The drop in violence in Ciudad Juarez remains one of the most dramatic turnarounds of Mexico’s drug war, but a recent rise in killings raises questions about the durability of the gains.
In the past three years, Juarez has gone from being universally acknowledged as the world’s most dangerous city, with more than 3,000 murders in 2010, to gaining a reputation as a source of positive security news as the murder rate dropped and dropped.
However, the city’s remarkable improvement, which has seen the number of average monthly murders drop from more than 250 three years ago to just 40 in 2013, seems to have hit a wall. In June, the city registered 52 murders, the highest number of the year. Following a subsequent dip in July, August is poised to exceed the figure from two months ago, with 27 murders up to August 12, according to the Chihuahua State Prosecutor’s Office.
SEE ALSO: Juarez After the War
The increase in homicides is almost certainly a reflection of tensions in the local underworld. According to the measurements of Lantia Consultores, a Mexico City firm that records killings believed to be linked to organized crime rather than total homicides, Juarez returned to its place as the most violent city in Mexico in June, with 43 such killings. In July, it registered 32 murders linked to organized crime, which placed it fourth on Lantia’s list of most violent cities.
This recent bounce in violence is not limited to Juarez; Chihuahua as a whole has also grown more violent. Lantia’s reports placed Chihuahua as the most violent state in the country in June and July, with 142 and 128 murders, respectively. This represents a reversal of recent trends, which saw Chihuahua displaced by Guerrero. At the municipal level, over the past two months Guadalupe y Calvo, Hidalgo del Parral, and the city of Chihuahua have joined Juarez in Lantia’s reports among Mexico’s most violent places.
InSight Crime Analysis
The statewide increase in violence is driven in large part by areas outside of Juarez. According to a recent report by Reforma, the southern part of the state, including the mountainous region known as Mexico's Golden Triangle, which is famous for its marijuana and poppy crops, currently has a yearly murder rate of 118 per 100,000 residents. This is more than three times the rate in Juarez. The main groups fighting for the region are the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel -- the principal combatants in Juarez from during the last wave of bloodshed.
SEE ALSO: Juarez Cartel Profile
Within Juarez, the Sinaloa Cartel may have wrested control of the city and its surrounds from the Juarez Cartel, but its hold on the city was always likely to be tenuous. Earlier this month, the cartel received a serious blow when the Mexican security forces killed Gabino Salas Valenciano, alias "El Ingeniero," (the engineer). Salas had been marked out as the cartel head for the Juarez Valley and controlled marijuana trafficking routes through the border. He was also a veteran of the war with the Juarez Cartel. After the shooting, the city mayor declared police were on red alert (see video below).
None of the above means that Juarez will return to its status as one of the world’s deadliest cities, but some significant pressures that fed the wave of violence from 2008 to 2011 remain intact. The Juarez Cartel remains on its feet, even if it is no longer as active as it once was inside the city. The Sinaloa Cartel may be widely described as Mexico’s most powerful criminal group, but its control is not absolute and it remains an organization with no shortage of ambitious and powerful enemies. It’s not clear that the recent rebound in murders inside Juarez is related to Sinaloa and Juarez Cartel tensions, but a renewed push for the city led by the forces of Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo," is certainly a plausible scenario.
Furthermore, Juarez remains one of the most important border crossings and one of the more significant local drug markets in Mexico, meaning it will always be a prize for drug trafficking groups. If the Juarez Cartel and its allies carved out a reliable region of control in the remote drug-producing Golden Triangle, the only way for them to take full advantage would be to secure a border crossing. The most logical city in such a scenario would be Juarez, meaning the extreme violence would likely migrate down from the sierra and back into the city.
For the moment, the drop in violence in Juarez remains one of Mexico's most striking recoveries, but the chaotic environment surrounding the city and the uptick within suggest that the improvement may not be as enduring as local residents would like to hope.