Mass Graves Boost Mexico’s Murder Rate

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With more than 1,400 murders related to organized crime, April was the deadliest month so far of Felipe Calderon’s presidency. But this figure may not entirely reflect the reality on the ground in Mexico.

April’s murder figures do not necessarily indicate a surge in violence this spring. As Mexican newspaper Milenio reports, almost a quarter of the deaths are bodies discovered in mass graves during the month.

Although there is little information so far on the human remains discovered in these “narcofosas,” it is likely that some of the bodies may have been there for a long time, or at least since before April. Subtracting the victims found in mass graves, or even half of them, would bring April well back within the “normal” range for drug killings. The month would then have significantly fewer such deaths than the previous highest, August 2010, which saw 1,322.

The situation in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, where news of mass graves began to emerge in the middle of last month, illustrates this. The state was the second most violent in April, with 216 drug murders, but the overwhelming majority of these — 185 — were remains disinterred from the mass graves in San Fernando. While the horror of these finds is overwhelming, the numbers indicate that perhaps as few as 31 deaths in Tamaulipas in April 2011 came from recent confrontations between criminal groups.

For a state that has been ground zero in the fight between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel since early 2010, this represents a rather small number, and suggests that perhaps the two groups’ war for territory has cooled. Over the course of last year, in contrast, more than 1,800 were killed in Tamaulipas in drug-related violence.

The other state making news with mass graves was Durango, where 102 bodies were discovered near the state capital. Again this made up a large part of the total number of drug murders in April, which amounted to 171 — a record for the state.

And despite the high numbers, much of the violence in April was concentrated in only a handful of states, most of them in the north of the country. This follows the pattern Mexico has seen for the last few years, with a relatively low murder rate across the country as a whole, and extraordinarily high rates in certain hotspots. Indeed, 89 percent of April’s drug murders took place in less than a third of the country’s states, namely Chihuahua, Durango, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Baja California Norte, Sonora, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon.

Ever-more shocking news, like April’s drug murder statistics, has become a significant political problem for Calderon. In a recent poll published by Mexico City daily El Universal, 62 percent of respondents said that the government is losing the war to the narcos, while just 21 percent said that Calderon and his team are on top. This 41-point gap was just 18 points in January 2010.

However, in the recent poll 86 percent expressed support for the use of the army to back the fight against drug traffickers, which indicates that the exasperation with the level of violence has not yet turned into a sea change of opinion, at least not with regard to that element of Calderon’s policy.

The violence has also made Calderon an easy target for his political adversaries, and given them an issue around which to coalesce. Anti-violence groups like No Mas Sangre (No More Blood) are planning marches in cities around the nation later in the week to protest, among other things, the government’s security policy. Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend.

The release of disturbing figures like those of April, even if they are artificially inflated by the discovery of mass graves, will only decrease public support for Calderon’s war.

Milenio - Map of Murders in Mexico

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