Organized Crime in Mexico City: A Political Risk?
Do a series of recent murders signify
the entrance of organized crime into
In recent years, even as violence broke out along Mexico’s northern border, in the tequila producing state of Jalisco, the avacado producing state of Michoacan and tourist destinations such as Acapulco and Veracruz, Mexico City has remained a relative oasis from the conflicts taking place between criminal organizations in other parts of the country.
As I explained in a recent article for The Atlantic:
The first few weeks of 2013, however, have put Mexico City’s police on alert. In a 24-hour period between Friday, January 11 and Saturday January 12, a number of disturbing incidents occurred in Mexico’s city’s more dangerous, outlying neighborhoods. On Friday night, gunmen killed an 18-year-old man near a known outdoor drug depot. An hour later, three men were found blindfolded and tied up, killed by multiple bullet wounds. On January 12, two men were killed while drinking in the street. A few hours later, gunmen stepped out of a car and killed three men in the same area. In total 11 people were killed in the span of 24 hours and 22 people were killed over the course of the weekend.
Two events from the past few days merit attention. On February 16 Fernando López Salinas, the owner of two night clubs, one in Mexico City’s tourist-friendly Zona Rosa and another in the city of Cuernavaca, was killed by assassins who escaped on a motorcycle. Lopez Salinas, who is from the state of Michoacan, a state where crime groups continue to murder rivals and extort residents, was shot four times at close range in an area that is close to Mexico City’s Plaza de Independencia and the corporate offices of HSBC, BBVA, New York Life, the Mexican Stock Exchange and the U.S. embassy.
Mexico City’s mayor, a former prosecutor named Miguel Angel Mancera, was quick to downplay the incident, stating that it was probably the result of a “fight” and that it did not appear to be related to drug-trafficking. Mexican newspaper Milenio reported that at 11:45 pm, the assailants waited for the victim and then approached him and opened fire “without saying a word.”
Milenio also reported that the victim’s Facebook account included photos of luxurious residences, stacks of Euro notes, and luxury cars. Prosecutors are currently investigating whether the victim was connected to any organized crime groups.
However, despite a recent uptick in violence, there is still strong evidence that Mexico City still enjoys a high level of law and order. The other incident of note that occurred recently was that police in Mexico City arrested Jorge “El Niño Verde” Gonzalez, the former leader of Mexico’s Green Party, after he was arrested at a drunk-driving checkpoint and sent to Mexico City’s famous holding facility “El Torito.” Mexican news magazine Proceso reported that Gonzalez was detained at an breathalyzer checkpoint located down the street from the Zona Rosa while driving a Mercedes Benz in a “completely intoxicated state.”
On the one hand, the Zona Rosa shooting is an example of a recent incursion of a type of lawlessness that has not been seen in the capital city for a few years. But, on the other hand, the Niño Verde arrest is an example of the strong rule-of-law local policing initiative that has helped Mexico City win a hard-fought struggle against crime.
Some observers worry about an increase of violent incidents that appear to be connected to organized crime, but many analysts still believe that Mexico City’s community-focused police program which includes breathalyzer checkpoints and other basic rule-of-law initiatives, will prevent Mexico City from experiencing the sort of crime wave it went through in the 1990s or the cycle of violence currently affecting cities in other parts of the country.
Security analyst Alejandro Hope recently told me, “Recent killings are mostly about control of the retail drug market. It may have been a flare-up between rival gangs — rather serious, but nothing that alters the main insight that Mexico City tends to be safer than, say, Monterrey, just because it has far many more cops.”
As I explained in my article for The Atlantic:
In Mexico City, the police benefit from a favorable power dynamic. Although there are rumors that some trafficking organizations might be trying to muscle their way into Mexico City’s retail drug markets, the city is generally not a focal point for cartel violence. The police enjoy the benefit of being the most powerful armed force on the streets. In other parts of Mexico, where local police offices are short-staffed and poorly equipped to face threats from cartel members, the federal government has used the army and federal police to battle drug traffickers. Aside from a couple of high-profile yet isolated incidents, such as the triple homicide at the capital’s airport and the pair of decapitated bodies found at an upscale shopping mall in 2012, Mexico City has largely been spared from the grisly violence affecting other parts of the country.
The heavy police presence discourages criminals from operating in plain sight, and a network of public security cameras provides an additional deterrent. Plus, for organized criminal groups, operating in Mexico City attracts unwanted political attention that could hurt their more lucrative smuggling operations in other parts of the country. Mexico City’s retail drug market is largely served by an atomized group of local dealers rather than a vertically-integrated mafia-type organization. In the city’s gentrifying core, the police patrols enjoy the relatively mundane tasks of thwarting petty crimes and stopping drunk drivers. So far, the community-focused policing strategy has yielded positive results.
There is no indication that the balance of power has shifted in Mexico City to mirror the dynamic seen in other parts of the country. In 2011 members of the Zetas crime group set fire to the state police headquarters and Nissan and Ford dealerships in the northern border state of Tamaulipas, and then battled with soldiers. Then, in mid-2012 criminals in Michoacan carried out a series of arson attacks on trucks owned by Sabritas, a local snack food subsidiary of PepsiCo.
“The attacks on the Sabritas potato chip trucks kind of threw people for a loop precisely because the cartels had never gone after a big company like that, and especially not a subsidiary of a such a huge US company,” Sylvia Longmire, a security analyst and expert on Mexico’s organized crime told me. Brazen attacks of this sort have not yet occurred in Mexico City. Although in 2013 Mexico City has already experienced a number of unsettling killings, overall it is still safer than many cities in the U.S. Investors with an interest in political risk should keep an eye on Mexico’s “distrito federal.” Especially as Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto implements an updated anti-crime program the country’s capital city could become an important barometer to watch.
At a recent meeting, Mexico City lawmaker Lizbeth Eugenia Rosas Montero said ”Just a decade ago people in Mexico City would say they wanted to leave and live in the surrounding states to have a more peaceful life. Today, paradoxically, Mexico City has become one of the safest places to live. Now the people who live in the states spend their vacations in the capital to be away from the shootouts, kidnappings and executions.”
On a more positive note, Mexico’s security problems do not appear to be undermining the country’s economic activity. On February 18 Bloomberg reported “Mexico’s economy accelerated more than analysts expected in the fourth quarter, led by growth in agriculture, pushing annual growth to 3.9 percent in 2012.”
To read my article on crime in Mexico City, click here.