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Putting Mexican violence into perspective

October 2, 2011

The way Mexico is portrayed in some corners of the media you could be forgiven for thinking the entire country is one giant war zone; that it is unsafe to walk the streets for the risk of being gunned down by bloodthirsty drug gangs.

With so many sensationalist headlines it can be difficult to get one’s head around the levels of violence in Mexico. A few statistics released this week make for alarming reading, but once put into context they do not prove Mexico is as dangerous as many believe.

Among the more concerning figures, Mexico’s National Council for the Prevention of Accidents revealed last week that murder is the most common cause of death among 15-29 year olds in Mexico, representing one in five young deaths. Traffic accidents are the second highest cause of death in this age group.

More locally, the National System of Public Security (SNSP) revealed the number of homicides in Jalisco has increased each of the past four years, rising 125 percent from 389 in 2007 to 879 in 2010.

However, just 70 of those deaths in 2007 were gang related, whereas 593 of the 879 murders in 2010 were gang related. This suggests that although the murder rate has risen considerably, the number of victims not involved in criminal gangs has not seen a significant increase.

SNSP statistics show that violence in Mexico has generally been significantly worse in the northern states than in the south, with Chihuahua being the most dangerous state of the Republic. The only major exception is the southern state of Guerrero, which has the fifth highest murder rate in the country.

This geographical divide has become less clear-cut over the past year, due to what is known as the “Cucaracha effect.” This term likens drug violence to a cockroach infestation, because no matter how hard one tries to shoo the problem away, it always reemerges elsewhere.

If the authorities clamp down on drug cartels in one region, rather than disappearing they just tend to move elsewhere. So although murder rates in Mexico’s two most dangerous states (Chihuahua and Sinaloa) have fallen this year, the rates have risen in Neuvo Leon, Guerrero, Coahuila, Veracruz and Zacatecas.

Since 2007, Mexico has fallen 42 positions in the Global Peace Index drawn up by the Institute for Economics and Peace. It is now ranked as the 121st least peaceful country in the world. Iceland, New Zealand and Japan hold the top three positions, respectively, in the list of 153 countries.

Yet Mexico’s image as one of the most violent countries in the Americas is misleading when these figures are put into context. Regionally, Mexico’s murder rate pales in significance with those of  its southern neighbors.

In 2010 the average murder rate in Mexico was 18 people per 100,000, while Honduras and El Salvador posted the world’s highest rates with 78 and 65 per 100,000 respectively.

In Latin America alone, Venezuela, Guatemala, Belize, Colombia, Brazil and Panama all had worse murder rates than Mexico last year.

Some parts of Mexico even compare favorably with the country’s northern neighbor. The murder rate in Washington, D.C. was more than double that of the Mexican capital last year.

Mexico City’s murder rate in 2010 was 9.2 per 100,000 according to geographers Richard Rhoda and Tony Burton of geo-mexico.com, while an official Washington police report revealed the rate in the U.S. capital to be 22 per 100,000.

Many of Mexico’s tourist destinations are even safer. In the popular Yucatan state there were just 0.1 murders per 100,000 in 2010, while the murder rate in Orlando, Florida was worse than in most cities in central Mexico.

While Mexico’s well documented problems with drug related violence should not be underestimated, nor need they be exaggerated or sensationalized.

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