Violence in Juárez has reached a level comparable with situations that most would consider civil war, and far outside the range of anything that has happened in major metropolis in the developed world. So far, the rest of northern Mexico has not yet followed Ciudad Juárez into chaos, but death rates are escalating. This picture of me (wearing an entirely inappropriate grin) is dab-smack in one of the most violent neighborhoods of Chihuahua City. No, it doesn’t look it. That’s the point.
There is an explanation for the early-1990s jump. Pablo Escobar died in 1993, not coincidentally the year violence began to escalate. With the U.S. government raising the cost of using Florida as an entrypoint for smuggled drugs (law enforcement is not helpless), a mid-level drug dealer named Amado Carrillo Fuentes took the opportunity to shift the traffic to his city. That in and of itself would be expected to cause a temporary jump in violence ... but not a shift to a new, higher equilibrium.
The thing is, wholesaling cocaine across the border wasn’t Carillo’s only business strategy. He also began to sell retail inside Mexico. Juárez is littered with “tienditas,” also called (for heroin) “picaderos,” where you can buy drugs for less than a quarter of the U.S. street price. In theory, the tienditas were under police protection. In practice, the police functioned as just another gang. Carillo’s death in 1997 ended (or so runs the conventional wisdom) any hope of getting the situation back to its pre-1993 equilibrium. Dump the creation of a retail market with three necessary (but not sufficient) factors and you have all you need to explain a homicide rate around 30 per 100,000: a large population of transient young men, an economy that offered few economic opportunities, and continuous running connections with U.S. prison gangs that could not freely operate in El Paso but could easily coordinate their activities south of the border from American redoubts. (Plus weapons from El Norte, but I am not convinced that was determinative.) In short, Juárez went the way of Baltimore. You could probably remake the Wire there without too much trouble.
In short, the early-1990s leap in homicides in Juárez appears to have been driven by the emergence of large-scale retail drug markets within Mexico, in the context of a police force that was not disposed to much anything about it. (Other than skim its take off the top.) The result was not all that different from the parts of America characterized by poverty, weak social bonds, and police forces indisposed to actually carry out investigative or preventative policing.
The recent leap, though, that is different. Rural southern Mexico has always been a lawless and violent place. So have been the Sierra Madres. But this explosion to civil war-levels, this is new.