The state of Colima on the central Pacific coast of Mexico is one of the smallest in country, and also has the lowest population, with just over 720,000 people. Historically, it has had one of Mexico’s highest standards of living and low unemployment. It has also been safe.
No more. Now Colima is the most violent state in Mexico. How bad is it? On January 10 of this year the United States put Colima on a “Level 4” travel alert – the maximum level of violence and the same as Syria. In 2017, 700 intentional murders were registered, while in 2016 there were 524 – an increase of 30%. To put this in context the city of Seattle, which has a population of 750,000, had 18 murders in 2016, and 27 in 2017.
Colima’s horror show is a direct result the Mexican government’s war on the drug cartels, which has now lasted 12 years – through two presidential six year terms – with no end in sight. Colima is suffering from fallout from the Mexican government’s “kingpin” approach, in which the security forces and military have relentlessly gone after cartel leaders. But as each leader is captured, the criminal organizations are destabilized. The result is internecine fighting, as well as opportunistic attacks from rival groups.
This is made worse in Colima due to its geographic location. The state is vulnerable because it is squished between Jalisco to the north and Michoacán to the south. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which began as a client to the more powerful Sinaloa Cartel up the coast, is now a major power in its own right. The CJNG learned the hard way, engaging in brutal conflict on behalf of the Sinaloa cartel with the ultraviolent Los Zetas. Now, thanks also to efforts by the government, Los Zetas are hobbled, and the CJNG is a powerhouse, fighting it out on the Pacific coast with their erstwhile allies from Sinaloa.
In Colima, that means ongoing conflict over the lucrative trade in methamphetamine precursor chemicals coming in from Asia to ports such Manzanillo in Colima and Lázaro Cárdenas to the south in Michoacán – the largest seaport in all of Mexico.
As might seem inevitable, Colima is no stranger to political violence. In 2010 Silverio Cavazos Ceballos, a member of the PRI who was interim governor of Colima from 2005-2009, was gunned down outside his home. The man who was believed to have ordered the killing, Gerardo Mendoza Chávez, was allegedly one of the main smugglers of synthetic drugs into the United States. He was also an enemy of CJNG leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes in the fight over control of the port of Manzanillo. Mendoza Chávez was arrested on May 9 of this year. Days later he was murdered while being held in Puente Grande federal prison outside of Guadalajara.
After the murder of Gerardo Mendoza Chávez, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón lamented on Twitter that the prisoner had not been better protected. Calderón also suggested that the motive for the killing might have been to silence Mendoza Chávez, given that his testimony could implicate some ex-state governors in corrupt practices and collusion with drug cartels.
In the context of the upcoming election, it is important to realize that the spike in violence has been going on for three years, and people understandably want it to end Colima has had the highest accumulated homicide rate of any state since February, 2016, the same month in which the present governor, Ignacio Peralta, took office.
Peralta is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century. The PRI is also the party of Mexico’s unpopular president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Peralta’s 2015 victory over Senator Jorge Luis Preciado of the right of center National Action party (PAN) was by a narrow 503-vote margin. After a challenge, Mexico's highest electoral court annulled the election due to corruption: outgoing PRI governor Mario Anguiano Moreno had ordered the state Secretariat of Social Development to help elect Peralta. A new election was called and Peralta won that one, too.
One interesting ripple on the security situation is the recent success of Titan Shield, a federal initiative to reduce crime in hot spots in Mexico. As a result of Titan Shield, which involves the active participation of the army, this year the city of Colima has seen a decline in murders of 45%, the port of Manzanillo 24%, and city of Tecomán 13%.
Titan Shield will no doubt be popular in Colima, but it is not a long term solve. The problem with the militarized approach to crime control is that it isn’t sustainable, and does little to address the structural challenges resulting in high levels of delinquency. As has been seen over and over in Mexico, the army is poorly trained to collect evidence and to respect human rights. It is good at war, and in that sense it can engage with heavily-armed criminal groups, but it does nothing to enhance the competency or honesty of local cops, politicians, and bureaucrats, all of whom are vulnerable to coercion by cartels, and essential for any long term solution. There is also some pressure on journalists: a reporter from Radiorama Colima was killed in 2017.
In terms of who will capture most of the vote from the electorate in Colima during the federal election on July 1, it can be assumed that the PRI’s José Antonio Meade, running as part of the “Todos por México” (All for Mexico) coalition with the Green Party (PVEM) and New Alliance (PANAL) party, doesn’t have much support. He’s trailing in the polls nationally, and though the PRI is well established on the state level in Colima, it is questionable that the weary people of populace would want more of the same.
Ricardo Anaya for the PAN-PRD coalition might do well, given that Colima has historically been a more affluent state, and Anaya’s approach is more business-friendly. He would also likely stand behind a tough approach to crime prevention.
Given the conservative nature of the electorate, the people of Colima might be reluctant to support the leading candidate, left-of-center Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO). AMLO is the only candidate who wants to call an end to the militarized approach to the war on drugs. While that might sound like an idea that would be popular in Colima, the fact is that those parts of the country with the highest levels of insecurity, desperate for any solution, often support the deployment of the military. Titan Shield has been a success, and a candidate like AMLO, with no clear plan other than to retreat from the conflict, might be cause for more worry than hope.
Below are the links to the posts for each state: