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How many have died in Mexico's drug war?

June 7, 2011 | 10:42 am

Sicilia march morelia

The last figure released by the Mexican government on the number of dead during its 4 1/2-year, military-led crackdown on organized crime came in January, at just over 34,000. It covered the period from the start of the drug war in December 2006 until the end of 2010.

Homicides attributed to the drug war continue across the country on a daily basis, and many more violent incidents probably go unreported. Self-censorship is widespread among news outlets in violent states such as Tamaulipas and Chihuahua.

With 2011 nearing its midway point, how many people have been killed in Mexico?

Until May many major international news outlets covering Mexico used the general figure of 34,000 or 35,000 drug war deaths -- while bodies have kept piling up in shootouts or discovered in mass graves by the hundreds. In the border city of Ciudad Juarez alone, for example, at least 976 people have been violently killed in the metropolitan region since the beginning of 2011, reports the tally at Frontera List.

But several news outlets in Mexico, as well as the peace movement of poet Javier Sicilia, have begun citing a figure of 40,000 dead since last month. A U.S.-based law-enforcement group favoring more liberal drug policies assembled this online data map from news and Internet sources to arrive an estimate topping 40,000, an increase of about 6,000 since the last official figure. (The Times lately has cited an estimate of at least 38,000, based on the official figures plus an approximation for the first months of 2011 derived from mainstream Mexican media tallies.)

Many drug-related deaths are simply not counted, and scores of people remain missing or disappeared. As The Times has reported, the missing constitute a confounding mystery that casts doubt on virtually any figure of deaths related to the drug war.

The death tally also functions as a political tool. As the number of victims creeps upward, the toll is seen as politically useful for Sicilia's peace movement (link in Spanish).

A "peace caravan" led by the poet left Cuernavaca in Morelos state last week and is set to arrive in Ciudad Juarez on Friday. Sicilia is expected to meet with an array of border and peace activists to sign a "national pact" making six demands of President Felipe Calderon. These include a demilitarization of the effort against Mexico's powerful drug cartels, placing more emphasis on education reform and targeting money laundering and entrenched corruption.

In turn, Calderon's conservative government argues that its campaign against the drug cartels is not an enforcement-only effort but incorporates steps to address some of the social and institutional causes of drug-related violence. The administration has repeatedly argued that the vast majority of the deaths stem from battles between rival trafficking groups -- a sign that the crackdown is weakening them.  

Through a spokeswoman, Calderon's office told La Plaza late Monday that government analysts are updating the drug war toll, but do not yet have a specified release date. The government maintains a  searchable database (link in Spanish) of deaths related to organized crime through 2010.

The death toll has always included a presumed majority of suspected cartel members, plus smaller numbers of military personnel, federal and local police officers, politicians, journalists, lawyers, human-rights activists, students, migrants from Central and South America and a handful of U.S. government employees, including a consular official killed in Ciudad Juarez and a customs agent gunned down in San Luis Potosi.

Overall, 111 U.S. citizens were killed in Mexico in 2010, by far the most violent year in the war, according to the last travel advisory issued by the U.S. State Department. The advisory does not specify which of those deaths may be tied to the drug war. In addition, numerous innocent bystanders and even infants have fallen victim to the violence.

Whatever the toll in Mexico, tallies have not included victims of violence attributed to Mexican drug cartels that are infiltrating Central America. Last month, 27 people were found decapitated on a remote farm in Guatemala in an attack blamed on a Mexican cartel.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

RELATED:

Mexico violence casts shadow over Day of the Dead.

Dismembered bodies, warped minds.

Photo: Supporters of poet Javier Sicilia's movement march with the peace caravan as it passes through Morelia, Mexico. Credit: Reuters

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