The murders rate is falling in Mexico

A pair of new statistical releases has Mexico celebrating its security improvements, though the depth of the changes remains uncertain.

Earlier this summer, Mexico's statistical agency, Inegi, released its final tally of murders in 2013, finding a figure of 22,732, compared to 26,037 in 2012. Then last week, President Enrique Peña Nieto told a class of graduating naval officers that the murder rate through mid-2014 was 27 percent below the first six months of 2012.

''Although there is more work to do, we are making progress on the commitment I took on before the Mexican people to reduce the violence and recover the tranquility for our population,” the president told the graduating class.

It's not clear what statistical agency the president was using to make his claim since he did not cite a source. Inegi is one of two official homicide counters and only releases its data once a year. The other, the National Public Security System, typically has a lower count than Inegi and releases monthly data.  

Still, the Inegi statistic represents a significant improvement in the murder rate since the end of the tenure of former president Felipe Calderon.

The nearly 23,000 murders last year, which equates to murder rate of 19 per 100,000 residents, dropped 13 percent from 2012 and 16 percent from 2011, the high-water mark of the Calderon era. The rate of 19 is also well below the average of some of Mexico's neighbors in Central and South America. 

The murder rate of 19 per 100,000 is likewise a significant drop from the worst figure of the Calderon era -- 24 per 100,000 -- and it seems poised to drop further. Mexico's National Public Security System registered 8,101 murders over the first six months of 2014, which puts Mexico on pace for a further 12 percent drop in murders this year compared to last year.

InSight Crime Analysis

All of this serves as evidence that the Peña Nieto's basic bet on security -- reducing both the attention paid to insecurity and the violence itself -- is paying dividends. In addition to the litany of statistics like those mentioned above, the international narrative on Mexico has changed dramatically. Stories of economic liberalization and reform are now as common as tales of beheadings. 

However, the rosy picture glosses over a number of lingering challenges. First, the declines in murders do not account for killings when the body is not found. The several hundred bodies have been discovered in clandestine graves in Tamaulipas and Durango in recent years demonstrates that hiding the evidence of a murder is a favored tactic of certain criminal groups, and is likely significantly more widespread than is appreciated.

Over the first year of Peña Nieto's presidency, the National Registry of Disappeared Persons counted 2,618 missing Mexicans, many of whom may have been murdered. The fact that gangs often have a natural incentive to hide their dead bodies -- the greater the public outcry, the more likely a robust federal intervention will force a given gang to alter its modes of operation -- adds further credence to this theory.

Furthermore, Peña Nieto's positive stats ignore the fact that extortion and kidnapping, two violent crimes whose recent upsurge has eroded Mexico's social stability, do not to appear to have dropped. On the contrary, both have continued to rise since Peña Nieto ascended to the presidency in December 2012. The persistently high levels of these crimes perhaps explain why perceptions of security have not improved despite the marked decline in the murder rate. 

Peña Nieto's Mexico also retains pockets of severe violence, which have resisted the overall positive trend. While there have been some high profile successes -- Juarez and Monterrey being two of the most prominent -- many areas in Mexico remain under the heel of criminal groups. Guerrero, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Mexico State are all on pace for more than 1,000 murders, with both Guerrero and Sinaloa on pace to roughly triple the national murder rate.

Furthermore, while many of the specific rivalries that have driven violence in recent years have subsided, large and aggressive criminal gangs with conflicting interests remains scattered around Mexico. The rapid disappearence of Sinaloa Cartel leaders like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman also promises a potentially destabilizing reorganization of the nation's most powerful trafficking organization, an event that could cause a spike in violence that reverses recent gains.

Such facts open a substantial hole in the happy narrative emanating from Mexico's presidency.