With record violence registered last year in Mexico, officials are struggling to frame the drug war policy as successful, even as some critics allege that the government's methods of monitoring homicide statistics are unclear.
According to recently released government statistics, last year was the bloodiest year on record since Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, took office four years ago. The official government database catalogs all drug-related killings from December 2006 to December 2010, and alleges that 34,162 drug-related deaths have occurred in this period.
Out of the total, 15,273 (nearly 45 percent) occurred in 2010 alone. But because the murder rate peaked in the middle of the year and decreased by 10 percent in the last three months, the Calderon administration has tried to present the numbers as a relative improvement in Mexico's bloody drug war.
In a press conference Tuesday in Mexico City, Mexico’s Interior Minister Jose Francisco Blake Mora told La Cronica that out of the 37 criminals identified as the government’s “most wanted,” 20 of them have been captured or killed. Meanwhile, President Calderon’s security spokesman Alejandro Poire emphasized how the government has dealt "severe and irreparable damage to the structures of operations of all organized crime organizations."
However, some critics doubt the reliability of the database, pointing to inconsistencies in the official government death toll as proof that the numbers are at best unreliable, and at worst meaningless. In mid-December, the country's attorney general's office (PGR) announced that homicides connected to criminal activities reached 12,456. However, only two weeks later the figure was inexplicably changed by the presidency to 15,273.
Of course, nothing close to 2,817 people were killed in that time frame, and the difference has further fueled speculation over the data’s accuracy. As one Mexican statistician wondered aloud to InSight Crime, "Where did that data come from? Either one of two things: is the figure inflated or accurate? Which of these numbers can we believe?"
Another gray issue in the statistics is the matter of innocent deaths, and what exactly the government counts as a "crime-related homicide." Although the data distinguishes homicides from "confrontations," in which the deaths result from an armed encounter between authorities and criminals instead of clashes between rival gangs, officials have said little about how they link killings to "criminal activities."
Mexican officials assert that the vast majority of those killed are in fact criminals associated with drug cartels, but some in Mexico suspect authorities of counting at least some cases of innocent civilian deaths in their statistics. According to a report first published in Mexico City’s La Reforma, the number of innocent civilians killed in Mexico’s war on drug trafficking organizations is up by 172 percent from the previous year. The data, gathered from the Attorney General's office, indicates that civilian deaths rose from 61 in 2009 to 166 last year.
Recently, the country’s National Human Rights Commission condemned the Mexican Marines for two unrelated shootings in Cuernavaca, in which a man and woman were killed at seperate security checkpoints, neither of whom had any criminal background.
The fact that soldiers fired 53 shots at the man’s truck, and more than 60 at the woman’s car, reveals, according to the commission, "Without room for doubt, an arbitrary use of force."
The commission has issued reports on more than 60 such cases of army abuse over the past four years, and reported that at least five people unassociated with organized crime last year were either killed or "disappeared."
Despite such grim cases, the violence in Mexico remains a relatively isolated phenomenon. As this map (compiled by Mexico crime researcher Diego Valle-Jones) shows, about 70 percent of the purported homicides occurred in only 85 municipalities throughout the country over the past four years. In 2010, out of all the deaths linked to organized crime, half of them took place in only three states: Chihuahua, Sinaloa. and Tamaulipas.