Once considered a safe haven from the drug wars, violence soars in Mexico City

Aug 3, 2019 | 5 comments

Once considered safe, upscale cafes are often the scene of drug crime in Mexico City.

By Nacha Cattan

At the nightclub door, a security guard checks every bag, pocket and makeup pouch with a mini flashlight. In the bathroom, another stands watch as drug dealers sell cocaine in bags marked with skulls. That guard escorts revelers into a stall where they can snort in private.

Drug gangs are ever more powerful in Mexico City, leaving even the most exclusive nightspots with little choice but to let them sell their wares. It’s better than the alternative: Outside the club — near the Cibeles Fountain in a neighborhood popular with American tourists — the owner of another bar was shot dead. More recently, two men with narcotics in their car were gunned down eight blocks away in broad daylight and shooters at an exclusive mall left two more dead.

Mexico City had always been a haven from the beheadings and mass graves that beset the country. But as homicides have risen year after year, it began to look more like the rest of Mexico. Since leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took power in December, crime has become topic No. 1 in conversations in cafes and bars and offices.

Despite promises to lower violence by addressing poverty and youth disaffection, killings have soared 15% this year under the leadership of Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, a close ally to the president known as AMLO. After gunfights hit chic neighborhoods and two young men from middle-class families were kidnapped and murdered, Sheinbaum sent in the newly created National Guard, a measure meant for only the worst narco spots. Now, the perception that crime is spinning out of control in one of the world’s largest capitals is unnerving investors in an economy that is poised to grow this year the least in a decade.

“Our clients are far more concerned,” said Gonzalo Nadal, who runs Mexico City-based risk consultancy ON Partners, whose clients include the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico. “Some have expressed serious uncertainty” about whether to expand in the capital.

Sheinbaum says crime had actually been worsening for years but the previous administration altered data to cover it up. She published new statistics for last year that showed homicides were higher than previously thought before she took power. That makes the comparison with this year’s numbers less dramatic. Some crimes, like theft, have actually fallen. Muggings are down 23%.

But homicides are still on the rise — 898 victims in January through June — and critics blame her and the president.

A guard outside a Mexico City mall two days after two Israeli tourists were murdered there.

Mexico City needs more and better-trained detectives and prosecutors, but steep budget cuts instated by AMLO make their jobs harder, said Francisco Rivas, who heads the National Citizens’ Observatory, a group that seeks to improve security policy. “Instead, the city opted to change the color of patrol cars,” he said.

AMLO said in an interview Monday that his social programs are addressing the causes of the violence and the National Guard is providing personnel to beef up crime fighting. “I don’t delegate this matter to anyone. I’m dealing with it directly,” he said.

Ever since then-President Felipe Calderon declared war on traffickers in 2006, violent crime has gotten worse and worse. The strategy of hunting down capos merely splintered cartels into smaller, more belligerent gangs.

Their new dominance in the capital is most evident in nightclubs and bars. Some proprietors have been forced to hire security and waitstaff chosen by the narcos themselves. Others take precautions, such as allowing guards to oversee narcotics purchases to keep order. At the club near Cibeles Fountain, a DJ spins old-school cumbia to a young crowd that spends the equivalent of about $10 on mixed drinks. The bathroom where cocaine and Ecstasy are sold for $25 to $50 is dimly lit, but its entrance is wide open.

A busload of police officers is deployed to a public event at a Mexico City park.

“Organized crime groups force bars to sell or permit the sale of drugs,” Ernestina Godoy, the city’s chief prosecutor, said in an interview.

The latest daylight shootout took place last week at the Plaza Artz mall, just a few stores down from a Louis Vuitton shop. A woman shot and killed two Israeli men who local media reported distributed drugs to bars in the wealthy Polanco neighborhood. Video footage shows her accomplice firing a high-caliber weapon as he makes his getaway while shoppers duck under tables. One officer was wounded.

A turf war between two gangs, Union Tepito and Anti-Union Force, is often cited as the source of the bloodshed, and authorities say that they’re operating with the help of the most powerful and violent cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation. The mall shooting may have even been a showdown between the two cartels, says Mexican risk-consultancy Empra.

Newly freed prisoners provide foot soldiers, some Mexico City authorities say. People have been released from prison in droves thanks to a 2008 criminal-justice overhaul that improved due process but failed to train and vet law enforcement officials before taking full effect in 2016. Many have been let out on technicalities, while some suspects in violent crimes are eligible for bail. The city’s prison population has plunged to about 25,000 this year from more than 41,000 in 2012.

Homicides in the city have climbed so high that killings per 100,000 people are now only 23% below the national average. They were 33% below last year and 41% less in 2017, according to the newly corrected federal data.

Godoy, the prosecutor, says the former administration doctored files so extensively last year that bodies found in Mexico City were registered outside the capital in final reports. The previous government would tally only a maximum of 600 crimes per week, she said. Former Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera, now a senator, hasn’t responded to requests for comment. He’s previously denied the allegations.

Reports of altered data are raising questions about whether any government security statistics can be trusted. “States, depending on how they’re conveyed in the news, will often change or doctor their numbers,” said Jack Harary, managing director of Mexico City-based security firm Harary Security Inc.

This week, Sheinbaum pushed through laws requiring harsher sentencing for recidivism and petty crimes like mobile phone theft. She plans to expand the police force this year by 66%.

The government’s actions aren’t sufficient, said Rafael Guarneros, who sits on a neighborhood watch in upscale Condesa. A member of his association, Cristina Vazquez, was murdered in June after reporting crime on her block. Hours after she was found, a man tried to force his way into her apartment for unknown reasons and was arrested. He’d been in and out of prison four times, local media reports.

“Prosecutors don’t know how to send a criminal to prison and keep them there, or they just don’t want to,” Guarneros said. “This is Mexico City’s biggest failure.”

Credit: Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com


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