TECOMÁN, Mexico — He slumped in a shabby white chair, his neck unnaturally twisted to the right. A cellphone rested inches away, as if he had just put it down. His unlaced shoes lay beneath outstretched legs, a morbid still life of what this town has become.
Israel Cisneros, 20, died instantly in his father’s one-room house. By the time the police arrived at the crime scene, their second homicide of the night, the blood seeping from the gunshot wound to his left eye had begun to harden and crack, leaving a skin of garish red scales over his face and throat.
This was once one of the safest parts of Mexico, a place where people fleeing the nation’s infamous drug battles would come for sanctuary. Now, officials here in Tecomán, a quiet farming town in the coastal state of Colima, barely shrug when two murders occur within hours of each other. It’s just not that uncommon any more.
Last year, the town became the deadliest municipality in all of Mexico, with a homicide rate similar to a war zone’s, according to an independent analysis of government data. This year it is on track to double that figure, making it perhaps the most glaring example of a nationwide crisis.
Mexico is reaching its deadliest point in decades. Even with more than 100,000 deaths, 30,000 people missing and billions of dollars tossed into the furnace of Mexico’s decade-long fight against organized crime, the flames have not died down. By some measures, they are only getting worse.
The last couple of months have set particularly ominous records: More homicide scenes have emerged across Mexico than at any point since the nation began keeping track 20 years ago.
Some of the crime scenes, like the room where Mr. Cisneros was found dead in his chair, had only one victim. Others had many. But their increasing frequency points to an alarming rise in violence between warring cartels. Criminal groups are even sweeping into parts of Mexico that used to be secure, creating a flood of killings that, by some tallies, is surpassing the carnage experienced during the peak of the drug war in 2011.
“What is happening here is happening in the entire state, the entire country,” said José Guadalupe García Negrete, the mayor of Tecomán. “It’s like a cancer.”
For President Enrique Peña Nieto, the torrent is much more than a rebuke of the government’s efforts to fight organized crime. It is a fundamental challenge to his guiding narrative: that Mexico is moving well beyond the shackles of violence and insecurity.
Long before he took office, Mr. Peña Nieto made it clear that he would reshape Mexico’s international image, transforming it from a nation sullied by its deadly reputation into a globally recognized leader in energy, education, telecommunications and trade.
For a while, it worked. His economic changes sailed through Congress. Even as the grisly reality of violence reared its head, like the mass disappearance of 43 students in 2014, tourism climbed and homicides fell, a fact the president often mentioned in speeches.
But the numbers are overtaking the plotline. Homicides are soaring. Violence is also stalking places like Baja California Sur, home of the resort town Los Cabos, pushing Mr. Peña Nieto’s image of Mexico toward a breaking point.
“The Peña Nieto administration seriously underestimated, or misunderstood, the nature of the problem that Mexico was experiencing,” said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego who has studied the drug war. “They thought by using marketing they could change the conversation and refocus people’s attention on all the good things that were happening, and away from the violence problem that they thought was totally overblown.”
The government says it has taken violence as seriously as anything else. But the rise in homicides comes from many forces, it says: the weakness of local and state police, the fracturing of criminal groups after their leaders have been arrested, the increase in demand for drugs in the United States and the flow of money and weapons it sends back to Mexico.
“The Government of the Republic has spoken out publicly about the upsurge of violence as a priority issue,” the Ministry of Interior said in a statement, adding that it has deployed the armed forces to dangerous cities like Tecomán.
But, faced with the surging homicides, government officials have also put forward another culprit to help explain them: the sweeping legal reforms pursued by their predecessors.
Begun in 2008 and completed last year with the help of more than $300 million in American aid, the new legal system is widely considered the most important change to Mexican jurisprudence in a century. Intended to fix the nation’s broken rule of law, it essentially adopted the model used in the United States, where innocence is presumed before guilt, evidence is presented in open court and corruption is harder to hide.
But the new legal system inhibits arbitrary detentions. Suspects held without evidence have been released, leading a growing chorus of officials to argue that the new system is responsible for the very surge in crime and impunity it was supposed to prevent.
For months, top officials in the president’s party have been laying the groundwork to chip away at the new legal system, taking aim at basic civil protections like the inadmissibility of evidence obtained through torture. And with violence worsening, the government has new ammunition to roll back the legal changes, pushing for broader powers like the ability to detain suspects for years before trial.
Mr. García, the mayor of Tecomán, understands the president’s dilemma all too well. As one of seven children born to a family of lime farmers here, he is a fierce defender of his town and does not want it to become a byword for murder.
Scream too loudly about the crisis around him and he risks reducing his community to another grim statistic. Stay silent and it could be overrun by criminals, helpless to confront them alone.
Not one for silence, Mr. García has opted to make a fuss. Cowboy hat in hand, he has made the rounds in Congress and among the political elite in the capital, landing help for his town. Not that it has done much for Tecomán.
Last year, the federal government sent in the marines, the military and the military police. Operations soared in the early months of 2017. But the grand result was the same: Homicides climbed even higher.
“You can’t attack a fundamental problem like this by pruning the leaves, or dealing with the branches,” says Mr. García, who often uses farming metaphors. “You have to go to the roots.”
So he has decided to take his message to the young. On a recent afternoon, dozens of school children lined up in the sweltering heat for their elementary school graduation. The mayor adjusted his hat and dived into his speech.
Tecomán was losing its values, the traditions that kept families intact and the criminals at bay, he told them. He mopped his brow and continued. Forces from outside were tearing at the fabric of the community, and citizens needed to redouble their efforts to stay strong in the face of it all.
“We celebrate life, not death, here in Tecomán,” he said. “We must be the architects of our own lives and futures.”
The government’s monthly statistics, which date back to 1997, suggest a hard road ahead. The data tracks crime scenes, where one, two or ten killings may have occurred. May and June, the latest months available, set consecutive records for the most homicide scenes in the last 20 years.
The total number of homicides in Mexico is also climbing quickly. According to the government’s monthly tally, which goes back to 2014, May and June also set consecutive records for the most total homicides. This year is on pace to be the deadliest yet.
It is an indictment of the drug war. The strategy of the United States and Mexico to relentlessly pursue high-ranking cartel leaders has not dampened the violence. To the contrary, some experts believe, the extradition of Mexico’s most notorious drug baron, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, to the United States this year helped generate the latest wave of violence as various factions look to fill the power vacuum left in his wake.
A sudden brazenness prevails on the streets of Tecomán. Late last month, a red Volkswagen barreled through the congested streets at 80 mph. Four patrol cars gave chase before an officer shot out the back tire.
The driver struggled with the police. Handcuffed, he stared at the officer straddling him and promised they would see each other again.
“You already know how this ends, and what happens to you,” he said before screaming out to a friend: “Come and kill them all right now. Kill them!”
For many, a dull familiarity with the violence has settled in. Restaurants still teem with patrons. Families host festive baptisms for newborns. On a recent evening, young and old swarmed the central square, the children playing soccer while elderly residents sat on benches, enjoying the sunless warmth.
Angela Hernández brought her 5-year-old son for an ice cream. When she moved to town 10 years ago, there were hardly any murders. Still, she doesn’t feel frightened.
“It really only touches those involved in the world of crime,” she said. She knows her child is growing up in an environment where violence is stitched into the rhythm of life, but in the end, she’s O.K. with that, she said.
“It’s better he gets used to it,” she said as her son climbed a gazebo railing nearby. “This is not going to change. None of it.”