Last month's murder figures have some positive implications for Mexico, argues Alejandro Hope -- violence continues to fall in the long term, with signs that criminal groups may be shifting towards policies of more caution and lower visibility.
March’s statistics on the state of violence in the country bring both good and bad news. As in previous months, all the data comes from the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security. And once again, a clarification: the figures are used to indicate trends. As is already well known, there is under-reporting of all crimes (including homicide), but there is strong evidence that the error is more or less systematic. Official information tells us where we are going, but it doesn’t quite tell us where we are.
Let’s begin with the bad news:
- With data missing from three states (Distrito Federal, San Luis Potosi, and Zacatecas), the total homicides this month can be estimated at 1,732. This is the highest homicide rate since October.
- After seven consecutive months of falls, there was a rise in the three-month moving average (from 1,629 in February to 1,666 in March).
- Some states that had maintained a decreasing homicide rate for several months registered an upturn. The cases of Chihuahua (from 191 homicides in February to 217 in March), Sinaloa (from 122 to 142), and Guerrero (from 139 to 186) stand out. Chihuahua regained first place in the national homicide ranking.
- The northeast maintains an increasing trend: in the first quarter, the number of homicides in Nuevo Leon grew by 44 percent in comparison with the same time frame last year. There was 32 percent increase in Veracruz, 26 percent in Tamaulipas, and 25 percent in Coahuila.
Now for the good news, which is not negligible:
- Reports of extortion continue rising compared to last year: in March, they were up 11 percent from the same month in 2012, and in the first three months of 2012, the on-year increase was 28 percent. This is a difficult statistic to interpret because it may have been partially caused by the information campaigns about telephone extortion. Either way, I don’t like the figure.
- March was the third consecutive month of reduction in the inter-year homicide rate: compared with the same month in 2011, the number of homicides in March was down 7.1 percent.
- The average number of daily homicides in March was identical to that of February (56). The increase in the total number of homicides in March was due to the greater number of days in the month.
- More importantly, the number of homicides in the first trimester this year was down 6.9 percent in comparison with the same period last year. This is the first time that such a decrease has been registered since the last quarter of 2007. Adjusting for the fact that the first trimester of 2012 had one more day than in 2011, the reduction was 8 percent.
- This trimester’s total was the lowest seen in two years. Since the January-March period in 2010, there has not been a trimester with fewer than 5,000 homicides
- Compared with the last three months of 2011, the drop was 3.2 percent. This is the third consecutive trimester of reduction in comparison with the previous trimester. From the peak in killings in the second quarter of 2011, the cumulative decrease has now come to 16.5 percent. That means 1,000 homicides less in this trimester than in the period between April and June of 2011. This is not a trivial figure.
- Despite the increase in March, Chihuahua registered a drop of 29 percent in the trimester. In Sinaloa and Baja California, the reduction was 22 percent. In Jalisco, the number of homicides fell by 10 percent and even in Guerrero there was a marginal drop in homicides (1 percent).
- The downward trend extended to other crimes: at the national level, reports of kidnappings decreased by 34 percent in the trimester, and reports of violent auto-thefts fell by 10 percent. In general, the annual rate of violent theft appears to have fallen 5 percent in the first three months of this year.
In summary, it seems to me that there’s not much doubt that the great spiral in violence between 2008 and 2010 came to a halt last year, and is gradually beginning to retreat. Here it’s important to emphasize the word gradual: the reduction on a national scale is still very slow. And it worries me that the monthly average of homicides stopped falling in March. For reasons not fully clear to me, there seems to be a level of resistance between 1,600 and 1,650 homicides per month.
I still don’t understand exactly what is happening. There are some very tentative signs of the increased efficacy of some state authorities: for example, a significant number of the prisoners that escaped from the Apodaca prison have been recaptured. Some criminal groups may be changing their behavior in response to this new institutional environment: in general, there appear to have been fewer high-impact incidents in this trimester than in prior periods. This is only an impression, because I don’t have systematized information, but in this trimester I could only identify two incidents with more than 20 victims, and both were in prisons (Apodaca and Altamira). Is there an incipient shift towards greater caution and less visibility on the part of some criminal groups? I’m not sure, but it’s an idea worth exploring. Lastly, it’s possible that in some localities, the process of pacification may be fueling itself: Ciudad Juarez has had no fewer than four days without homicides so far this April -- something that had not happened since January 2008.
In short, March did not deliver many positive numbers. But in general, criminal violence is still moving in the right direction (downward). I hope we can say the same in the coming months.