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Is Mexico Growing More Violent? Our Journalists Answer Reader Questions

This week’s brutal ambush of a family in northern Mexico that left three women and six children dead was yet another shocking attack in a country enduring a year of record-setting violence.

The attackers, who are believed to be members of organized crime, opened fire on three vehicles the family was traveling in, according to relatives and government officials. Several other children were injured in the attack, the family said.

The victims were part of one extended family, which emigrated from the United States to the region decades ago as part of a diaspora of families that call themselves Mormon but are no longer affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

We asked readers their questions about the killings and the escalating violence in Mexico. Our reporters — Elisabeth Malkin and Kirk Semple in Mexico City and Elizabeth Dias in Washington — have answered a selection.

Why is the violence getting worse? What needs to happen to reduce violence in Mexico?
— Ryan Gittler, Brick, N.J.

Worsening violence around Mexico in recent years reflects an increasingly volatile criminal landscape. A longstanding strategy of the Mexican government’s fight against organized crime was to go after kingpins, on the theory that cutting off the head of a criminal group would wither the body. But the tactic helped to fragment monolithic criminal enterprises primarily focused on drug trafficking into an array of groups that are more violent and uncontrollable.

And as criminal organizations have fragmented, they have also diversified their business models, branching out into a wider range of criminal enterprises including extortion, kidnapping, prostitution, fuel theft and migrant smuggling. Making matters worse, while violence was once mostly concentrated in a few places, the recent rise in homicides has been dispersed.

Though clashes between the splinter groups are widely thought to be a significant cause, analysts and government officials also point to other factors, including changes in political control of state and municipal governments in recent elections. As old political power structures make way for new ones, cooperation between corrupt officials and criminal groups falls apart, spurring violent struggles for new cooperative arrangements.

The solution to this spiraling violence has been elusive, to say the least. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has said he would focus his crime-fighting strategy on addressing the problem at its roots, by investing in social development programs and initiatives that alleviate poverty. But this approach could take years to work — if it works at all.

Kirk Semple

Are violent drug cartels, and the risk of violence, equally divided in Mexico’s states? Or are there places where one can expect a safer existence?
Robert McKelvey, Portland, Ore.

The situation varies drastically across the country. Violent drug cartels are most active along much of the border with the United States, and along the Pacific Coast.

Last year, a quarter of all murders in the country were concentrated in five cities: Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez on the U.S. border, and Cancún, Acapulco and Culiacán. Even in the case of Cancún, the tourist areas are fairly insulated from the city’s broader violence.

Although crime is rising in Mexico City, daily life is fairly safe, provided some precautions are taken. A few parts of the country, like Mérida, the capital of Yucatán state, are considered to be as safe as Europe.

That said, the situation in Mexico is fluid.

Elisabeth Malkin

Does the increase in violence have to do with the increase in migrants that are waiting in Mexico to come to the U.S.?

Not really. The increase in violence is nationwide. That said, migrants’ advocates have reported an increase in crimes committed against migrants who have been forced to wait in increasing numbers on the Mexican side of the border for their chance to apply for American asylum. And struggles between rival criminal groups for control of lucrative migrant-smuggling routes have led to some violence. But those dynamics would account for only a tiny percentage of the overall violence ravaging the country.

Kirk Semple

Is there a real chance Mexico cracks down on the cartels because of all the recent violence? If so, how would it go about doing that?
— Juana, Los Angeles

The idea of using the armed forces to end the violence sounds appealing, but the reality is much more complex. While the state does need more and better-trained security forces to protect citizens, there are many questions about what else these forces could do.

The government has arrested many kingpins, but that has only increased the violence because organizations have fractured into smaller groups led by more ruthless lieutenants. These gangs are not an army with a fixed position that can be attacked. They live and operate in communities. Indiscriminate mass arrests by soldiers will just fill prisons with people who will eventually be released for a lack of evidence against them.

There is broad agreement on several steps that Mexico needs to take if the government is ever going to turn the tide. The first is to establish a chain of justice that allows crimes to be prosecuted. That means creating police forces that can investigate crimes, appointing (and protecting) strong prosecutors to present cases that hold up in court and weeding out corrupt judges.

The police forces need to be effective at all levels in Mexico’s federal system. For example, in the killings of the Mormon families, there appears to have been no real local police presence. The National Guard and the Army took several hours to reach the area, which is very remote, after the families alerted the authorities.

Investigators need to be able to dismantle whole networks that support drug gangs. That means figuring out where the gangs keep their money, how they launder it and which authorities are being paid off to protect them. Right now, the authorities have simply been reacting to outbreaks of violence after they happen.

Mexico’s current president has emphasized social policies and job creation that will dissuade young people from joining gangs. That is one part of the problem, but that is a long-term policy. To be successful, these policies require a community effort, with a commitment from local businesses. The few examples of violence reduction in the past, as in the city of Monterrey several years ago, have occurred when local authorities and businesses worked together to support a state police force and provide services in impoverished communities. In rural areas, however, that is a problem.

Elisabeth Malkin

Is it safe for Americans to travel to Mexico?
— Anonymous

Yes, it is safe for Americans to travel in most parts of Mexico, although tourists should exercise caution, just as they would in some parts of the United States.

The security situation varies widely across Mexico’s different regions and even within individual states. Tourist cities, for example, are less vulnerable than the more rural regions surrounding them. The United States State Department maintains updated advisories here.

Elisabeth Malkin

What can the United States do to prevent this from happening?
— Jorge Ferraz, San Francisco, Calif.

The gangs’ firepower is extraordinary, and it almost all comes from the United States. Just as the United States has demanded that Mexico halt the flow of drugs north, Mexico has long been asking the United States to halt the flow of guns south. There has not been any serious response to the Mexican complaint. And, of course, reducing the demand for drugs in the United States would limit the gangs’ main source of income.

Elisabeth Malkin

Have there been other issues against Mormons in Mexico or is this truly random?
— Susan Murphy, Los Angeles

Authorities and the victims’ families do not yet know the motive of the crime.

There are many small communities of fundamentalist Mormon families in northern Mexico, and occasionally some have been caught up in the violence of organized crime in the region.

But many of the victims’ relatives told us about the peaceful environment they have experienced there.

— Elizabeth Dias

How is the church reacting? The mainstream Mormon Church and the fundamentalist sect? Do the fundamentalists feel like they’re being attacked because they practice polygamy?
— Claire Carlson, Portland, Ore.

The victims’ families are not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the mainstream church headquartered in Utah, but a church spokesman said it was “heartbroken” to hear about the tragedy.

The victims’ extended family that lives in La Mora, their community in northern Mexico, is an independent fundamentalist Mormon group, meaning they are not affiliated with a specific church or prophet. The family itself is the religious community, and family members are its leaders. And obviously, the family is devastated.

Some family members worry that maybe their community is being targeted, but they do not yet know why, or the full details of what happened.

Elizabeth Dias

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