Ecatepec, a suburb of Mexico City, has seen rise in violence

The Mexican government's recently released list of cities with the highest number of murders under President Enrique Peña Nieto's tenure includes one surprise entry: Ecatepec, the sprawling Mexico City suburb not known as a center of organized crime.

According to Mexico's Interior Ministry, the five cities that have registered the most murder investigations since December 2012 are Acapulco, Tijuana, Culiacán, Juárez, and Ecatepec.

The measure of violence is slightly odd; Mexico has various murder registries at the municipal level, a more direct and reliable statistic for measuring violence than the number of murder cases opened. But other sources support the thrust of the Interior Ministry's findings. According to municipal tallies from Justice in Mexico's most recent report, for instance, Ecatepec has registered either the fourth- or fifth-largest number of murders in each of the years Peña Nieto has been office.

For Ecatepec, this represents both a historic explosion and the reversal of a long-term trend. According to the government's statistical agency Inegi, considered Mexico's most reliable source for municipal homicide statistics, Ecatepec averaged 344 murders a year from 1991 to 1994.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Homicides

For the next 14 years, however, the city's murder rate dropped to an average of 235 a year, a sustained decrease of more than 30 percent that equates to a murder rate of approximately 16 per 100,000 residents. During this period, the total number of murders never surpassed 277, and bottomed out at 158 in 2007. For one of Mexico's largest cities, this shift toward a safer Ecatepec represented a substantial achievement, sufficient to drop the annual national murder rate by about a percentage point.

But as with many areas in Mexico, the insecurity that began under President Felipe Calderón had massive consequences in Ecatepec. In 2009, the city tallied 317 murders, its worst total since 1994. The following year, it registered 413, until then the worst total in the city's recent history. (Inegi's online records go back to 1990.)

From 2011 to 2015, the situation has grown substantially worse: Ecatepec has witnessed approximately 533 murders a year, a 125 percent increase from the 1995-2008 average that yields a rate of 33 homicides per 100,000 residents.

InSight Crime Analysis

Unlike Acapulco, Tijuana, Culiacán, and Juárez, all of which are notorious havens of cartel warfare, Ecatepec does not loom large in popular conceptions of the Mexican criminal landscape. There have been no famous battles for Ecatepec, nor is it the home base of any major criminal organizations.

But Ecatepec does have a long history of smaller, locally-based criminal groups. In 2008, for instance, the local police chief named eight principal local criminal groups operating in Ecatepec, which focused primarily on retail drug sales. While these groups presumably obtained their merchandise from larger organizations, they appeared to be independent entities.

As in much of the country, the spiral of violence during the Calderón administration brought these local groups into increased contact with larger trafficking organizations. The principal groups that set down roots in Ecatepec were the Familia Michoacana and a series of groups linked to the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO).

The disintegration of formerly dominant groups has sparked a sense of chaos that has further driven the city's bloodshed. The arrest or killing of Alfredo, Arturo, and Héctor Beltrán Leyva, as well as top lieutenants like Edgar Valdes Villarreal and Sergio Villarreal, splintered the organization into countless offshoots, many of which have attempted to set down roots in Ecatepec. These include the Hand with Eyes, the Rojos, and Warriors United.

SEE ALSO: Beltrán Leyva Organization Profile

Today, Ecatepec is struggling to confront both the deep-seated criminal roots and the aftermath of the cartel breakdown. Much of the current violence appears to stem from control over extortion and the drug markets more than fights for trafficking routes. In the aftermath of one recent killing, a local media outlet estimated that 20 business owners have been murdered since 2016 for refusing to make extortion payments.

In a narrow sense, Ecatepec's travails support a longstanding government narrative that the Mexico City area is off-limits to criminal groups. As recently as 2014, high-ranking officials like Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong said that in the capital there was no sign of the "big cartels," and that the criminal rivalries stemmed largely from low-level groups fighting over turf.

But even if one accepts that -- and the United States Drug Enforement Administration, among other authorities, does not -- with a murder rate that has consistently been among the worst in the nation, the presence of the Zetas or the Sinaloa Cartel in the Mexico City metro area is to a certain degree irrelevant.

That's not to suggest that Mexico City is in danger of turning into war zone. The murder rate within city limits in recent years has been remarkably consistent -- approximately 12 per 100,000 residents, roughly on a par with Minneapolis, Minnesota or Orlando, Florida -- and never suffered a grave deterioration during the Calderón years. In the broader context, the capital city's status is enviable.

But just across the municipal border in Ecatepec, the situation is far different, and the persistent violence there has sparked surprisingly little outcry or attention.

Investigations

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