As Murders Surge, Rising Violence Tests Sonora, Mexico
High-profile acts of violence in Sonora, Mexico, have been big news on both sides of the border in recent months. But murder has been on the rise in the state for a number of years, with most victims quickly vanishing from the headlines. In this three-part-series, KJZZ’s Fronteras Desk in Hermosillo reports on the homicide surge in Sonora — and what is being done about it.
A Spike In Murders
The flames had long since been extinguished, but noxious fumes still hung in the air outside Pedro Adolfo’s salon in mid-November, just off a major thoroughfare in the state capital Hermosillo. The stylist was found dead in the torched building with major burns — but also stab wounds. State authorities are investigating it as a murder.
Inside, the simple, blackened room was lined by couches reduced to frames and springs. Ash stained the floor, and mostly undamaged combs sat on top of a partially melted cabinet. An informal memorial of candles and flowers was arranged on the sidewalk outside.
For Ernesto Valdez, a sometimes client of Adolfo’s, the incident has left him and others in the neighborhood mourning, and feeling even less safe.
“Anyone you ask in the neighborhood, they’ll tell you Pedro was a good person,” Valdez said. “I don’t understand what happened here. It just seems very strange.”
Scale Of Violence
And that’s the impact of just one of 1,356 murders in Sonora last year. It’s a grisly toll that marked the sharpest year-to-year jump in Mexico — nearly 60% — and the continuation of long-standing state and national trends, according to federal data analyzed by KJZZ. Sonora’s murder rate remains well below chart-topping states like Colima and Baja California.
Nationally, the number of murder victims rose just 2.5% - enough to set a new record of nearly 34,600.
Since 2015, the number of murder cases in Hermosillo more than doubled to 226 last year. At the municipal level, only case data is available. Each of those murder cases represents at least one victim, and on average nearly 1.3 in Sonora.
Other major cities — like San Luis Rio Colorado on the Arizona border and coastal Empalme — have seen even sharper growth: roughly 330% and 760% respectively. Cajeme in southern Sonora, which includes Sonora’s second largest city Ciudad Obregon, led the state with 327 murder cases.
State and federal authorities say that the vast majority of murder victims are tied to criminal groups, while conceding that others can be harmed in their disputes. But some are also concerned that high rates of violence and impunity create a situation in which anyone could become a victim.
In the view of Javier Osorio, a University of Arizona assistant professor with the School of Government and Public Policy who studies organized crime in Mexico and across Latin America, much of the violence in Sonora stems from disputes both within and between criminal groups. The Sinaloa Cartel has long held sway in large swaths of northwestern Mexico, including Sonora, but he says internal cohesion has been strained by two things.
“One is because after the arrest and extradition of (Joaquín) ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel, I would not say that it crumbled, but it weakened,” he said. “And a key part of the leadership, especially in these criminal organizations that strongly rely on violence to enforce their deals, is to keep all the different factions (in) check.”
He said the highly profitable synthetic opiate fentanyl is also creating incentives for internal competition. Rival cartels have also been trying to push into Sonora.
“And that’s another pole of violence,” he added. “So we have the state being seized by two different mechanisms of violence.”
In response to rising violence, the federal government sent nearly 2,000 members of the newly created National Guard to the state last summer. Military personnel have also taken over several local police forces to root out corruption.
“Look, every day we meet at 6:30 in the morning. Every day we hold work meetings. Every day we operate with them,” said David Anaya Cooley, the Sonoran public security secretary, of what he described as good coordination between local, state and federal security forces.
But he said there are important additional steps that the state and federal government should take to counter organized crime, which he said is the main factor behind murder in the state. Prosecutors at both levels need to open more investigations and generate more search and arrest warrants, which he describes as essential tools for combating criminal groups.
“They need to do their job,” he said, adding that prosecutorial power needs to be focused on those who are the “triggers of violent incidents.”
The UA’s Osorio and others argue that high levels of impunity are another factor behind rising violence. Knowing there’s little risk of prosecution emboldens would-be killers.
The Mexican criminal justice group Impunidad Cero — or Zero Impunity — calculated a murder impunity rate of roughly 78% for Sonora in 2017 and 2018, one of the lower rates in Mexico, where the national figure was just shy of 90%. They arrived at that figure by dividing the number of annual murder victims by succesful convictions of murder suspects.
“Last year, we obtained 256 successful convictions just for the crime of murder,” State Attorney Claudia Indira Contreras said, responding to Cooley’s comments. “And we were able to execute more than 1,000 arrest warrants, a large number of them for murder.”
Indira also pushed back on the impunity figure, but acknowledged that her office has yet to resolve a majority of cases. And she said that will be hard to do that without the help of regular Sonorans, willing to overcome the fear imposed by criminal groups, denounce the violence they see and serve as witnesses for investigators.
“Terror, fear are paralyzing,” she said.”I don’t want to see my state paralyzed in the face of this situation. Rather, I want us all to join in, so that peace and tranquility can return to Sonora.”
Cooley and Contreras agreed that guns, many of which are trafficked into Mexico from the United States, also play a key role in the violence. Roughly two-thirds of murder victims in Sonora were killed by firearms, slightly below the national figure of 70 percent, according to federal data.
“That’s how these murders are being committed,” Contreras said, adding that criminals enjoy “easy access” to high-caliber weapons.
Doubts About Justice
Back at the Hermosillo crime scene, Valdez hopes his stylist neighbor gets justice.
“My poor Pedro, I don’t think it’s going to get cleared up,” he said.
While he’s not holding his breath, a state attorney spokesperson recently said advances had been made in the case, but was unable to share them until the case is concluded.
“I just want justice to be done, and I’d like to feel safer,” Valdez said. “In a place were we used to walk around at midnight, now you can’t.”
Sonoran Police Plagued By Killings, Corruption
Hermosillo police Officers Cristina Garcia and Luis Angel Moreno hop into a patrol car on a brisk January morning.
As they head out onto the streets of Hermosillo, Moreno’s radio starts beeping — there’s been a car accident near the city center.
“It’s like this all day,” Garcias said as Moreno responded to the call.
Their job keeps them on their toes. And Garcia — who’s been on the force for 23 years and is now director of preventative policing — loves it.
“We take care of people,” she said. “We take care of their businesses, their security. We take care of their children, and we neglect our own.”
Police officers know their job can be dangerous, and they’re willing to take the risk, she said. But as a mother of two and grandmother of three, she knows her family worries about her.
“The truth is, we stop being normal people when we become police,” she said. “And for our family, that’s accompanied daily by anxiety: ‘Am I going to see my mom again?’ And for my granddaughters, ‘My nanita, will I see her again?’”
Those worries have only amplified as police killings in Sonora more than doubled from 11 in 2018 to 23 last year.
Coupled with low pay, scant resources and suspicions of internal corruption, the killings have led to dwindling morale among some Sonoran police.
Perhaps hardest hit is the coastal municipality Guaymas.
The Case Of Guaymas
A wave of police killings started in October 2018, when five officers were killed in a brutal attack that stunned the city.
Within nine months, nine police officers and two security officials were killed in Guaymas. This January, another was shot in his home and left in critical condition.
“More than 40 people have resigned, and I can tell you that the majority have said their reason is fear,” said Guaymas Mayor Sara Valle.
The resignations only compound an existing shortage in police in Guaymas and across Sonora.
Mexico’s Defense Secretary Luis Sandoval said in August that there was a 40% deficit in Sonoran police.
In Guaymas alone there are at least 70 unfilled positions, Valle said. And fear among the diminished police force makes everyone less safe.
In one highly publicized case last June, a woman called the police to report that she’d been mugged. She started recording the conversation after she was told no one would be coming to her aid.
“Be sane,” the dispatcher told her. “The police who are still alive are helpless, and nobody wants to work.”
Just days earlier, four police officers were attacked in an ambush, leaving one dead.
“No one wants problems,” the dispatcher continued. “They’re killing us.”
But Valle admits, it’s not just fear. Corruption is also part of the problem, especially because police have spent years working with low pay and few resources.
“And then the ranks of organized crime come and offer money, and, well, then there are problems, no?” she said.
The federal government has said infiltration by organized crime is a problem in many police forces in Sonora and around the country. So last fall, Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo announced he was turning to military professionals to head a “pilot program” to purge and professionalize police in Sonora. And in September, military leaders were installed in five Sonoran municipalities.
In Guaymas, that’s Naval Captain Luis Alberto Cano.
“I can’t cover the sun with a finger,” Cano said, during an interview late last year, about three months into his tenure. “I know that high impact crimes are really strong right now.”
Since he took his post, violent crimes have continued to rise in Guaymas. But he said that’s why he’s there: to provide military backing for police who have been understaffed and under attack. And to take out organized crime — both inside the police force and out.
“We’re here to hit, to deal operational blows against organized crime,” he said.
‘Which Police Do We Want?’
But some worry about increasing militarization.
“The question is, ‘Which police do we want?’” said Emilio Hoyos, who leads Observatorio Sonora por la Seguridada, a Sonoran citizens group focused on public safety. “I think we have to start by asking ourselves that question.”
Hoyos advocates for a systematic approach to identifying and solving problems within police forces, something he says isn’t being down in Sonora right now.
“There is not a single diagnosis of any municipal police force of how it’s functioning and what is the best route to fix the police,” he said.
There has been a push in Sonora to vet officers using a confidence exam. But across the state only 64% of police have passed the tests. About 25% of police failed, and another 11 percent have yet to be evaluated.
And Hoyos argued that the exam isn’t the right measure to assess and improve Sonora’s police. For one thing, it’s too often used by higher-ups as a punishment for officers they don’t like or want out, he said. And it doesn’t address underlying problems that are leaving police unprepared and susceptible to corruption.
“No matter how many committed police we have, they’ll be hard pressed to protect us if they don’t have the essentials to carry out their work,” he said.
Instead, Hoyos is pushing for greater transparency in police operations and funding. Because despite millions of pesos being allocated for security in recent years, Hoyos said, police salaries are still low, equipment and infrastructure are inadequate and the public doesn’t know how funds are being spent.
Back in the patrol car in Hermosillo, Garcia said she welcomes police reforms, including military leadership and greater oversight.
“Change is good,” she said. “If we’re doing things right, we have nothing to be afraid of.”
But as violent attacks on police and security forces continue in Sonora, the question remains: will those changes be enough to keep cops, and the public, safe?
Women Demand Action As Femicides Increase In Sonora, Nationwide
Gathered on the steps of a busy Hermosillo plaza, a small group of women and girls hold up thin, white candles on an evening in early November. Their faces glow in the soft candlelight as they sing a simple anthem of unity and peace for Mexican girls.
“We’re here at this small altar because we can’t let these day pass without remembering our dead — the ones whose lives were taken by machismo and violence in Mexico,” said Andrea Sánchez, leader the group Feminist Girls Collective in Hermosillo. “We want the world to know that the women and girls of Mexico are being raped, tortured and killed.”
It’s Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, and they’ve set up an altar of crosses, candles and paper flowers to honor the thousands of women and girls who have been killed in 2019.
Strung between lamp posts next to the singing girls, are dozens of sheets of paper, each printed with the picture of a smiling child — some of the more than 3,820 girls and women killed in Mexico last year.
On one of the rustling pages is Itzel Nohemí.
The 7-year-old from San Luis Rio Colorado was found murdered near her home on May 30, 2019 — now known in Sonora as “Black Thursday” after three women were murdered and another survived being brutally beaten with a bat.
“We don’t want femicide to be a tradition in Mexico,” Sánchez said. “We don’t want to be here with this altar remembering all those who have been murdered. It’s painful.”
Femicide In Sonora
Last year 117 women and girls were killed in Sonora. The state designated 41 of those murders as femicides.
A femicide is the murder of a woman or girl because of her gender.
“It’s a hate crime,” said Silvia Nuñez, head of the Sonoran arm of the National Citizens Observatory on Femicide.
Femicides are on the rise in Sonora, like much of Mexico and Latin America — home to 14 of the 23 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world.
In Mexico, official records show more than 1,000 cases of femicide in Mexico in 2019 — a 10% jump from the previous year, and the highest figure since 2015. In Sonora, femicides were up 28%.
But Nuñez, Sánchez and many others believe the real number is much higher.
For one thing, every Mexican state defines femicide differently.
“Femicide was written into the legal code in Sonora in 2013,” Nunez said. “It’s one of the strongest laws in the country.”
It lays out eight criteria for the murder of a woman to be classified as a femicide — including evidence of sexual abuse or domestic violence, among others. And femicide convictions carry a minimum sentence of 30-60 years in prison.
But many activists think authorities don’t use the code to its full extent, and are frustrated that calls to activate a federal Gender Violence Against Women Alert in the state have been rejected. The federal alert would bring resources to the state and create a working group to investigate and target violence against women.
“Now is the time to take this seriously, because if we don’t we’re never going to be able to protect women,” Nuñez said.
Last year, only about 35% of women murdered in Sonora were classified as femicides. In Mexico overall it was 26%. Some states, like Sinaloa (89%) and Veracruz (76%) defined most murders of women as femicides. While states like Guanajuato (5%), Michoacan (7%), Guerrero (8%) and Baja California (9%) reported the lowest percentage murders as femicides.
Activists like Nunez think nearly all murders of women should be categorized as femicides because of the social context in which they occur.
“We’ve seen that in every case there is at least one indicator,” she said. “Men kill each other. And those men kill women, for being women.”
Until women have the same power, access to weapons and involvement in organized crime as their killers, she said, gender is at play.
Prevention And Prosecution
But classifying murders as femicides is just one step. Nuñez also wants more attention focused on prevention.
“Femicidal violence can result in the death of woman, but it doesn’t always,” she said. “That’s why we say ‘Sonora feminicida,’ ‘México feminicida.’ Because there are constantly acts of femicide, and maybe in that moment that woman hasn’t died. But, listen to what we say: ‘She hasn’t died.’ Because sooner or later, that woman is going to lose her life.”
In the last year crimes including domestic violence, kidnapping, sexual abuse and human trafficking in which a woman or girl was the victim were also on the rise in Mexico, according to data from the Public Safety Ministry. Nuñez wants these kinds of crimes to be recognized as steps toward femicide.
State Attorney Claudia Indira Contreras agrees that prevention is key.
“Our job is also prevention, to avoid more women being killed,” she said, adding that her office is working with other entities to tackle the root causes of violence against women.
And she says they’re sending the message that femicides won’t be tolerated in Sonora by doggedly investigating, tracking and prosecuting cases. In 2019, there were 46 femicide convictions in Sonora, in striking contrast with high levels of impunity in homicide cases.
“To confront a real situation, you have to make it visible as such,” she said. “And that’s what we’re doing. We’re registering cases the way we should be.”
But for many, it’s not enough — because women are still being killed.
Anger And Action
Last November, after well-known Sonoran anthropologist and activist Raquel Padilla was brutally murdered by her partner, friends, colleagues and supporters marched through the streets of Hermosillo calling for justice and action.
“We’re in shock,” said activist Krimilda Bernal. “It could be any of us. You can be a homemaker. You can be an academic, an activist. We’re all vulnerable to femicide.”
Women feel helpless, she said. They’re terrified and enraged.
But that’s only made them more determined to keep fighting for change.