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Why the Mexican Govt's Murder Count is Worse than Useless

  • Written by Alejandro Hope*
  • Monday, 18 February 2013
A crime scene in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico A crime scene in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

The Mexican government has released figures on drug-related homicides in the first two months of Enrique Peña Nieto's presidency -- Alejandro Hope explains why these numbers only get in the way of understanding violence in Mexico.

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This month, the government published a "federal report of preliminary data on security indicators." Among other information, the document gives a count of the “intentional homicides linked to organized crime” in December and January.

Well, wasn’t that what I wanted? Didn't I write a few days ago that it was necessary to “demand that the government make public the information [about homicides] as quickly as possible”?

Yes, but not this information. The official murder count, the database of homicides linked to organized crime (formerly called “deaths resulting from presumed criminal rivalry”), is worse than useless: it is positively detrimental to understanding the evolution of criminal violence in the country.

I have already written about the topic, but the problems with this murder count have re-emerged:

1. It is not drawn from hard facts: the designation of a homicide as “linked to organized crime” does not result from an investigation that allows us to determine the motive. It is the product of mere inferences based on certain characteristics of the incidents or the victims (was a high-powered weapon used? was the corpse wrapped in a blanket or inside the trunk of a car? were there signs of torture? etc.). The method was, perhaps, more or less adequate in 2007, when the number of cases was much smaller, there was a limited number of identifiable criminal groups and extreme violence was essentially a thing of drug traffickers, but not in 2013, when the drug traffickers' methods have spread, the number of groups has grown, and there are twice as many homicides as six years ago. That is to say, today it is much more difficult to know what is and what is not the work of the poorly-defined "organized crime." This confusion is shown in the figures: the number of homicides “not linked” to organized crime (that is to say, the number that is obtained by subtracting the "linked" homicides from the total intentional homicides reported in the official National System for Public Security (SESNSP) database) decreased 27 percent between 2007 and 2011. In an environment of generalized growth in violence, when the authorities have been overrun in much of the country, why would other types of homicides decrease? Why would bar fights, assaults that end in murder, or land disputes decrease in number? It doesn’t make sense. It is more likely that the definition of "homicide linked to organized crime" has expanded to include multiple forms of criminal violence.

2. The count of organized crime-linked murders doesn’t add anything to information that can be obtained from other official sources: between 2007 and 2011, the correlation between the “deaths resulting from presumed criminal rivalry” and that of intentional homicides from SESNSP was nearly perfect (0.95). The curves run almost parallel, meaning that the crime-linked figure doesn't give us anything new on the trends. If you want information about the geographic distribution of the violence (at a municipal level) or about the detailed causes of the deaths, there is the national geographic institute (INEGI) database. So why would we want a third official database?

3. It generates confusion: two official sources of information about homicides already exist (SESNSP and INEGI). The data sets don’t coincide with each other, because a) they come from different records (the first from the attorney generals' offices and the second from civil registries) and b) they measure different things (preliminary investigations in one case, body counts in the other). It is not easy to explain the distinction (note: in many other countries there are differences between the two types of sources) and many people end up confused and convinced that someone is hiding information. Add another set and the confusion becomes greater: the dispute over "Calderon's deaths" (which are put at 60,000, 100,000, 120,000 victims…) has its origin in this multiplicity of sources, and something similar could happen in Enrique Peña Nieto's six-year term.

4. It can't be compared historically (prior to 2007) nor internationally (as far as I know, no other country has a similar data set): under these conditions, it is impossible to put the information in context. Are 1,100 “homicides linked to organized crime” per month many or few? It appears to be a lot, but how can one know without any point of reference?

5. It allows state governments to evade their responsibilities: if the homicides are “linked to organized crime”, then they fall under federal jurisdiction and are the responsibility of federal authorities, right? At least this is what the state governments have argued and will continue to argue. When it publishes the figures, the federal government backs this argument. Is the federal Attorney General's Office (PGR) truly able, and does it truly want, to put itself in charge of handling 70 percent of the country’s homicides?

6. It criminalizes the victims: the government of Felipe Calderon was forcefully and rightly criticized for suggesting without much basis that the vast majority of homicide victims were “members of organized crime” and that the crimes were “score-settling between criminal bands”. The government of Enrique Peña Nieto has just done the same or worse: in its recent report, it stated that 1,068 of 1,104 victims (97 percent) of "intentional homicide linked to organized crime" registered in January were "suspected criminals." And what is this suspicion based upon? Does the name of each one of these people appear in a crime report? Did they review the criminal records of each one of the victims? Or could it be that it simply occurred to the authorities that, if these people showed up dead, it was because they were "involved in something"? Two to one that it’s the final option (this reminds me of a general in Chihuahua who, in 2008, suggested to the media that “instead of saying one more death, they should say one less criminal”).

For these reasons (and others), the previous government decided in 2012 to cancel the circulation (though not the production, apparently) of data on "deaths resulting from presumed criminal rivalries" (the publication of intentional homicide statistics continued uninterrupted). In the words of Oscar Vega, who until this past December was head of the National Public Safety System (SNSP), “the cataloguing or the qualification of an intentional homicide as related to some type of organized crime … is the exclusive right of the Public Ministry and of the judicial branch, which defines, investigates and punishes each one of those crimes … The current stance is that we will only be reporting what has been derived from investigations and legal processes."

The change came late, but it was a step in the right direction: it is not good practice to present as official data something that is no more than a hunch. Now the new government, for unknown reasons, has taken a step backwards. I profoundly regret the decision and I am convinced that those responsible for it will regret it too, sooner rather than later. As we saw during Calderon's six-year term, the death count is going to sow confusion among the public and distort the discussion about the state of violence in the country, on top of providing a formidable weapon to opponents and critics of the government.

Brace yourselves: since he released these figures, Enrique Peña Nieto has his war, and his own dead.

P.S: If the figures in the report were bad, the manner of presenting them was worse. To make a month-to-month comparison (January versus December), without adjusting for seasonal or calendar effects, is absurd: it doesn’t say anything at all about how we are doing. What’s more, since the public no longer has access to the database of “deaths resulting from presumed criminal rivalries,” collected in the previous term, there are no points of reference (even if these would have come from a defective source).

P.P.S: If they are going to present drug seizure figures, would it be so much trouble to give the breakdown by substance? Considering that in the United States marijuana has a wholesale price of less than $1,000 per kilo, cocaine $25,000 and heroin $60,000 dollars, it is important to know what drug they are talking about.

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. Hope is a member of InSight Crime's Board of Directors.

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