The deadliest town in Mexico
A quiet farming hamlet is the emblem of the country’s soaring murder rate
— He slumped in a shabby white chair, his neck unnaturally twisted to the right.
A cellphone rested inches away, as if he had just put it down. His unlaced shoes lay beneath outstretched legs, a morbid still life of what this town has become.
Israel Cisneros, 20, died instantly in his father’s one-room house. By the time the police arrived at the crime scene, their second homicide of the night, the blood seeping from the gunshot wound to his left eye had begun to harden and crack, leaving a skin of garish red scales over his face and throat.
This was once one of the safest parts of Mexico, a place where people fleeing the nation’s infamous drug battles would come for sanctuary. Now, officials here in Tecomán, a quiet farming town in the western coastal state of Colima, barely shrug when two murders occur within hours of each other. It’s just not that uncommon any more.
Last year, the town became the deadliest municipality in all of Mexico, with a homicide rate similar to a war zone’s, according to an independent analysis of government data.
This year it is on track to double that figure, making it perhaps the most glaring example of a nationwide crisis.
Mexico is reaching its deadliest point in decades. Even with more than 100,000 deaths, 30,000 people missing and billions of dollars tossed into the furnace of Mexico’s decade-long fight against organized crime, the flames have not died down. By some measures, they are only getting worse.
The last couple of months have set particularly ominous records: More homicide scenes have emerged across Mexico than at any point since the nation began keeping track 20 years ago.
Some of the crime scenes, like the room where Cisneros was found dead in his chair, had only one victim. Others had many. But their increasing frequency points to an alarming rise in violence between warring cartels. Criminal groups are even sweeping into parts of Mexico that used to be secure, creating a flood of killings that, by some tallies, is surpassing the carnage experienced during the peak of the drug war in 2011.
“What is happening here is happening in the entire state, the entire country,” said José Guadalupe García Negrete, the mayor of Tecomán. “It’s like a cancer.”
For President Enrique Peña Nieto, the torrent is much more than a rebuke of the government’s efforts to fight organized crime. It is a fundamental challenge to his guiding narrative: that Mexico is moving well beyond the shackles of violence and insecurity.
“The Peña Nieto administration seriously underestimated, or misunderstood, the nature of the problem that Mexico was experiencing,” said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego who has studied the drug war. “They thought by using marketing they could change the conversation and refocus people’s attention on all the good things that were happening, and away from the violence problem that they thought was totally overblown.”
Now, faced with the surging homicides, government officials have put forward a new culprit to help explain them: the sweeping legal reforms pursued by their predecessors.
Begun in 2008 and completed last year with the help of more than $300 million in U.S. aid, the new legal system is widely considered the most important change to Mexican jurisprudence in a century. Intended to fix the nation’s broken rule of law, it essentially adopted the model used in the United States, where innocence is presumed before guilt, evidence is presented in open court and corruption is harder to hide.
But the new legal system inhibits arbitrary detentions. Suspects held without evidence have been released, leading a growing chorus of officials to argue that new system is responsible for the very surge in crime and impunity it was supposed to prevent.
For months, top officials in the president’s party have been laying the groundwork to chip away at the new legal system, taking aim at basic civil protections like the inadmissibility of evidence obtained through torture. And with violence worsening, the government has new ammunition to roll back the legal changes, pushing for broader powers.
García, the mayor of Tecomán, understands the president’s dilemma all too well.
“You can’t attack a fundamental problem like this by pruning the leaves, or dealing with the branches,” says García. “You have to go to the roots.”
So he has decided to take his message to the young. On a recent afternoon, dozens of schoolchildren lined up in the sweltering heat for their elementary school graduation. The mayor adjusted his hat and dived into his speech.
Tecomán was losing its values, the traditions that kept families intact and the criminals at bay, he told them. He mopped his brow and continued. Forces from outside were tearing at the fabric of the community, and citizens needed to redouble their efforts to stay strong.
“We celebrate life, not death, here in Tecomán,” he said. “We must be the architects of our own lives and futures.”
The government’s monthly statistics, which date back to 1997, suggest a hard road ahead. The data tracks crime scenes, where one, two or 10 killings may have occurred. May and June set consecutive records for the most homicide scenes in the last 20 years.
A sudden brazenness prevails on the streets of Tecomán. On a recent evening, a red Volkswagen barrelled through the congested streets at 130 km/h. Four patrol cars gave chase before an officer shot out the back tire.
The driver struggled with the police. Handcuffed, he stared at the officer straddling him and promised they would see each other again.
“You already know how this ends, and what happens to you,” he said before screaming out to a friend: “Come and kill them all right now. Kill them!”
Main photo: Police officers jail a man accused of hitting two officers, in Tecomán, Mexico, last month.
Middle: Police approach a man drunk in the street in Tecomán, Mexico, last month. Left: José Guadalupe García Negrete, the mayor of Tecomán. Tecomán, a quiet farming town on the Pacific Coast, has become an emblem of Mexico’s soaring murder rate.