Mexico continues to grow more violent, logging more homicide cases in July than in any month on record.
Prosecutors opened 2,599 homicide investigations — an average of 84 a day — last month, Mexico’s national public security agency said Tuesday. In some of those cases, there were multiple victims, although authorities did not provide a total.
Killings have been rising steadily in Mexico since 2015 as increasingly fragmented criminal groups battle for control of drug trafficking routes and other illegal markets, such as stolen fuel and cargo.
Many in Mexico say the country’s crime-fighting efforts are also partly to blame for the rising body count.
With U.S. backing, Mexico has gone to battle against the cartels, jailing drug users and drug runners, destroying opium and marijuana fields and sending thousands of armed soldiers into the streets.
That may have succeeded in weakening cartels, but it has also opened the door for bloody infighting among splintered factions.
Last year was the country’s most violent on record since the government began releasing crime statistics more than two decades ago, with 25,316 homicide investigations into 31,174 deaths.
The country is on track to far surpass that this year. The 16,399 homicide cases opened in the first seven months of 2018 represent a 14% increase over the same period last year. July’s total breaks the previous monthly record of 2,535 set in May.
Mexico’s homicide rate is more than quadruple that of the United States.
Scott Stewart, a Mexico analyst at the Texas-based intelligence firm Stratfor, said Mexican authorities didn’t have any choice but to try to weaken the cartels. “You can’t let them get to the point where they can actually challenge the state,” he said.
But, he said, there is no doubt that Mexico’s so-called kingpin strategy of killing or arresting cartel bosses has had a destabilizing effect.
“Years ago you had large cartels that were fairly dominant in many areas and it was fairly tranquil,” he said. “Now there’s so much friction, and it leads to violence across the board.”
In an unusual show of humility, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto acknowledged this week that his administration’s drug war strategy has, by some measures, failed.
“I am the first to recognize that, although we made progress, it was not enough to achieve the great goal of security,” Peña Nieto said at a news conference Monday alongside the president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who takes office in December.
Rising violence played a major role in his election victory last month.
Lopez Obrador has said that he “will not rule out any option” to bring peace to Mexico. Among the radical approaches he is considering are the legalization of marijuana and an amnesty for some drug war criminals.
Clemency for even low-level participants in the country’s multibillion-dollar drug industry would mark a dramatic shift from the militaristic approach that Mexico has long employed in its attempt to curb trafficking.
Lopez Obrador has not proposed returning Mexican soldiers to their barracks or letting cartel bosses walk free. But he has called for a more holistic approach to Mexico’s violence. That includes giving federal scholarships to students and creating employment programs to keep vulnerable young people off the streets.
Olga Sanchez Cordero, a former Supreme Court justice who is Lopez Obrador’s pick for interior secretary, has said an amnesty for low-level growers, users and transporters of narcotics would be a part of a larger effort to help reintegrate into society some of the estimated 600,000 Mexicans employed by drug cartels.
Lopez Obrador’s advisors are on a multi-city listening tour to get input from victims groups about an amnesty and other plans. Speaking at an event in Mexico City last month, Sanchez said she hopes to push for an amnesty.
Her boss has given her “a blank check,” and has asked her to do “whatever is necessary to pacify this country,” she said.
For now, however, the current strategy remains in place. Last week, members of the Mexican government appeared alongside officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at a news conference in Chicago to announce that they are focused on capturing Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, also known as El Mencho, who is the leader of the ascendant Jalisco New Generation cartel.
The Jalisco cartel, which once shot down a Mexican military helicopter with a rocket launcher, has grown in power in the years since the arrest and extradition to the U.S. of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the former leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel.
Authorities say battles between the Jalisco and Sinaloa cartels are driving some of Mexico’s worst violence, particularly along the country’s western coast. That includes the state of Baja California, where 270 homicide investigations were opened in July, more than in any other state in Mexico. Not only are the two groups fighting for control of valuable drug trafficking routes to the U.S., they are also fighting for control over domestic drug sales, authorities have said.
Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.