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Group Evolution

National chart of cumulative criminal group extension and strength

Guide: A chart showing, all in one place, the aggregated nationwide presence and strength of each criminal group, quarterly from 2007 to 2015. Each bar (one per quarter) is made up of small rectangles, one for each group and each state in which that group was present, with rectangle height determined by the strength of presence in the state (minor, significant, major). Thus, the total length of a group’s color indicates its national territorial reach, growing or shrinking according to the number of states it is present in and the strength of its presence in each state. Hover over each small rectangle for details.

The overlaid white line represents the national homicide rate for that quarter.

Note: The maps and visualizations presented here are optimized for desktop viewing and may not function correctly on mobile devices. They may be shared and embedded with attribution.


The data tells two stories, one that is familiar and popular, and another that is more complicated. The first is that, as organized criminal groups splintered and became more powerful in more places, violence in Mexico increased. Simply put, more groups with more presence was followed by more homicides nationwide. This appears clearly here, particularly with the 2008 Sinaloa Cartel schism that created the independent Beltrán Leyva Organization and the 2010 Gulf Cartel schism that led to the independent Zetas. The former marked the start of a dramatically increasing rate of violence, the latter a moment when killings reached almost unimaginable levels. This is an oft-recounted narrative of the drug war.

The second story emerges in 2012, when homicides decrease or hold steady, without any especially dramatic changes, despite continual fragmentation and a steady increase in the number of criminal groups, particularly after 2013. The sheer number of groups increased, but their combined footprint across Mexican states decreased, and with it the levels of overall violence. This story challenges the narrative that the fragmentation of groups necessarily produced violence and that enforcement strategies that produced it were complete failures. Rather, it suggests a more complex picture where the specific characteristics of groups and the particular contours of enforcement can shape better or worse outcomes.

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