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Behind Mexico's Most Violent Month


We turn now to Mexico, a country that has experienced a particularly violent period. The Mexican government released official figures last week reporting that more than 2,000 people were killed in May, making it the deadliest month in Mexico since the government began tracking murders there in 1997. To find out what's behind this, we called NPR's Mexico correspondent, Carrie Kahn. She's in Mexico City. Carrie, thanks so much for joining us.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Of course. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So first of all, you know, Mexico has experienced violence for some time. But with the arrests and the murders of many of the key figures in the drug cartels, I think a lot of people - at least in the U.S. - were under the impression that the level of violence had abated somewhat. So, first of all, how does this current spate of violence compare to what we saw at the height of the drug wars? And why is this happening now?

KAHN: Well, as you said in the intro, it is highest, like, this last May was higher than the May of 2011, which has been noted as the height of the drug war. And why is it happening? The high demand for heroin and other drugs in the U.S. is one reason that's keeping the cartels alive, and they're at the source of the violence here. There are a lot of turf battles between drug cartels going on right now and power struggles inside some of those cartels.

And the government's strategy to fight them remains the same. It's known as the kingpin strategy, where they go after leaders of the gangs. And what happens is when they take off these top leaders and the leadership, there is - it just creates a power vacuum. There's also been a severe weakening of what was once Mexico's largest and more powerful group, the Sinaloa cartel.

MARTIN: Why does that matter?

KAHN: The Sinaloa cartel was really Mexico's largest and most powerful. And it was under the leadership of Joaquin Guzman - El Chapo. You might remember him as making that spectacular escape from Mexico's maximum security prison through the tunnel. He was caught, and he's now been extradited to the U.S. and awaiting trial in New York. But a lot of people say that the violence uptick has happened since his arrest and extradition.

It's not just in that state of Sinaloa that gave the name of the cartel but in violence where - in new places like in Baja California Sur, where - the tourist areas of Los Cabos in La Paz, those were always relatively peaceful cities. And the latest numbers that the government just released, the statistics, the homicide rate in Los Cabos has jumped by more than 300 percent this year, so it's startling.

MARTIN: President Trump tweeted a statistic, saying that Mexico is the second deadliest country in the world only after Syria. Now, he tweeted this as his warrant for building the wall that he has, you know, promised during his campaign and subsequently. But is that correct?

KAHN: Well, he was quoting this study by this U.K. think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies that rate Mexico right next to Syria. And that has drawn a lot of scorn and criticism here in Mexico. If you just look at what they were reporting, they're looking at the total number of homicides, which is startling, like you said - 20,000.

But the murder rate is really calculated by, like, U.N. measures where you look at the murder rate per country per 100,000 citizens. And if you look at it that way, Mexico's is much lower than many countries right here in Latin America. Look at Honduras or Venezuela. And it's even lower than Brazil.

MARTIN: What has been the Mexican government's response to President Trump's tweet? But more broadly, what's been the response to this rising violence?

KAHN: It was really interesting because for so long they've sort of been ignoring Trump's tweets, especially when it's about the wall. But the government is really on the defensive about the murder rate because it is so high. So they actually sent out a press release going point by point of Trump's tweet. I was really surprised by that.

And they just said they are not the second deadliest country. They just cited those stats that I just gave you. And they said finger-pointing and wall building will not solve the drug problems. And violence is one that's shared between the two countries. Then you ask, what's the Mexican government doing? They're really sticking with their current strategy of taking out the leaders and the leaderships of the cartels. And obviously, it's not working, but that has been and remains the strategy here in Mexico.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Carrie Kahn, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KAHN: Oh, you're more than welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.