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Mexico's unrelenting violence is climbing to new highs

Mexico protest Ayotzinapa disappearance violence
Mexico protest Ayotzinapa disappearance violence

(Women with their faces painted march to mark the 29-month anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students of the Ayotzinapa school in Guerrero, in Mexico City, February 26, 2017.REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)

In March, Mexico had more than 2,000 homicide cases in a month for the first time since summer 2011, when the country was mired in the throes of a bloody cartel war.

The country also had more killings in the first quarter of 2017 than in the start of any year in at least two decades, according to government data released Friday.

Unlike in 2011, when a bloody cartel fight in Ciudad Juarez pushed the national body count to new heights, the current violence has been spread over a number of states.

In January, 25 of the country's 32 states saw increases in homicides compared to the same month in 2016.

Throughout Mexico, there were 2,020 homicide cases in March, up roughly 11% from February. For January through March, there were 5,775 killings around the country, up 29% from the same period in 2016.

March also reached a new high in terms of homicide victims. (A single homicide case can contain multiple victims.) March's 2,256 homicide victims were the most so far this year and the highest number reported since the Mexican government started releasing those figures in 2014.

Every month in 2017 has exceeded 2,000 homicide victims, as did each of the last six months of 2016. No month prior to that for which there is data available surpassed that mark.

Acapulco Guerrero Mexico drug cartel criminal violence murder
Acapulco Guerrero Mexico drug cartel criminal violence murder

(Onlookers watch as police officers and forensic investigators inspect the site where an unidentified man was shot at the El Coloso neighborhood, in Acapulco, Mexico, May 12, 2016.AP Photo/Enric Marti)

Mexican authorities and observers have blamed the rise in killings on turf battles stemming from breakdowns in the leadership of some cartels, like the powerful Sinaloa cartel, and the splintering of others, like the Zetas, into smaller gangs.

Baja California Sur had the biggest year-on-year percentage increase during the first quarter of 2017, with 133 homicide cases, spiking 682% from the 17 it had during the same period in 2016.

A turf battle between the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels is believed to be driving much of the violence in the state, which is home to a popular tourist area in Los Cabos, at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula.

The southwest state of Guerrero, home to the once idyllic resort city of Acapulco, remains the homicide leader, with 550 cases during the first three months of the year.

Mexico homicides 2011 - 2017
Mexico homicides 2011 - 2017

(Mexican National Public Security System/Christopher Woody)

"Every now and then bagged bodies appear in Chilpancingo," Pioquinto Damian Huato, a business leader in the city, Guerrero's capital, told the Associated Press. "Yesterday three appeared."

"I live in my home with armored doors to be able to protect my family," said Damian Huato, who led an anti-crime crusade until an attempt on his life caused the death of his daughter-in-law in 2014.

"How could I go out when they could kill me in any moment?"

The leader of the state's leftist Democratic Revolution Party, Demetrio Saldivar, was also killed on Wednesday night in Chilpancingo.

The spike in violence in Guerrero, as in other states on Mexico's west coast, is large part related to drugs and organized crime.

Guerrero is not only a major producer of opium, but it location also makes it a prime transshipment point.

Criminal groups in the state are jockeying for control of production areas and trafficking routes. Many of those criminal groups are also fragmenting, which has led to greater violence.

The surge in violence comes as the country's legislature debates a national-security law that would affect the military's ongoing role in domestic security — a long-standing feature of the country's war on drugs.

Many, especially those who have suffered abuses committed by military personnel deployed in law-enforcement roles, worry the law could eventually shield soldiers from punishment for crimes. Concern over the measure is such that it is unlikely to pass before the end of the current legislative session on April 30.

Currently, more than 50,000 military personnel are deployed around Mexico to fight crime.

pena nieto
pena nieto

(Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City on August 12th.REUTERS/Henry Romero)

Rising violence could pose a problem for the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party of President Enrique Peña Nieto in this summer's state elections and in next year's presidential election.

Other states seeing significantly more homicides this year include Veracruz, a Gulf coast state that recorded 372 homicide cases through March, up 94% from the same period last year.

Recent violence in the state is thought to be related to the growing presence of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, but the state's strategic location on the Gulf coast has made it territory worth fighting over for some time.

Citizen investigators in the state recently uncovered mass graves containing the remains of more than 250 people, thought to be the victims of organized-crime-related killings.

Ciudad Juarez Chihuahua Mexico crime scene police children victims
Ciudad Juarez Chihuahua Mexico crime scene police children victims

(Children stand behind a police line at a crime scene in Ciudad Juarez, February 18, 2011.REUTERS/Gael Gonzalez)

Former Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte was arrested last weekend in Guatemala after six months on the run from corruption charges.

Chihuahua state, home to Ciudad Juarez, has also seen a spike in violence this year. Its 384 homicides through March were 78% more than the same period last year.

Ciudad Juarez, ground zero for a bloody cartel fight between 2008 and 2012, has witnessed a surge in killing over the last year as well.

While the earlier cartel battle was won by the Sinaloa cartel, now it appears that the cartel is being challenged there by the Jalisco New Generation cartel. Local newspaper El Diario reported 84 homicides in the city in February, making it Ciudad Juarez's most violent February since 2011.

Border cities have become focal points for organized crime in recent months, in large part because of lucrative drug-smuggling routes that go through them.

In Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego, December was the only month in 2016 to see triple-digit homicide victims, with 112. In the first three months of this year, the city had 103, 108, and 121 homicide victims, respectively.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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