A Closer Look at Mexico’s Drop in Violence

The catastrophic consequences of Mexico’s militarized war on drugs, despite all the breezy media coverage.

Photo: A. Nothstine (Via Flickr Creative Commons).

The Institute for Economics and Peace recently issued its 2015 “Mexico Peace Index.” The report assesses Mexico along seven indicators—homicide, violent crime, weapons crime, incarceration, police funding, organized crime, and efficiency of the justice system. Taken together, IEP’s analysis paints a very mixed picture of the country’s security situation. Importantly, the survey strongly suggests that Mexico has experienced a nation-wide drop in homicides since 2012—and an overall increase in peacefulness across the country—even as violent crime spiked significantly during the same period.

Though the report’s authors adopt a cautious tone throughout, the Christian Science Monitor celebrated their findings as confirmation that Mexico’s heavy-handed crime-fighting policies have been a success. “Despite a reputation as a violence-wracked country,” the paper’s editorial board observed, “Mexico has seen the level of homicides and organized crime drop by more than a quarter since 2011. The decline shows that the effort to break up big drug cartels is working. Good news, si?” Actually, not so much.

Its sometimes inconclusive and contradictory data notwithstanding, the report clearly demonstrates the catastrophic consequences of Mexico’s militarized war on drugs. The dip in crime highlighted by the Monitor followed five years of precipitously climbing rates of homicide that correlate almost directly with the presidency of Felipe Calderón, and the US-sponsored Mérida Initiative to combat Mexico’s flourishing narcotics trade. Since 2008, Washington has funneled over a billion dollars in military assistance, “on the theory,” in the words of John Ackerman, “that high-tech helicopters and listening devices [could] solve the problem” of Mexico’s blossoming drug trade.

The Mérida Initiative, known popularly as “Plan Mexico,” was modelled after the American-backed drug war in Colombia. Between 1999 and 2006, the United States contributed billions of dollars and sent hundreds of soldiers to Colombia to help the government there regain control of the country and eliminate security rivals. While “Plan Colombia” has been heavily criticized for contributing to worsening human rights protections and other problems, it has been touted as a Latin American success story—chiefly by those in government.

No surprise, then, that the lessons and approach of Plan Colombia might serve as the blueprint for policymakers concerned with the worsening situation in Mexico. In 2008, Washington signed a security pact with the Calderón administration designed to help the Mexican government fight the drug cartels, strengthen the rule of law and human rights protections, and bring peace and prosperity to the entire country. It did nothing of the sort.

The destruction wrought during the Calderón era (2006-2012) is staggering. In six years at the helm of power, he oversaw a war on drugs that claimed upwards of 100,000 lives, disappeared tens of thousands more, gave life to rash of state-sponsored human rights abuses, and witnessed the spread and diversification of cartel power within and across Mexico’s borders. As Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera has recently noted, “this momentous increase in violence has been accompanied by the widespread use of barbaric, terror-inflicting methods, such as decapitation, dismemberment, car bombs, mass kidnappings, grenade attacks, blockades and the widespread execution of public officials.”

The recent drop in homicides lauded by the Monitor puts Mexico back at 2007 levels—hardly cause for cheer. That year, homicide rates were considerably higher than those measured between 2003 and 2006. Not only that, the security situations in the four Mexican states specifically targeted by Calderón in the Mérida Initiative—Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, and Michoacán—have deteriorated over the past decade. Yet the overall trends, especially with regard to homicide rates, appear positive.

What accounts for the apparent drop in murders across Mexico over the past two years? Some, like the editors at Christian Science Monitor, will be tempted to credit the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, with steering Mexico away from a bloody precipice towards greater peace and prosperity. They write that “the study supports work by others that forecast less violence in Mexico as recent political reforms kick in, such as changes to the state oil company and in labor laws…Mexicans expect more of their leaders, and the results are starting to show.”

Suggestions that Mexico has fared well since the PRI returned to power under Peña Nieto are simply without credibility. As massive demonstrations protesting state complicity in the disappearance of forty-three students from Ayotzinapa made clear late last year, the government continues to fail its citizenry in key areas, not least security. The IEP index supports this assertion. The percentage of homicides in the country that go unpunished has risen by more than 30 percent over the last decade, a trend that continues under the current regime.

Meanwhile, more than 30,000 disappearances have been registered by the government in the past eight years, with more than 10,000 of them still unaccounted for. Less than 1 percent of these presumably violent crimes are investigated by the state, and not a single person has been sentenced in connection with these cases. The recent discovery of a string of mass graves in the hunt for the missing forty-three has done little to change the general perception that Mexico’s governing institutions are either not able or willing to provide vulnerable citizens with basic public goods. Little wonder, then, that local self-defense groups are sprouting up across the country.

As for political reform, such as the recent privatization of the country’s oil, the jury is still out. Early indicators, though, are not promising. The prying open of Mexico’s oil wealth to private investment—beyond offering wealthy Mexicans and their foreign partners lucrative opportunities to exploit—couldn’t have come at a worse time. With oil prices slumping, and the peso experiencing heavy losses against the dollar, the state-run oil company Pemex posted a $17.7 billion loss in 2014. Far from creating new jobs, the oil reform allowed for the firing of tens of thousands of workers to stanch the bleeding. With no end to this downward slide in sight, further losses will almost certainly result more layoffs.

A more likely explanation for dropping murder and violence rates in Mexico would include a number of factors for consideration. The importance of de-escalating military operations against the cartels cannot be overemphasized. Nor can be the fact that spasms of violence between the drug gangs have resulted in winners and losers, the consolidation of control over trafficking routes, and thus fewer all-out battles for the plaza. Finally, as the IEP report itself notes, available data only represents a sliver of reality. The authors estimate that less than a quarter of all violent crime gets reported to authorities, with violent crimes against women especially underrepresented—only 8 percent of all rapes in Mexico, for example, are officially tabulated by the country’s Executive Secretary of the National System for Public Security.

Whatever accounts for the declining violence in Mexico, the country remains in a deeply precarious spot. Until Mexico experiences real political reform—truly representative politics, institutions that function for the entire polity, and the protection of the country’s resources from predatory capital—the structural forces driving the violence and crime will stay intact and continue to bring harm to large numbers of already vulnerable citizens. Unfortunately for them, as things stand at the moment, prospects for meaningful change appear to be a long way off.

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