Murder, and the Mexican Drug Wars

This morning I came across this piece, translated from an article in El Diario. It boils down to the fact that Mexican murder rates are woefully underreported, but there are a number of things which deserve a bit more close inspection. The statistics relate to the period of Calderón’s government, but stop at the end of 2011 so it’s about a five-year sample. Not all states submitted figures. Chiapas claimed 77 murders between 2009 to 2011, a laughably low figure. Jalisco only admitted the number of investigations, not the number of murders. More worryingly, four states refused to offer any figures: Morelos and Tlaxcala, close to Mexico City, and Durango and Coahuila in the north. I would bet that Morelos (where I have some personal experience of having seen decline in public safety over the last decade), Durango and Coahuila are among the more violent states. [Finger in the air, I would think all three would fall into the Tamaulipas/Michoacan range in the graphic below. I have little knowledge of Tlaxcala’s situation I’m afraid. These rough ideas are borne out somewhat by the 2010 single year figures, here.]

Here is a map I made based on the figures in the El Diario article. El Diario treats them in absolute terms – hence the alarmist emphasis on Edomex (Mexico State) – but I’ve converted those figures to per capita which gives a much more realistic picture. Unfortunately it also shows what an utter mess the north and the mountainous routes by which you get there are in.

[click on map to embiggen]

Guerrero is a bit of an outlier, with its own violent narrative, yet the worsening of the situation in Morelos in the last few years makes for a worrying coherence in the southwest. Quintana Roo is also unusual, and here the figures from El Diario don’t sit well with those linked to above at Geo-Mexico. One or two big shootouts can skew the figures a lot in less populous states, however.

For comparison with the numbers used in my graphic, New York would be around 0.30 murders per thousand population between 2006-11 (i.e. for the whole five years, not annually), and Chicago around 0.75. Both New Orleans and St. Louis would be between 2 and 2.5. Baltimore, Detroit and Newark would all be around 1.5 I think. Mexico’s rate as a whole for the five years is about 0.73 murders per thousand population (i.e. under conventional measure, about 15 per 100,000 per annum).* So murders are only half as common in Mexico as a whole as they are in Baltimore, Newark or Detroit. Like the U.S., the picture is very patchy. And for some more context, in both Jamaica and Guatemala murders are around three times as common per capita as in Mexico.

Yet the statistics for Mexico do concur with a significant part of the narrative of drug-war-related decline. Whole swathes of the country are now violent and beyond the reach of the state (the latter point is underlined by the manner in which the different narcotraficante cartels have nobbled various bits of the state apparatus, leading to absurd incidents like this). In Chihuahua, one in two hundred people was murdered in the last five years. That’s a similar proportion to those who died in London’s Blitz. Last year there was a heated debate between Ed Vulliamy and Professor Alan Knight over this issue, the crux of the matter being whether the drug-war-affected parts of Mexico were typical or exceptional – the future, or a controllable part of the present?

Knight, in this Guardian piece last year, was surely correct to stress Cuidad Juarez’s exceptionality. Even in the context of Chihuahua, it’s a horrifically lawless and brutal place. When crossing the border I wasn’t brave enough to go that way – I plumped for the relatively sedate Nuevo Laredo route. For now, Juarez remains, as Knight suggests, a “grotesque aberration”; but a brief look at that map shows it is the crux of a wider system. Its ripple effects have been getting closer and closer to Mexico City. I couldn’t have imagined in 2001 or 2003, my first two visits, that by 2010 the charming city of Cuernavaca would be cut off from Mexico City (only about 30 miles away) by an apparent hoax relating to a big narco threat, shutting down for three entire days. Now, two years later, Cuernavaca is the site of executions and shootouts on a regular basis. I’m not sure the causation necessarily flows from the killing of Arturo Beltran Leyva, but there is some temporal correlation there. The reason given by Morelos state for not providing the information on murder rates was disturbing: it claimed that “if made public [the information] puts at risk the state’s ability to govern, and the lives, health and safety of people”. In other words, they can’t afford to let their citizens know how little protection the state can offer them (at least that’s how I read it).

Knight is also correct to emphasise the importance of the legalisation/prohibition argument, where Vulliamy sets it to one side. However, having lived in Mexico for six months in 2010, I came more and more to see some merit in Vulliamy’s thesis that Juarez was likely to become more of a representative case. You don’t exactly get *used* to seeing headless corpses dangling from road bridges on the front cover of the newspapers, but such prevalence has a dulling effect. Bolaño in 2666 shows precisely this effect: the entire middle section of the book is taken up with hundreds of pages of atrocities committed outside the purview of the law in a fictionalised Juarez, and the effect becomes nauseatingly dulled. Clearly Vulliamy veers towards Bolaño’s world: he is somewhat sensationalist, and that is not helpful; he also works in broad brush strokes. But he sees the structural position, the vanguardism perhaps, of Juarez.

HSBC’s recent admission of grubby involvement in money laundering can hardly be exceptional – in fact, it may have been systemically crucial. The drugs trade is, depending on whose estimates you believe, among the most lucrative in the world. Mexico’s economy is too closely tied to that of the U.S. (as it has been since the Second World War) to take the heterodox routes out of global recession evidenced in South America. Hence, while drugs remain profitable and legal job opportunities contract, the reserve army of labour will continue to be tempted into the ranks of the narcos (or their uniformed allies). This situation will not go away, which is why I’m rather pessimistic for Mexico in the next ten or twenty years.

*Apologies for use of two scales

EDIT: For clarity, I’m including the figures standardised to annual per 100,000

Chihuahua 97.4
Sinaloa 53.8
Guerrero 42.8
Quintana Roo 29.3
Baja California 28.7
Tamaulipas 23.8
Michoacan 23.2
Nayarit 21.5
Sonora 17.5
Nuevo Leon 16.4
Colima 12.3
Estado de Mexico 11.3
San Luis Potosi 11.2
Distrito Federal 9.9
Tabasco 8.9
Puebla 8.4
Veracruz 8.3
Oaxaca 8.0
Zacatecas 8.0
Guanajuato 7.9
Aguascalientes 6.3
Baja California Sur 6.3
Yucatan 6.1
Campeche 5.9
Queretaro 4.2
Hidalgo 3.0

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