Mexican Death Toll in Drug War Likely Higher Than Reported
Editor's note: Molly Molloy, border and Latin American specialist at the New Mexico State University Library, has made it her mission to document the number of people killed in Mexico's wave of violence. Using official government reports as well as press accounts, Molloy created a detailed record of the violence in Ciudad Juárez since 2008 and makes her data available to reporters and other researchers; she also distributes daily "news and analysis" through the Frontera-List that is read by subscribers ranging from international human-rights groups to U.S. congressional staffers. Molloy and author Charles Bowden first teamed up when Molloy did research for his 2010 book Murder City, which covered homicides in Juárez. They also co-edited El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, published in 2011.
In Mexico, you get to be a criminal as soon as the Mexican government kills you. Until that moment, most people who knew you had no idea you were a bad person. I will explain. This will take a little patience, but when you get through the numbers, you will be an expert on how to lie about murders.
Most U.S. and international press accounts of homicides in Mexico during President Felipe Calderón's term (December 2006 through November 2012) rely on two official tallies. The first was posted in January 2011 on the president's website; it covered December 2006 through December 2010 and totaled 34,612. A literal translation of the description of the victims tallied here is: "deaths due to presumed criminal rivalries."
New Times cover story
See main story: Mexicans Pay in Blood for America's War on Drugs
Another report appeared in January 2012, this time from the attorney general of Mexico. It covered December 2006 through September 2011 and tallied 47,515 homicides. The murders in these reports are designated as "drug-war-related" or "organized crime-related" based on superficial observations of crime scenes such as the kinds of weapons used, the number of people reported to be involved in the attacks, whether the body is mutilated in some way, whether there are signs or symbols left on or near the bodies, and a variety of other criteria deemed to indicate some relationship to the drug business. These official reports echo in the media as real numbers, even though the Mexican government admits that fewer than 5 percent of the crimes are ever investigated.
I have tried to gather more complete homicide data from Mexican government agencies that have reported consistently over the years and with a bit more distance from the political necessities of the Calderón administration, though there are inconsistencies in all of the data available.
The Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography compiles homicide data from death certificates; homicides may be homicidios dolosos, comparable to aggravated or intentional homicides in the United States, or other lesser classifications such as negligent or accidental homicides. INEGI data covering 2005 through 2010 includes all homicides and shows sharp increases, from a low number of 8,867 in 2007 to a high figure of 24,373 in 2010.
Since 2010, I have used the data reported by the National System for Public Security, which compiles crime statistics sent in by local and state police agencies. SNSP reported a total of 22,223 aggravated homicides (homicidios dolosos) in 2011. The latest SNSP data shows 8,662 homicides from January through May 2012, an average of 1,732 per month, thus leading to an estimate of 10,394 homicides in Mexico for the first half of 2012. Extrapolated through the end of 2012 at the same monthly rate, we can estimate total homicides for 2012 at 20,788.
Despite this slight decline from 2010 and 2011 numbers, using the estimate based on the first six months of 2012 and the actual reported numbers from Mexican government sources for 2007 through 2011, we can estimate the total homicides from December 2006 through June 2012 at 99,667. Assuming that a similar rate of murder continues through the remaining months of this year, the homicide toll at the end of Calderón's presidency will add up to 110,061 victims.
For the sake of comparison, the U.S. homicide numbers as reported by the FBI Uniform Crime Reports have declined from about 17,000 in 2007 to an estimated 14,000 in 2011 and 2012. An estimate of the total homicides in the U.S. for this period comes to about 92,000 — this out of a population of more than 312 million, about three times the population of Mexico.
Despite Mexican government statistics adding up to more than 110,000 murders during Calderón's term, the international press continues to report estimates of the death toll in Mexico ranging from 50,000 to "more than 60,000."
This feat puts magical realism in the shade.
The press also parrots the Mexican government's claim that 90 percent of the victims are criminals killed by other criminals. From my daily reading of crime reports from Juárez — the city still at the epicenter of the violence — it is evident that the majority of the 10,800-plus murder victims there since 2007 are ordinary people, and most of them are poor: small-business owners who cannot pay extortion demands, mechanics, bus drivers, prostitutes, addicts, boys selling newspapers, a pregnant woman washing cars on the street. This city of only 1.2 million accounts for 10 percent of all of Mexico's murder victims since 2007.
And the truth is, we may never know the actual number of people killed. Mexican agencies like INEGI and SNSP must rely upon local entities to report homicide numbers, and there is little reason to trust the state and local police and justice officials responsible for such reports. There also is the number that will never be known: the cifra negra — the black numbers — a term used for the missing, the kidnapped who never return and whose bodies are never found, and those who simply disappear.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.