Is A Wave of Violence Reversing Progress in Mexico?

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Analyst Alejandro Hope cautions that until better statistics are available, the recent wave of brutal attacks across Mexico shouldn’t be taken as indicative of an overall spike in violence.

In the past week, violence has again seized the headlines: from a shooting in Iztapalapa to the murder of a mayor, to the discovery of 14 bodies in San Luis Potosi, high impact incidents appear to have no end (Salvador Camarena presents, in El Pais, a good summary of these bloody days).

How to interpret a chain of bad news? Does this mean we are facing a new escalation of violence, after the relative improvement of the beginning of the year? Short answer: we still don’t know. Long answer, after the break.

1. One swallow does not make summer and a violent week does not make a trend. In the past six months, we have already had at least two moments of intensification of violence (one in February, the other in May) that did not signal a radical change of trajectory. From week to week and even from month to month, the curve of homicides moves like an electrocardiogram. It therefore requires more distance to identify tendencies and at this point, we only have official statistics up to June. We will have to see what the July and August statistics say (note: I already know that the SNSP [National Public Security System] statistics have problems of quality, but, nevertheless, they can serve as indicators of trends).

2. The recent escalation could be the result of a “summer effect”: from 2006 until today, the four month period from May to August has tended to be particularly violent, in comparison with the beginning and end of the year. There exist various possibilities to explain this seasonal behavior: 1) the heat (especially in the country’s north) could lead to more people spending more time outdoors, making some illegal activities more visible (the sale of drugs, for example) and facilitating the work of gunmen (it’s easier to find your victims or simply shoot them); 2) the school calendar could multiply the time that many young people go without adult supervision, facilitating the recruitment process of some criminal bands (this effect has been well documented in Ciudad Juarez); and, 3) the agricultural cycle of illicit crops could have some impact (the harvest has still not come and the money is already gone). Whatever the cause, it would be no surprise if the possible increase of these month is compensated by a decrease in the last part of the year.

3. One part does not represent the whole. Many media outlets have done a great job documenting and sizing up the phenomenon of violence. Nonetheless, even the most vigorous outlets cannot cover more than a fraction of the total number of violent incients. Four days ago, on a day it described as particularly violent, Milenio reported 38 killings. However, as my five regular readers know, a daily average of 60 homicides are registered in all the country, according to the numbers by the SNSP (and more if [Mexico’s statistical agency] INEGI’s statistics are used). That is to say, a high percentage (maybe the majority) of homicides are never reported by the media. Consequently, it is entirely possible that what increased these last few days was the spectacle of violence and not violence itself.

In summary, it is not necessary to jump to conclusions and speculate about the causes of an increase of violence, when we still don’t effectively know if violence has increased. I know it sounds boring, but there is no other choice: we will wait until the SNSP publishes its statistics. With all its defects (and there are many), it is the only source that a) provides information frequently and b) is more or less comprehensive (and I emphasize more or less because its numbers are underestimated). Rest assured that if violence has exploded, I will be the first to say it. But I won’t do it while I have nothing more than anecdotes and press releases.

*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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