Soaring levels of drug-related violence made 2017 Mexico’s most murderous year on record

Mexican activist Daniel Atilano places flowers on the grave of a little girl - still unidentified at the time - who was found murdered on March 18, 2017 in the state of Mexico, at a cemetery in Naucalpan, northwest of Mexico City, on December 11, 2017. Four-year-old Lupita, whose body was found in March 2017 with signs that she had been beaten and sexually abused before she was killed, was known only as 'the little girl in the red socks' until she was recently identified by her family. Her case is emblematic of the high level of violence against girls and women in Mexico, and the impunity that surrounds their murders. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDT (Photo credit should read RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

MEXICO — Soaring levels of drug-related violence made 2017 Mexico’s most murderous year on record, according to government statistics released Sunday.

There were 25,339 homicides in Mexico last year, a 23% jump from 2016 and the highest number since at least 1997, the year the government began tracking the data. Overall, murders in Mexico had been declining in recent years, reaching a low of 15,520 in 2014. But officials say a surge in drug-related crime reversed that trend.

Many parts of western Mexico, including the states of Guerrero, Jalisco, Sinaloa and Baja California Sur, have been caught up in violence between competing drug cartels.

The country has also become — outside of the world’s war zones — one of the most dangerous places for journalists.

Last year six journalists were killed in Mexico, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US nonprofit. That was the highest number since at least 1992. Since that year more than 40 journalists have been killed in the country.

Security and crime hot election issues

In Guerrero — the state where Acapulco is located — murders rose to 2,316 last year, about the same as 2016, but up from 1,514 in 2014. In Sinaloa, the former turf of notorious, imprisoned drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, homicides in 2017 soared 39% over last year to 1,332.

In Baja California Sur, an area filled with popular tourist destinations such as Cabo San Lucas, the number of murders nearly tripled last year to 560.

Security and crime look set to be among the top issues in Mexico’s presidential campaign season, which officially begins in March.

The election is July 1. President Enrique Peña Nieto can’t run again due to term limits. He and his political party have been heavily criticized for their inability to tame drug-related crime.

His administration has also called on the United States to help more, arguing that Americans’ demand for drugs is partly fueling the crime.