MEXICO CITY -- A study has found that Mexico’s homicide rate rose for the fourth year in a row in 2011, this time by 5.6% compared with the previous year -- a fact that will come as little surprise to Mexicans who continue to be bombarded each morning with the latest stomach-turning details of the country’s drug war.
What is less clear, however, is what the new numbers say about outgoing President Felipe Calderon’s controversial and nearly 6-year-old decision to deploy the military to battle the country’s entrenched drug-trafficking gangs.
Is this the short-term pain that Mexico must endure in order to achieve a long-term peace? Or are the increased slayings the inevitable -- and ineluctable -- result of a strategy that Calderon’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, has essentially promised to continue, with a few alterations?
The new data, released this week by Mexico’s statistics and geography institute, show that 27,199 people were killed in Mexico last year -- or 24 homicides per 100,000 people. The rate in 2007 was 8 per 100,000. Last year it was 23 per 100,000.
The data include all homicides in Mexico, not just the drug-related ones, but they are likely to inspire the same head-scratching and political jockeying that narco-related statistics do, and which have become a kind of morbid parlor game here.
The ramifications, of course, extend far beyond Mexico: The U.S. government estimates that Mexican drug cartels maintain a commercial presence in at least 230 American cities. In 2009, the Justice Department called them the "greatest organized crime threat to the United States."
So is the situation improving in Mexico? Different numbers suggest different answers. The Times’ Daniel Hernandez reported last week that the analysts at Mexico City-based Lantia Consultores have found that homicides tied to organized crime increased 10% in the first half of 2012 compared with the last half of 2011. Calderon, however, recently said that drug-related homicides decreased 15% -- although he was comparing the first half of 2011 and the first half of 2012.
As he prepares to step down from his six-year term in December, Calderon, 50, has continued to make the case that his strategy of prosecuting the drug gangs, and targeting their leaders, has been a success. In a speech this month, he said his government had captured or killed 22 of the country’s 37 most powerful criminals, and he reiterated that he essentially had no choice but to confront the cartels head-on.
At times, the effort to dismantle the gangs has led to an appreciable uptick in violence. After the Mexican navy killed kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva in a 2009 shootout, a war among his underlings ensued, and continues to plague the states of Morelos and Guerrero.
Peña Nieto, the incoming president, has pledged to find a way to reduce the violence that affects Mexicans’ everyday lives, but he has not yet divulged his strategy for doing so.
The new homicide numbers “show that violence is still a really important issue,” said Eric Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.
“How [Peña Nieto] is going to seek to reduce violence is an open question, but it’s still a worthwhile priority,” he said.
The Calderon government has not been forthcoming in recent months with statistics on the number of homicides that were specifically tied to the drug trade, but an unofficial count puts the number of people killed in drug violence at more than 50,000 since Calderon deployed the military in December 2006.
While the overall homicide rate in Mexico has been climbing, it's been diminishing dramatically in the country where most of the drugs are consumed. The Bureau of Justice Statistics put the U.S. homicide rate at 4.2 per 100,000 residents in 2010, the lowest rate in four decades.
Mexico still compares favorably to a number of other Latin American countries that have also been destabilized by drug cartels and gang violence. In 2010, Honduras suffered 82.1 homicides per 100,000 residents. In Colombia that year, the homicide rate stood at 33.4 per 100,000, despite notable government success in its war on the cocaine trade there.
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Photo: Municipal and federal police surround the body of a fallen officer after gunmen attacked a municipal police car in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in November 2010. Photo credit: Raymundo Ruiz / Associated Press