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"El Chapo" arrest sparks homicide surge in Mexico

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 31/03/2017 Alan Gomez
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Last year’s capture of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán led to a surge in homicides in Mexico as cartel leaders fought to fill the vacuum created by his arrest.

The apprehension of Guzmán in January 2016 was hailed by Mexican and U.S. officials as a watershed moment in the war on drugs. But Mexico's homicide rate for the year spiked to 21.3 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, a steep rise from 17.5 in 2015 that rivals record numbers earlier in the decade, according to a report released Friday by the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego.

Mexico had just started emerging from its bloody battle with drug cartels, with murder rates dropping for four consecutive years from 2011 to 2014. After the removal of Guzmán, violence is back on the rise. The drug lord was extradited to the United States in January to face criminal charges for his leadership of the trafficking syndicate known as the Sinaloa Cartel. 

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"It's kind of two steps forward, one step back," said David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico Project and co-author of the report. "We took out a very powerful and important drug trafficker. But as a result, we have destabilized the ecosystem of organized crime in a way that has led to internal struggles within the Sinaloa Cartel, and encroachment from other organizations that would like to take over their business."

The spike in violence also helps explain why the United States is seeing a resurgence in heroin use. The problem has become so widespread that President Trump created a national opioid addiction commission. On Wednesday he hosted a White House "listening session" with addicts, including one recovering heroin addict.

Shirk said the battles between Mexican drug cartels have upset the "traditional" drug routes — including cocaine — that originate in South America and funnel through Mexico to the U.S. That has made it more difficult for American users to find cocaine, opening the door for heroin and other opioids, which can be produced in Mexico and smuggled more easily into the U.S.

Heroin profits are smaller, Shirk said, but they provide those cartels with quick and easy cash as they focus on fighting for control of territories left vacant by Guzmán's arrest.

"When you fragment drug trafficking organizations, they're going to look for readily available products," Shirk said.

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Mexico experienced its worst period of violence starting in 2007, when then-President Felipe Calderón announced an aggressive campaign to fight against the country's drug cartels. That led to Mexico's homicide rate increasing from a record low of 8.1 per 100,000 in 2007 to a record high of 24 just four years later. 

The Mexican government was able to quell that violence through a combination of anti-corruption measures and big increases in military and police spending. Mexico received help from the U.S. government, which sends $320 million a year to improve the southern neighbor's security, justice, economy and education systems. 

That could change under President Trump, who has proposed slashing State Department and foreign aid budgets by 37%. Trump has also infuriated Mexico by saying it will pay for expanding a wall along the border between the two countries.

"There's a need for both countries to resolve this problem. And in many ways, we're at a high water mark in U.S.-Mexico security cooperation," Shirk said. "The only question now is how (Trump) will continue to work with Mexico to address this shared responsibility."

The group's report is based on a collection of data from the Mexican government, private companies and media organizations that track homicides in Mexico.

Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by army soldiers on Jan. 8, 2016, to a waiting helicopter at a federal hangar in Mexico City, after he was recaptured following his escape from a maximum security prison in Mexico. © Rebecca Blackwell, AP Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by army soldiers on Jan. 8, 2016, to a waiting helicopter at a federal hangar in Mexico City, after he was recaptured following his escape from a maximum security prison in Mexico.

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