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Is this the End of Mexico's Security Crisis?

  • Written by Alejandro Hope*
  • Monday, 26 November 2012
The scene of a homicide in Mexico The scene of a homicide in Mexico

As annual murders drop for the first time since 2007, and large-scale massacres seem to have disappeared from the headlines, analyst Alejandro Hope argues that the worst may be behind Mexico.

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October brought some good surprises. One in particular: the number of preliminary investigations for homicides was the lowest in the last 24 months. The total stood at 1,540, a figure 20 percent lower than that of October 2011. The period January to October saw an 8 percent fall with respect to the same period last year. Thus, it is almost certain that 2012 will be the first year since 2007 to see a reduction in the annual number of homicides. With a bit of luck, the total for the year may not only be lower than that of 2011, but also 2010.

That is not the only good news. In 20 of Mexico’s 32 states, this year has seen fewer homicides than the last. Chihuahua, for example, registered a fall of 32 percent from January to October in comparison to the same period in 2011. In Nuevo Leon, the decrease was nearly a quarter, and in Sinaloa it was 23 percent. At the municipal level, there are even more dramatic improvements: Ciudad Juarez, for example, had fewer homicides in October (33) than Chicago in the United States (36).

homicidios dolosos

Perceptions of security seems to be improving as well. The perception index on public security, produced by [government statistical agency] INEGI, has logged figures above 100 for seven consecutive months (Note: In the index, a higher number indicates a lower perception of insecurity). That hasn’t happened since INEGI started publishing these figures in April 2009.

indice de percepcion

There is another piece of recent data that intrigues me: we seem to be going through a dry period for massacres. Since the slaughter in Cadereyta in May, not a single killing has been registered involving 20 victims or more (except for an unconfirmed confrontation in Luvianos, Mexico State, and the discovery of mass graves in Acapulco, which appeared to have accumulated bodies over several months). Considering the documented ruptures in at least two big criminal organizations (the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas), this seems to me to be a noteworthy phenomenon.

Also, I have the impression (though it is not a certainty) that extreme violence has ceased: on Blog del Narco (maybe not the best source, but still...) I could only find three cases of decapitation or dismemberment in the first 20 days of November. This time last year, there was one case almost every day.

All of this brings me to the question: has the security crisis come to an end? Note that this is a question, not a statement. And note also that I don’t want to suggest with this that the country has become safe (clearly this is not the case) or that there aren’t regions which are still going through hell (Guerrero, Coahuila, etc.). However, I believe that it is worth asking if the nature of the problem has changed.

The security crisis triggered in 2008 had three main characteristics:

1) The extremely fast increase in violence: At the worst moment of the crisis, half way through 2010, homicides were increasing at an annual rate of 50 percent. At that rate, the number doubled every 17 months. That trajectory is equivalent to a country in a state of civil war.

2) Geographic expansion: From a problem concentrated in some border or coastal regions, it became a phenomenon that, without reaching national dimensions, covered a considerable part of the country’s territory. At the end of 2009, nearly 30 percent of homicides were concentrated in Ciudad Juarez. One year later, the absolute number of homicides in that city had increased, but only represented 15 percent of the national total.

3) The escalation of brutality: Criminal groups went from individual decapitations to collective mutilations, from incidents with eight victims to massacres of 280 people. The peak of the horror was probably reached in April 2011, with the discovery of two giant graves -- one in Durango and the other in Tamaulipas -- with more than 200 bodies in each.

None of those conditions are still in place (at least not on the same scale as two years ago). Homicides stopped increasing in mid-2010 and have dropped slightly in the last year. Criminal violence is widespread in much of the country, but it is no longer expanding at the same rate: conflict in Veracruz hasn't spread to Puebla; that in Guerrero hasn't moved to Oaxaca. There are still acts of extreme violence, but no longer in the same number or with the same impact: nothing that has happened recently exceeds or comes close to San Fernando or Casino Royale.

So, I repeat the question: are we still in a security crisis? I would say no: crime and violence continue (and will continue for a while) at unacceptable levels, but it can no longer be so easily argued that the situation is escalating out of control. We can use an economic metaphor to illustrate this point: after an episode of hyperinflation, a society will be devastated, but its prospects start to improve as price changes become predictable. Perhaps the years from 2008 to 2011 were our hyperinflation: we leave it as a society that has been bruised, but which no longer has the feeling that any horror is possible (it's worth clarifying that this doesn’t apply to the whole country equally. In La Laguna or in Acapulco, for example, the crisis continues).

If correct, the theory would have three implications:

1) It may be necessary to refine the analysis of the security policy of the current administration. Many of the judgements about "Calderon's strategy" are based on the experience of 2008 to 2010. The last two years have received less attention (for obvious reasons of data availability). What changed? The policy or the environment? Was there a process of learning in state institutions? Did something finally start to work? I don’t have very good answers, but it seems urgent to raise such questions.

2) The agenda has to be flexible. The reduction of violence must become a primary objective of security policy, but not the only one. In spaces where violence has significantly decreased (Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, etc.), institutional modernization, access to justice and prevention efforts must become priorities. The same should happen in other regions, as the pacification process spreads. It would be tragic if, once a certain measure of public order is restored, the country becomes complacent and (fledgling) efforts to reform security and justice institutions are abandoned.

3) The baseline for evaluating the next administration has changed. The new government team isn't going to assume public office at the peak of the crisis, but rather when signs of an improvement are beginning to emerge. It will be important to remember this fact when future comparisons are carried out.

Now, we could quite simply be in a break in an upward spiral, making all of the above meaningless. But it seems to have lasted slightly too long to be a mere pause.

P.S.: An important clarification must be inserted each time I speak about figures on the incidence of crime. All of the figures on the number of homicides come from the National Public Security System (SNSP), collated from reports carried out by state prosecutors. They are almost certainly an underestimate, but any biases are probably more or less systematic: as a consequence, they can serve as an indicator of trends, even if there are doubts about certain points in the data.

Translated and reprinted with permission from *Alejandro Hope, of Plata o Plomo, a blog on the politics and economics of drugs and crime published by Animal Politico. Read the Spanish original here.

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