northern neighbor, Baja California.
The bloodshed in Baja California Sur is part of a broader dynamic of rising criminal violence across the nation. The CJNG’s emergence coupled with the Sinaloa Cartel’s deterioration has upended stability in many previously peaceful areas. Baja California Sur is one example. Another is Colima, a tiny Pacific state that was previously an afterthought in the criminal landscape but now has the highest murder rate in the nation. The dramatic spike in killings there has also been linked to the CJNG-Sinaloa Cartel conflict.
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What this shows is that the violence in Mexico is metastasizing. Not only is the nation more violent than at any other point in its recent history, but the bloodshed has invaded more of the country. In 2010, in contrast, nearly 20 percent of the total murders occurred in a single state (Chihuahua), the vast majority of them in a single city (Juárez) whose residents accounted for just a bit more than one percent of the nation’s total population.
This made it possible to argue that the security challenges, while dramatic, were largely isolated. This was never a winning argument, but it is far less true today.
It does not appear that the government strategy reflects this evolution. The response in Baja California Sur has been to flood the area with soldiers and marines. The government sent 1,000 troops to the state in April 2017, and military leaders announced plans to build a new barracks in La Paz in February, which will be a permanent deployment of 600 combat troops starting in August.
Such an approach not only has a dubious track record in stemming the tide of violence elsewhere, but it is also less viable the more widely the violence is dispersed. If the whole nation is a hotspot, it is difficult to concentrate resources in a way that produces a significant impact.