Mexico's Chihuahua state registered its lowest monthly homicide numbers since 2007, but per capita violence levels in rural areas of the state are alarmingly high as criminal groups continue to make the highlands a key battleground.
Homicide statistics for the month of September show a historically low homicide rate for the state of Chihuahua with just 75 registered murders. When broken down at the sub-state level, the numbers show relatively low levels of violence in major urban areas with higher rates of violence in the rural municipalities of the Tarahumara highlands in the southwest corner of the state, reported Excelsior.
The southern zone of the highlands registered 21 murders in September, the majority of which happened in the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo -- population 50,000. Ciudad Juarez, a border city of 1.3 million, registered just 17 homicides.
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Confrontation between armed groups such as Gente Nueva and La Linea, considered enforcement of the Sinaloa Cartel and Juarez Cartel respectively, are thought to be fueling much of the violence. (See Excelsior's map of the disputed routes below)
Responding to the high homicide rates of rural Tarahumara, Chihuahua State Prosecutor Jorge Gonzalez Nicolas characterized the murders as resulting from clashes between cartels, saying that the organizations use the the vast rural territory as an area to resolve disputes. He noted that the homicides are happening in areas removed from towns and communities.
The cartel battleground in northern Mexico (Source: El Excelsior)
InSight Crime Analysis
The new numbers suggest that Ciudad Juarez has been largely successful in sustaining its security gains over the last several years. However, they also make clear that the rural violence of the Tarahumara highlands and the Golden Triangle remains an intransigent security concern for the region.
Tarahumara has been a hotbed for years with large, army-like caravans of criminals fighting drawn out gun battles. To cite just one example, in June 2011, 11 people were killed in fighting between criminal groups.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profiles
In 2013, President Enrique Peña Nieto identified the Tarahumara highlands and the larger Golden Triangle -- where the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa converge -- as a national security priority, dispatching federal security forces to the region to patrol the large rural territory.
The Triangle encompasses prime marijuana and poppy cultivation land historically under the control of the Sinaloa Cartel but which is increasingly contested by other criminal groups with a presence in northwest Mexico, specifically the Juarez Cartel.
While still linked to the Juarez Cartel, La Linea is seen as an increasingly independent actor, which could be a factor complicating powers dynamics in the region.