“Sol Prendido” for Borderland Beat

The Mexican capital has escaped the ultra-violence of other cities in the drug war

EVERY night in Mexico City, crime journalists meet up to race together to murder scenes and snap photos of the corpses from shootings, stabbings and car crashes. Historically known as “los onces,” after a police radio signal, the night crawlers use scanners, cop contacts, and social media to follow the scent.

The photos and details of the bloody victims are referred to as “la nota roja” or “red news” and decorate tabloids, alongside scantily-clad girls and football players. They also provide a valuable public service by keeping track of the violence, and making it harder for the government to hide murder numbers. When Mexico’s drug war escalated in the 2000s, it was nota roja reporters around the country who first spotted it, helping compile “execution meters” of the rising piles of cadavers.

This year, there have thankfully been less corpses for the Mexico City onces to photograph. Up to October, there were an average of 62 murders a month in the city, less than half compared to the 133 murders per month in 2018. It is surprising to some considering the terror of the drug war and bloodshed in cities such as Tijuana, but this mountain capital is now less murderous per capita than much of the United States.

Not only does Mexico City boast a homicide rate far below U.S. hotspots such as Baltimore or St Louis. In 2021, it had a lower rate than Dallas or even Portland, Oregon (which has suffered a spike in homicides). This year, it could finish around the level of Austin.

There’s a lot to unpack with murder figures, and I’ll break down the nuances and look at what drives the drop. Of course, some brutal murders and other heinous crimes still happen here. There’s also political baggage; in the United States, people argue whether Democrats or Republicans rule over more bloodshed, and in Mexico, politicians quarrel over whether the governing Morena party or the opposition bear more fault for mass graves and massacres.

But politics aside, the evidence looks strong that murders in Mexico City have plummeted and furthermore that the capital never suffered from the worst narco warfare that ravaged much of the country. I would also assert that the relative safety of Mexico City is a significant factor in the wave of “gringos” flocking here, often to work remotely. (As anyone who follows Mexico knows, there has been a huge increase in Americans, among other foreigners, in Mexico City since the pandemic).

The foreigners don’t come for safety; they generally look for cheap rent alongside a fun lifestyle. But it would be unlikely there would so many if there was a dire security situation like that of Caracas, Venezuela or San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Mexico City is edgy enough to be exciting while not so edgy you get shot.  

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO) made this point in his morning press conference, in which he was flanked by Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum to talk about the decline in death. “How much we have advanced on the issue of security,” AMLO said. “Because of this, thousands of foreigners have arrived to live in Mexico City…They are welcome.”

Later in the presser, AMLO overstated the case to say it was “one of the safest cities in the world.” That is a clear exaggeration as it’s still a long way from Singapore or Geneva. But the drop in murders in the Mexican capital is an achievement that is worth looking at, especially as it could offer hope for the rest of the country.

[embedded content]
Blood and Pain in Numbers

I find the saddest thing at murder scenes is when families arrive and see the bodies of their loved ones, the devastation on their faces, the sheer pain in their screams. It seems cold to reduce this human loss to statistics. But reporting murder figures and insisting that governments release them is crucial to understanding the violence around us.

Homicide rates are compared by looking at the number of victims per 100,000 residents in a year. This figure is never going to be perfect, but it’s the best reference we currently have to contrast the level of killing in different cities and countries.

The Mexico City figures don’t refer to the whole urban sprawl of 22 million but to the official capital district, now called CDMX, which has about 9.2 million people. The Mexican government keeps a database of the murder numbers from police and prosecutor records, and there is another database from morgues and death certificates.

The police count recorded a peak of 1597 murder victims here in 2018, dropping to 1006 last year. That gives Mexico City a murder per capita rate of about 10.9 per 100,000 in 2021. This year the number has dropped further still.

Comparing the 2021 figures, Mexico City still has a higher murder rate than New York (which had about 5.7 homicides per 100,000), but it is lower than Portland (12.9), Dallas (14.6) or Minneapolis (22.1).

The most murderous U.S. cities include Baltimore (57.5) and St Louis (65.3), which have extremely high levels considering the wealth and power of the United States. The most homicidal cities in Mexico in 2021 suffer horrific rates, among the worst on the planet, with Zamora at 196, Zacatecas at 107, and Tijuana at 103.

So how reliable are the Mexico City figures? Carlos A. Pérez Ricart, an investigator at Mexico’s CIDE institute, has studied them and concludes the numbers look solid, especially as they correlate closely with death certificates.

“Homicides are counted by health authorities as well as by judicial authorities so it is really difficult to play with those numbers,” he tells me. “It is really difficult to argue all these numbers are fixed. I don’t buy this.”

Another theory is that bodies are not found because they are disappeared. This has certainly been a problem in chunks of Mexico, with mass graves splattered across the country, including one in Veracruz with the skulls of 298 victims.

There have been some “narco graves” dug up in the city limits, and there was the macabre discovery of 42 craniums in a house in the Tepito barrio in 2019. But overall, there have been much less and smaller narco graves than in Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Durango or Guerrero. Carlos also contends there is no evidence of a sudden increase of disappearances in Mexico City as the murder rate has gone down.

Carlos points out that surveys show a marked improvement in the perception of security in Mexico City since 2018 as well. With your own eyes, you can see that the capital is clearly different from the scarred cities on the border or bullet-holed villages of the Sierra Madre. You have far less chance of running into gunmen, hearing shots or seeing a corpse, and there is just not that feel of fear.

So why has Mexico City escaped the worst of the drug war? And what has improved since 2018?

Cartel Presence Not Cartel Control

The former mayor of Mexico City Miguel Ángel Mancera (who ruled from 2012 to 2018) insisted repeatedly that there were no cartels – or serious organized crime – in the capital, like there is in Sinaloa or Michoacán. This is patently false. Figures from all the major mobs have been arrested in the city, from the sons of Mayo Zambada and Vicente Carrillo to lieutenants in the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. There are also homegrown gangs, such as the infamous Tepito Union and the Tlauhuac Cartel.

However, while the mobsters are certainly here, they do not operate as they do in their strongholds. Mexico City is not a strategic turf to produce drugs (like in the Sierra Madre), or to traffic drugs to the United States (like on the border).

In Culiacán, gangsters exert an immense control of their territory, with lookouts on every corner and gunmen lurking in safehouses. In the capital, however, Sinaloa operators can disappear into the urban sprawl. It’s more a place to make deals, meet with contacts in the federal government, and launder money.

There’s also talk of a pax-mafiosi in the capital, an agreement between the big narcos not to fight here. I haven’t heard this straight from the mouth of crime figures, but this is possible, even perhaps as an informal understanding that they do business and not go to war like back in Tijuana.

Another factor is that Mexico is a heavily centralized country and all the federal agencies are here, along with the bulk of the governing class of politicians and heads of big business. These powers-that-be don’t want a mess on their own doorstep. The federal forces won’t allow a convoy of a hundred hitmen to blaze up Insurgentes avenue like they get away with doing in Zacatecas.

Then there is the Mexico City police force. Whereas the provinces have a mishmash of municipal and state corps, the capital has a single force of some 80,000 officers, one of the biggest in Latin America.

As with police forces across Mexico, there are problems with corruption and violence (including sexual violence). But since the 2000s, the capital cops have been deployed more tactically in areas with high crime, based on “compstat” systems. This was influenced by Giuliani’s broken window policy in New York, after Giuliani himself served as a consultant for Mexico City in 2002 back when AMLO was mayor.

Big Brother is Watching

Mayor Sheinbaum, a prodigy of AMLO, won power in 2018, as crime was rising under Mancera and made security a core of her platform. One of her key polices has been massively increasing the number of cameras on the street, from 14,000 to 80,000, and she is still going.

The investigator Carlos Pérez has been studying the effort and thinks it has worked as both a deterrent and tool for police, who watch them in a vast “C5” center. “I think there isn’t another city in Latin America with so many cameras,” Carlos says. “I truly buy the argument that this has been relevant…the police do use these cameras in order to resolve crimes.”

In 2019, Sheinbaum also appointed the former federal agent Omar García Harfuch as the city’s top security official, and he has gained a reputation as a hard ass who goes after gangsters. This fame was enhanced in 2020 when he survived an assassination attempt by alleged gunmen from the Jalisco Cartel, who ambushed him at dawn with a Barrett, killing two of his bodyguards.

On a vist to the Tepito barrio, I see what his police operations look like on the ground. Around the Peralvillo street, considered a heart of operations for La Union mob, the police have established a permanent presence, with armored vehicles on the corners and dozens of uniformed officers. Police were also controlling the entrance to the vecindad, or residential building, where the 42 skulls had been found (alongside a Satanic altar).

García Harfuch has a controversial history. His grandfather was a revolutionary officer who fought alongside Pancho Villa, only to become the defense secretary who oversaw the Tlatelolco massacre of students in 1968. More pointedly, García Harfuch took part in meetings in an army base in Iguala following the disappearance of 43 student teachers there in 2014. He denies wrongdoing, but other officials have been charged over an alleged cover up.

Still, Sheinbaum is currently the most popular candidate to follow AMLO as president in 2024. Success in reducing murders in Mexico City will surely be a big factor in her favour, and if she wins, she could bring Garcia Harfuch to the national stage.

The problems of violence and cartels across Mexico are in a different league from the capital and it seems unlikely that just cameras and police presence would make a difference. But at least having a solid example of reducing murder in a part of Mexico could help lead to politicians, of whatever striple, to see that crafting better policies to confront the bloodshed is possible.

Ioan Grillo