Mexico crime continues to surge

MEXICO CITY — Federal crimes such as gangland-style murders and kidnappings reached record levels in Mexico during the first half of the year, a new report from Mexico's Congress found, making Mexico one of the world's most dangerous countries.

One analyst who worked on the report said Mexico's murder rate now tops all others in the Western Hemisphere.

"In a global context, we suffer from more homicides, that is to say, violent deaths, than any other region in the world except for certain regions on the African continent,'' said Eduardo Rojas, who helped put together the crime report at the Center for Social and Public Opinion Studies, a research arm of the Mexico's Chamber of Deputies.

The report, made public last week, was a setback for Mexican President Felipe Calderon, whose tough new war on drug trafficking has sent thousands of Mexican Army troops into the countryside and a record number of drug suspects to the United States for trial.

The report said that major federal crimes, which include homicides, kidnappings and arms trafficking, rose 25 percent in the first half of 2007 over the same period last year. In 2006, the same crimes rose 22 percent over the previous year.

Gangland style executions have risen 155 percent since 2001, according to the congressional report.

Crime has been on the rise in Mexico throughout the last decade as drug cartels battle for control of lucrative smuggling routes. But the new findings come at a politically charged time for the Calderon administration, which is also confronting a new threat from an old foe — the shadowy Popular Revolutionary Army or EPR, its Spanish acronym.

EPR's coordinated bombings of natural gas pipelines, first in July and then in September, have exposed government intelligence failures and the vulnerability of the petroleum infrastructure in Mexico, the second largest oil exporter to the United States.

"The reality is the government has been pursuing the top EPR leaders for at least five years, and they haven't been able to catch them,'' said Mexican political commentator Raymundo Riva Palacio.

The attacks have been unexpectedly sophisticated. The September blasts caused millions of dollars in economic losses when the state-owned oil company, Pemex, had to cut off gas supplies to thousands of businesses, including major multi-national companies such as Grupo Modelo, the makers of Corona beer, and Vitro, the largest glassmaker in the world.

"These people that are placing these devices know something about the flow of the oil and gas,'' said one American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. "They didn't just place it randomly in the middle of the valve system.''

Experts believe the EPR, a Marxist group that traces its origins to the armed guerilla movements of the 1970s, finances its activities with ransom from kidnapped businessmen. The guerillas say the attacks will continue until authorities release two comrades who disappeared in Oaxaca in May; state and federal officials say they're not in government custody.

The group's reach appears to be countrywide. The first blasts struck multiple locations in central Mexico. The second set hit coastal Veracruz. On Wednesday, security was beefed up around pipelines in northern Chihuahua state after EPR graffiti was discovered on installations there.

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora recently told reporters that the guerrilla bombings "distract" authorities from their battle against organized crime.

Calderon, who took office in December after a contentious election that saw him win with less than a third of the vote, had vowed to curb Mexico's drug violence.

In January, he ordered a huge military and legal offensive, sending more than 20,000 soldiers to hot spots throughout the country and dropping Mexico's traditional hesitancy to send accused drug traffickers to face charges in the United States. By August his administration had extradited a record 64 accused drug traffickers.

The offensive won praise from the Bush administration and Mexicans, but gangland-style executions have surged, with the report counting 1,588 in the first half of 2007. For the full year of 2001, there were 1,080 such crimes, the report said.

Mexico's violence is often spectacular and lurid, with tales of street shootouts, decapitations and bomb blasts filling Mexico's news pages and airwaves. No place is immune, including the buildings of the country's news outlets.

In May a severed head wrapped in newspaper was left in a cooler outside the office of Tabasco Hoy in Villahermosa, where drug violence is on the rise. Grenades have been tossed into newsrooms from Cancun to Nuevo Laredo in the past 18 months. The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders reported that Mexico was the most dangerous country for journalists in 2006, after Iraq.

On May 14, suspected drug traffickers on motorcycles gunned down Jose Nemesio Lugo, a senior federal investigator in charge of gathering intelligence on drug traffickers, in Mexico City's upscale Coyoacan neighborhood. Two days later in Sonora state, about 20 miles south of Arizona, a five-hour shootout between heavily armed commandos and police left 20 people dead.

The bloodbath continued unabated this month, with the assassinations of two state police chiefs. The first was Jaime Flores of San Luis Potosi state, shot in the head multiple times in front of his wife on Sept. 13. Then on Wednesday came news that Marcos Manuel Souberville, the state police chief in Hidalgo, had fallen in a hail of bullets during an afternoon drive-by shooting.

Many prominent Mexicans have sought refuge in the United States, but that is no guarantee of safety. Mario Espinoza Lobato, a businessman and city councilman from Ciudad Acuna, was gunned down Wednesday at his home in neighboring Del Rio, Texas, authorities said. He was an outspoken critic of the criminal gangs that he said had tried to kidnap him.

Kidnapping is a multi-million dollar industry in Mexico. The report from Congress indicates there are about 4,500 kidnappings a year, about a third of which are reported. Greg Bangs, head of the kidnapping and ransom unit at the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, said Mexico has rocketed past Colombia to become the world's ransom capital.

"Mexico is now very definitely No. 1 in the world in terms of the numbers of kidnappings,'' Bangs said. "Kidnappers are indicating how serous they are by sending parts of ears and noses and fingers and various bodily parts ... they didn't used to do that so much, but that seems to be more prevalent.''

Top officials here continue to insist their efforts are paying off even if the numbers don't show it. At a news conference last week, Medina, the attorney general, told reporters "there is a decrease" in organized crime murders.

But then Medina provided figures for "violent executions" in January and February — 175 and 208, respectively.

"They're going down?'' one reporter asked.

"I wish they were lower than last year,'' Medina responded. "But in the first months of this year there were more than in the same period last year.''

Congressman Juan Francisco Rivera, chairman of the Chamber of Deputies Committee on Security, expressed confidence in the government's crime-fighting campaign. He said pointedly that Americans should not be so quick to judge Mexico.

He described the country's violent crime wave as temporary, while in "cities like Detroit, Houston or Dallas, it has become a permanent thing.'' Rivera also called on U.S. authorities to do more to stop illicit firearms exports.

"That's what is killing us,'' Rivera said. "I think if look at the number of arrests, the number of drug seizures, the number of policemen who have risked their lives and who have been killed, I think it shows that our Army and local police forces are engaged in a frontal battle.''

(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)


The average number of serious federal crimes reported daily from 1998 to 2007.

Year — Incidents Reported Daily

1998 — 205.1

1999 — 208.7

2000 — 223.4

2001 — 203.1

2002 — 202.2

2003 — 222.5

2004 — 222.8

2005 — 245.3

2006 — 300.4

2007(Jan-Jun) — 375.5

Source: Centro de Estudios Sociales y de Opinion Publica, Camara de Diputados, Mexico

For the full report, in Spanish, click on Reporte CESOP No. 4.