Michael Busch

This past week, the Institute for Economics and Peace issued its 2015 “Mexico Peace Index.” The report assesses Mexico along seven indicators—homicide, violent crime, weapons crime, incarceration, police funding, organized crime, and efficiency of the justice system.  Taken together, IEP’s analysis paints a very mixed picture of the country’s security situation. Importantly, the survey strongly suggests that Mexico has experienced a nation-wide drop in homicides since 2012—and an overall increase in peacefulness across the country—even as violent crime spiked significantly during the same period.  

Though the report’s authors adopt a cautious tone throughout, the Christian Science Monitor celebrated their findings as confirmation that Mexico’s heavy-handed crime-fighting policies have been a success. “Despite a reputation as a violence-wracked country,” the paper’s editorial board observed, “Mexico has seen the level of homicides and organized crime drop by more than a quarter since 2011. The decline shows that the effort to break up big drug cartels is working. Good news, si?” Actually, not so much.

Its sometimes inconclusive and contradictory data notwithstanding, the report clearly demonstrates the catastrophic consequences of Mexico’s militarized war on drugs. The dip in crime highlighted by the Monitor followed five years of precipitously climbing rates of homicide that correlate almost directly with the presidency of Felipe Calderón, and the US-sponsored Merida Initiative to combat Mexico’s flourishing narcotics trade. 

The destruction wrought during the Calderón era is staggering. In six years at the helm of power, Calderón oversaw a war on drugs that claimed upwards of 100,000 lives (by conservative estimates), disappeared tens of thousands more, gave life to rash of state-sponsored human rights abuses, and witnessed the spread and diversification of cartel power within and across Mexico’s borders. As Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera has recently noted, “this momentous increase in violence has been accompanied by the widespread use of barbaric, terror-inflicting methods, such as decapitation, dismemberment, car bombs, mass kidnappings, grenade attacks, blockades and the widespread execution of public officials.”

The recent drop in homicides lauded by the Monitor puts Mexico back at 2007 levels—hardly cause for cheer. That year, homicide rates were considerably higher than those measured between 2003 and 2006. Not only that, the security situations in the four Mexican states specifically targeted by Calderón in the Merida Initiative—Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, and Michoacan—have deteriorated over the past decade. Yet the overall trends, especially with regard to homicide rates, appear positive.

What accounts for the apparent drop in murders across Mexico over the past two years? Some, like the editors at Christian Science Monitor, will be tempted to credit the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, with steering Mexico away from a bloody precipice towards greater peace and prosperity.  They write that “the study supports work by others that forecast less violence in Mexico as recent political reforms kick in, such as changes to the state oil company and in labor laws…Mexicans expect more of their leaders, and the results are starting to show.”

Suggestions that Mexico has fared well since the PRI returned to power under Peña Nieto are simply without credibility. Basic institutions of democracylike a free press—have come under massive attack since Peña Nieto took power. And as massive demonstrations protesting state complicity in the disappearance of forty-three students from Ayotzinapa made clear late last year, the government continues to fail its citizenry in opther key areas, not least security. The IEP index supports this assertion. The percentage of homicides in the country that go unpunished has risen by more than 30 percent over the last decade, a trend that continues under the current regime.

Meanwhile, more than 30,000 disappearances have been registered by the government in the past eight years, with more than 10,000 of them still unaccounted for. Less than 1 percent of these presumably violent crimes are investigated by the state, and not a single person has been sentenced in connection with these cases. The recent discovery of a string of mass graves in the hunt for the missing forty-three has done little to change the general perception that Mexico’s governing institutions are either not able or willing to provide vulnerable citizens with basic public goods. Little wonder, then, that local self-defense groups are sprouting up across the country.      

As for political reform, such as the recent privatization of the country’s oil, the jury is still out. Early indicators, though, are not promising. The prying open of Mexico’s oil wealth to private investment—beyond offering wealthy Mexicans and their foreign partners lucrative opportunities to exploit—couldn’t have come at a worse time. With oil prices slumping, and the peso experiencing heavy losses against the dollar, the state-run oil company Pemex posted a $17.7 billion loss in 2014. Far from creating new jobs as was promised, the oil reform allowed for the firing of tens of thousands of workers to stanch the bleeding. With no end to this downward slide in sight, further losses will almost certainly result more layoffs. 

A more likely explanation for dropping murder and violence rates in Mexico would include a number of factors for consideration. The importance of de-escalating military operations against the cartels cannot be overemphasized. Nor can the fact that spasms of violence between the drug gangs have resulted in winners and losers, the consolidation of control over trafficking routes, and thus fewer all-out battles for the plaza. Finally, as the IEP report itself notes, available data only represents a sliver of reality. The authors estimate that less than a quarter of all violent crime gets reported to authorities, with violent crimes against women especially underrepresented—only 8 percent of all rapes in Mexico, for example, are officially tabulated. 

Whatever accounts for the declining violence in Mexico, the country remains in a deeply precarious spot. Until Mexico experiences real political reform—truly representative politics, institutions that function for the entire polity, and the protection of the country’s resources from predatory capital—the structural forces driving the violence and crime will stay intact and continue to bring harm to large numbers of already vulnerable citizens.

Unfortunately for them, as things stand at the moment, prospects for meaningful change appear to be a long way off. 

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.