The dead­li­est town in Mex­ico

A quiet farm­ing ham­let is the em­blem of the coun­try’s soar­ing mur­der rate

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - AZAM AHMED

— 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!”

PHO­TOS BY RO­DRIGO CRUZ, NEW YORK TIMES

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.

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