A rise in migrant smuggling and synthetic drug trafficking could explain a recent spike in homicides in Ciudad Juárez, a place still struggling to escape a cycle of violence that began during the onset of the drug war in Mexico.
The recent violence was evident on the final day of May when neighbors reported the discovery of a man's body in a housing complex on the far southeastern reaches of Ciudad Juárez. Local media reported the man's hands and feet were bound, and blood pooled around his head.
Days earlier, an anonymous phone call alerted municipal police to another body wrapped in a blanket. It had been left at the bottom of a steep, rocky ravine just off a dirt road on the west side of the city. The man was in an advanced state of decomposition, according to local media reports.
These were just two of the 110 killings that occurred in Ciudad Juárez in May, the second most violent month so far this year, according to data from the northern sector of the State Prosecutor's Office. In the first five months of 2023, the city accounted for more than half of the 897 homicides recorded in the northern state of Chihuahua.
SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of the US-Mexico Border
As the state's largest city, Ciudad Juárez has often been described as the epicenter of violence in Chihuahua. And while the city has seen bloodier periods, especially in the late 2000s and early 2010s following the government's efforts to quell drug trafficking activity, the recent wave of killings has alarmed local authorities and residents.
InSight Crime spent a week in this US-Mexico border city. We interviewed state authorities, non-governmental organizations working with drug users, synthetic drug consumers and distributors, and other knowledgeable sources. Below, we look at some of the theories to explain the violence and its structural causes.
Organized crime groups on the border have become increasingly involved in the business of migrant smuggling, and some officials believe it is leading to violent turf battles.
US authorities encountered record numbers of migrants in 2022, especially in south Texas, the closest and most direct route into the country from southern Mexico. A combination of factors, including insecurity, economic despair, climate change, government corruption, and crime, have caused millions of migrants to flee from Central and South America, Asia, and Europe.
The increased demand for smuggling services has given criminals a significant financial boost, said Óscar Ibañez, the Chihuahua state government's representative in Ciudad Juárez. With smuggling services at a premium, crime groups can now charge much higher prices than in past years. Officials told InSight Crime that smugglers are now charging between $4,000 and $10,000 just for permission to cross the border.
"If before they killed each other because somebody was selling drugs in the wrong territory, now it's because they're smuggling people in a place they do not control," Ibañez told InSight Crime.
Synthetic Drug Trafficking
Ciudad Juárez has long served as a major corridor for the international drug trade. For this reason, powerful organized crime groups like the New Juárez Cartel and Sinaloa Cartel maintain a strong presence in the city. They often forge alliances with local gangs like the Mexicles, Barrio Azteca, Artists Assassins, and La Línea.
While trafficking drugs into the United States is still a significant source of income, local authorities said disputes over street-level sales of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine are responsible for the overwhelming majority of violence. In Chihuahua and nationwide, methamphetamine use is on the rise, according to data from Mexico's National Commission Against Addiction (Comisión Nacional contra las Adicciones - CONADIC)
"Ninety percent of the homicides in Juárez have to do with the sale of cristal [methamphetamine]," said municipal police chief César Omar Muñoz. "The conflict between criminal organizations [over synthetic drugs] is the reason for the crime and killings in Juárez."
Some users interviewed by InSight Crime agreed.
"Ever since cristal arrived, there's been a lot of violence," said a synthetic drug consumer who previously trafficked drugs to sustain his methamphetamine use and asked not to be identified for security reasons. He said the local gangs allied with larger crime groups started killing people at drug distribution points.
Authorities pointed to the use of firearms and the criminal histories of the victims as undeniable proof that the majority of recent killings have a clear organized crime link. Still, local advocates say the reality on the ground has deeper historical roots.
In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug trafficking groups. In the years following, he sent hundreds of troops and federal police officers to certain cities hit hard by violence, including Ciudad Juárez. But the violence got worse. By 2010, officials counted more than 3,500 homicides and a murder rate of more than 250 per 100,000 citizens, making it one of the most violent cities in the world.
In this context of extreme violence and institutional shortcomings, the city created the Mesa de Seguridad, a working group comprised of business associations, professional groups, and members of civil society that works with local and federal authorities to reduce crime and violence. The Mesa has had some success, but struggles remain.
There is, for example, little coordination between state and municipal police, Mesa de Seguridad Director Rogelio González Alcocer told InSight Crime.
"Each one does their own thing when they should be working together," he said.
Other members of the group agree, linking the current violence back to the lack of collaboration and poor decision-making from elected leaders.
"We did not get to this point spontaneously. It has been the accumulation of many flawed public policies and social dynamics," said Omar Reyes, a local businessman and member of the Mesa de Seguridad.
As thousands of security forces patrolled the city, local corruption also thrived. Organized crime groups absorbed active soldiers and police officers from the federal, state, and municipal levels into their ranks, numerous sources told InSight Crime. And many ex-officials continue to operate within Ciudad Juárez's current criminal landscape, using targeted violence to further their illicit operations, according to members of the Mesa de Seguridad.
Authorities fear that violence in the city could worsen with the arrival of another synthetic drug, fentanyl. Security forces have seized more than 150,000 counterfeit pills containing the deadly synthetic opioid so far this year, which they believe are primarily destined for the United States. Others, however, say it is seeping into the local drug supply.
"We're worried," said Reyes of the Mesa de Seguridad. "We're waiting to see what comes of this revolution of fentanyl and synthetic drugs."