In Mexico, Crime Stats Are In The Eye Of The Beholder

By Tristan Ahtone
October 27, 2013
Areas of Cartel Influence in Mexico, Fourth Quarter 2013

Give or take a few thousand murders each year, here are some recent homicide numbers from Mexico:

Total number of murders since December 2012: 15,352
Total number of murders in 2012: 21,768
Total number of murders in 2011: 22,856
Total number of murders in 2010: 20,681

In December 2012, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced he would shift the Mexican government's focus from pursuing cartel leaders to reducing crime against citizens. These include crimes like extortion, kidnapping and murder.

With up to 17,000 homicides projected for the year, analysts expect murder rates to be their lowest since 2009. Of course, that all depends on the data you're looking at.

The Instituto Nacional De Estadistica Y Geografia (INEGI), Mexico's statistics bureau, reported more than 26,000 homicides in 2012. Secretaria De Gobernacion (SEGOB), Mexico's public security system, reported more than 38,000 homicides for the same year. The reason for the difference? Murders reported in criminal investigations go to SEGOB, and death certificates that show murder as the cause of death go to INEGI. This makes reconciling data difficult.

President Enrique Peña Nieto took office on Dec. 1, 2012, and pledged to bring peace. His administration claims a significant decline in homicides, but presents no evidence to support that claim.- Molly Molloy

Beyond how murder stats are skewed, there are other crimes to watch as well. For instance: kidnapping and extortion are up by 35 percent since Peña Nieto took office. With murders possibly down, but other crimes up, reaction among analysts to Peña Neito's attempts to curb criminal activities that threaten Mexico's citizens are mixed. And Molly Molloy, a research librarian at the New Mexico State University Library, argues something else may be going on that's contributing to a nominal decline in homicides:

What has happened is that the epicenters of extreme violence have dispersed around the country, making it more difficult to know how many people are dying.

According to John P. Sullivan, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, cartel violence "ebbs and flows as cartels gain control of various pleas and transshipment routes. Furthermore, the hotspots shift." Sullivan says less violent places in Mexico can be explained by firm control of the area by one cartel, while violent "hotspots" can be seen as areas where competition for control continues.

In July, Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales — Los Zetas' top leader — was arrested. The same fate awaited Mario "El Pelon" Ramirez Trevino, leader of the Gulf Cartel, when he was taken into custody in August. Despite those big arrests, not much changed in terms of cartel conflicts, and control of territory largely stayed the same.

Stratfor Mexico Security Analyst Tristan Reed writes the following:

The balkanization of Mexican organized crime has shifted the focus of all criminal organizations from planning new incursions to addressing existing challenges within their territory. The Sinaloa Federation continues to combat regional rivals in northwestern Mexico, including northern Sinaloa, southwestern Chihuahua, and northern Sonora state. Los Zetas continue their fight to regain complete control over much of Zacatecas state after Velazquez Caballero's split in 2012. Los Zetas also continued to engage in violent attacks against the Gulf cartel in the rest of northeastern Mexico and against the Knights Templar (and possibly Gulf cartel) in Tabasco state, although these offensives have not accomplished any real gains. The Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Knights Templar continued to focus on their traditional strongholds in southwestern Mexico, trading tit-for-tat incursions into one another's territories.

Reed goes on to project that, for the remainder of 2013, changes may be coming to Mexico's cartel landscape as internal struggles and external attacks aim to exploit leadership shifts. These spasms will likely lead to increased violence between competing criminal organizations and against citizens.

Nathan Jones with the Baker Institute says violence directed at citizens comes when struggles for control of cartels and territory arise and fragmented cells are produced:

Profit-starved, the cells diversify into other criminal activities such as extortion and kidnapping to maintain their payrolls. In one sense, it represents an evolution of organized crime — but evolution should not be conflated with progress. The individuals and organized crime groups that diversify into crimes such as kidnapping tend to be lower on the criminal profitability scale.

With these factors in mind, the question "are Peña Nieto's policies to reduce crime working?" may be depend more on cartel activity than actual law enforcement efforts. And when it comes to murder:

Since Peña Nieto took office last December, the tally of murders linked to organized crime has been about 5,300, which is about 18 percent less than during the last five months of Calderón’s term. But numbers depend on context, and if you consider a different time frame you draw a different conclusion. - Carlos Puig, New York Times

According to The New York Times, the number of homicides related to organized crime increased 7 percent from February to April, and felony homicides rose 4 percent from October 2012 to April 2013.

And that 35 percent increase in in kidnappings and extortions referenced earlier? The Economist reports that the problem may be vastly under reported.

According to estimates by INEGI, the national statistics institute, last year saw 105,682 kidnappings; only 1,317 were reported to the police. There were around 6m cases of extortion; the police put the number at 7,272.

On the U.S. side of the problem, Science Daily reports the price and supply of narcotics has yet to see a dent.

The purity/potency of illegal drugs either generally remained stable or increased between 1990 and 2010; with few exceptions, the street price generally fell; and seizures of drugs increased in both the countries of major supply and demand.

In other words, at this moment, it seems no evidence exists that the ongoing war on drugs in Mexico or the United States is producing any results.