Estimates of the number of gunmen employed by Mexico‘s cartels are highly inflated, argues blogger Alejandro Hope, who tries to come up with a better figure.

In Mexico, we know how many people die, but not how many people kill. We know even less in regards to how many of these killers are on the payroll of a criminal organization. There are estimates of the number of gunmen and thugs in the service of drug cartels, but like everything in this business, they tend strongly towards hyperbole.

For example, in a meeting with federal representatives in 2008, General Guillermo Galvan, the defense minister, stated that 500,000 Mexicans were linked to drug trafficking, of which 40,000 “occupied various leadership positions.” I don’t know what he meant by leadership, but we can assume General Galvan included all armed members of cartels in that figure, since they do not fall into any of the other categories he listed (producers, retail dealers, transporters, distributors and informants).

In 2009, Republican Senator John Cornyn, of the progressive state of Texas, asserted that the Sinaloa and Gulf (not yet separated from the Zetas) Cartels could mobilize 100,000 foot soldiers, a force almost as big as the Mexican Army, according to the distinguished legislator. The figure came, apparently, from “sources in the Defense Ministry.”

Is there any way to verify such claims? Not directly. For very obvious reasons, criminal organizations tend not to register their employees with the IMSS [Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social – Mexico’s national public health service]. However, by using the number of killings allegedly linked to organized crime as our base, we can try to make an estimate of the number of cartel assassins.

According to the president of the Republic, last year there were 15,273 “deaths attributed to criminal rivalry” (don’t you love this highly Mexican example of newspeak?). We subtract from this total the 1,800 dead in confrontations with Mexico’s security forces, which leaves us with 13,473 victims of assassinations and attacks.

Although we suspect that many of these deaths resulted from incidents of multiple homicides, we cannot know exactly how many because this data has not been made public. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the number of incidents will be fewer than the number of victims.

Let’s take the conservative figure of 1.5 victims per incident. This gives us a total of 8,982 incidents. We can assume that this number increased by approximately 20 percent this year (given the recent homicide statistics reported by the National Public Security System, this appears to be a reasonable rate). Therefore, we would end the year with 10,778 incidents.

It is a reasonable assumption that the majority of homicides linked to organized crime are not committed by lone assassins. In most cases, it is likely that a group of killers is involved. Supposing that each group/cell has, on average, between five and 10 members and that each group/cell is responsible for only one incident per month (they just scratch their bellies the rest of the time). Consequently, we could generously estimate that approximately 900 assassination cells exist, claiming somewhere between 4,500 and 9,000 members, at the most.

And the story does not end there. On the one hand, it is likely that some of these thugs are not permanently on the payroll, but rather, are contracted to carry out specific murders (there is fairly clear evidence of this practice in Ciudad Juarez, for example).

On the other hand, the participation in assassinations by these individuals probably does not have a normal distribution. Moreover, I would assume that the distribution follows the Pareto principle: the most violent 20 percent are responsible for 80 percent of homicides.

At the end of the day, we have learned of gunmen responsible for hundreds of killings. This would imply that between 900 and 1,800 individuals are responsible for nearly 13,000 homicides a year. Consequently, if there were 4,500 to 9,000 thugs in the service of the cartels, they would have the spare capacity to handle various functions; not just killing people, but protecting leadership and drug shipments, kidnapping migrants or running extortion rackets.

Is this calculation consistent with estimates of General Galvan or Senator Cornyn? Put simply, it is totally incompatible. Why would criminal organizations have tens of thousands of men on the payroll doing literally nothing? Unless you think, of course, that the cartels are philanthropic organizations.

When President Calderon spoke of a “ridiculous minority,” he probably did not know how truly ridiculous that minority was. A high proportion of the homicidal violence Mexico is the responsibility, at any given time, of a few hundred people.

It is worth noting that this is not always the same group: the disadvantage of being an assassin is that it is a position with high turnover. If the figures on confrontations are correct (1,800 deaths in 2010), a hitman has, at a minimum, between 20 to 40 percent chance of dying in one year. This implies that virtually none have survived more than three to five years. I only hope they know this — if they do not know, we would do well to tell them.

Translated and reprinted with permission from Alejandro Hope*, of Plata o Plomo, a blog on the politics and economics of drugs and crime. Read Spanish original here.