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Mexico's Violent Crime Numbers Don't Add Up

  • Written by Alejandro Hope*
  • Wednesday, 24 April 2013
Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong

Murders "unrelated" to drug trafficking went up in the first four months of the current  administration, according to Mexican government figures -- but does this really mean that the narcos are killing less, while all other forms of violence are growing?

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My dear regular readers may recall that last week I made some observations about the security report presented by Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong. They were brief comments, made on the fly. Well, I have continued reviewing the numbers, and the more I look at them, the more they worry me. In particular, there are two causes of concern:

1. The unusual number of homicides "unrelated to organized crime." The report did not refer to the changes in the number of homicides, but rather to a subcategory titled "homicides thought to be related to organized crime" (called "intentional homicides related to federal crimes" in other reports). According to the numbers presented by the Interior Ministry (SEGOB), during the first four months of the current government, this subcategory of homicides decreased by 17 percent compared with the previous trimester, and by 14 percent compared to the same period the year before (December 2011 to March 2012). There is, however, a problem with the numbers: intentional homicides, according to the Secretary General of National Public Safety (SESNSP), decreased by 8.5 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively, compared with the same periods. That is to say, only half the decline in "organized crime-related" homicides. This implies that homicides "unrelated to organized crime" behaved in a radically different manner than those "related." No figures exist on "unrelated" homicides, but an approximate number can be reached in two steps: 1) Multiplying the number of previous intentional homicide investigations by 1.2 in order to get an estimated number of victims, thus making SESNSP's data compatible with that of SEGOB (note: if you multiply the SESNSP number by 1.2, you get, more or less, the same number of homicides reported by the government statistics agency INEGI), and 2) Subtracting the number of "related" homicides from that total.mex graphmex graph2

I performed this exercise for each of the periods mentioned in the report, and the results I obtained were interesting, to say the least: "unrelated" homicides increased in the first four months of the current administration. Compared to the same period last year, the increase is 1.9 percent, and compared with the previous trimester, it is 6.5 percent (this implies an annual growth of 21 percent). Does this mean that the drug traffickers are killing much less, but that all other possible forms of violence are growing? Has there been an explosion of domestic violence, bar fights, land conflicts and assaults that end in murder? What factors could explain a phenomenon of this nature? Or, is it not more likely that the government changed the criteria for classifying a homicide as "related to organized crime"? If this is the case, how can comparisons with previous periods be valid? I'll leave you to make your own judgments, but I find numbers showing that everyone is killing more, except drug traffickers, to be very suspicious.

2. The peculiar kidnapping data. Last week, I commented that SEGOB's kidnapping numbers didn’t match with those of SESNSP. In order to explain this incongruence, I hypothesized that, perhaps, the SEGOB numbers included kidnappings reported to the federal police or the Attorney General's Office (PGR), and for which there would not exist, by definition, a previous investigation by a state attorney general’s office. A more detailed analysis of the numbers has led me doubt this previous explanation. If you limit yourself to the SESNSP information, there is no great difference between the last trimester of the Felipe Calderon administration (115 kidnappings per month on average) and the first trimester of President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration (117 monthly kidnappings on average). But the remainder (the kidnappings not registered by SESNSP but reported by SEGOB) shows a radically different picture: the monthly average drops from 68 to 21 between the two periods (a 70 percent decrease). What could explain such a strange evolution?  Why would the numbers show a sharp drop in kidnappings reported to federal authorities, but not in the number of reports made to state authorities? Frankly, I have no idea. And matters get even stranger in March, when the number of kidnappings reported by SEGOB (98) was lower than the number of previous investigations registered by SESNSP (137). What happened? Why did they decide to exclude not only the mysterious remainder, but also a third of the formal reports made to state attorney generals' offices? I don’t understand. The only explanation that occurs to me is that they simply invented the entire set of mex graph3numbers and thought that nobody was going to notice. That, or they had severe problems in methodological consistency and, from month to month, changed which sources they consulted. But whatever the origin of the inconsistencies may be, they are so serious that they make the idea of a big drop in kidnappings in the first months of the current administration laughable.

I understand that the authorities want to show numbers regarding violence in the most favorable light possible: all governments do this and will continue to do this. What is less justifiable is that that they attempt to manipulate the numbers to make them say something they don’t say. No, the incidence of violent crime has not changed much since the final months of the Calderon administration. That is the plain truth. I hope that this reality will be the basis for decision making, rather than a bunch of laughably inconsistent numbers. It's not a problem if a government produces propaganda, but it is a problem if a government believes it.

P.S.: There is an error in the table of kidnappings included above: in the month of March, the SESNSP registered 137 kidnappings, not 125. Therefore, it is 39 percent lower than SEGOB's figure, and the SESNSP number is 139.8 percent that of SEGOB for that month.

*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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