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Why Mexico's Violence is an Exception to Historical Trend

Carlos Vilalta, of CIDE Carlos Vilalta, of CIDE

The current bloodshed in Mexico is an exception to an overall decline in violence that has been taking place for nearly a century, according to one Mexican academic, who told InSight Crime that the spate of murders was due in large part to faulty political decisions.

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Carlos Vilalta, a professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) in Mexico City, argues that episodes of violence like the current drug conflict, serve to obscure a deeper trend: that Mexico has become progressively safer since at least the 1930s.

Measuring the number of convictions for homicide per 100,000 inhabitants -- which serves as a reasonable proxy for overall violence -- even at the height of the recent wave of murders, the current figure of 7.5 per 100,000 is less than one-fifth the figure of 40 for 1938. This larger trend of a reduction in violent crime, which researchers have perceived in much of the world over the course of several centuries, strikes an optimistic note amid reports of mass murders and grotesque mutilations.

Organized crime may be impossible to stamp out, and the drug trade will continue to give criminal groups a steady flow of income, but they operate in a society that is increasingly peaceful. According to Vilalta, "We are much better off than our parents, and they were better compared to our grandparents. We are going through a difficult period, but it’s at a much lower magnitude than the problems that they faced in the past."

Notwithstanding a plateau in the murder rates over the past year or so, Vilalta considers Mexico still to be enmeshed in an episode of extreme violence.

For Vilalta, the cause of the current bloodshed is primarily political; it is a consequence of law enforcement tactics associated with the presidency of Felipe Calderon, which ended in December 2012. "I am convinced that had we carried out a good diagnosis and forecast of the situation, in hindsight some of the decisions would not have been taken," Vilalta told InSight Crime. “The president, had he known and been able to anticipate the damage of his direct confrontation with organized crime ... would not have taken certain decisions."

This is a common assessment of Calderon’s performance in security matters, although Vilalta says the faulty tactics began before Calderon came to the presidency in December 2006.

Furthermore, for Vilalta, the problem with government policy is not limited to the increased reliance on the armed forces, which is the most conspicuous element of Calderon's approach. The heightened efforts to pursue criminal cases on narcotics charges, which began in the final months of the Fox administration and continued under Calderon, also helped destabilize the drug trade. The monthly average for the number of open criminal investigations on drug charges under the Fox administration was 3,346, while under Calderon it stood at 6,567.

Vilalta sees societal factors as vital in driving the violence. One of these is a widespread tolerance and even expectation of official corruption in Mexico. If society as a whole sees corruption as the price of the government doing business, rather than a rare and exceptional act, then it becomes harder to demand honesty from police officers and political leaders. Criminal groups take full advantage of this broader societal ethos, creating a broad pattern of impunity.

Another issue is the absence of viable alternatives for many of the Mexicans who fill the ranks of criminal groups. "The lack of education and health opportunities are clear motives for social inequality and are also limitations for financial success," Vilalta said, echoing concerns about the so-called "ni-ni" class of youths, who are neither in education nor in employment. "This provokes anger and inconformity among groups in society that turn to crime to meet their objectives; crime is a means to the end of having money, and occasionally also to having status within a group. That’s why, in order to prevent crime, we must create opportunities for financial success through legal means."

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