Mexico Crime Survey Reveals Conflicting Trends

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Mexico’s declining murder rate counts as a major accomplishment for President Enrique Peña Nieto, but the nation’s annual victimization survey indicates that the country remains beset by violent crime.

Mexico’s demographic and statistical agency recently published the results of its latest victimization survey, known as Envipe. The survey paints a picture of a population that has suffered at the hands of criminals at a steadily increasing rate: 22.4 million Mexicans told the Envipe pollsters that they had been victims of a crime in the past year, up from 21.6 million in 2012. This is the third straight year of increases. The total number of crimes has also spiked in recent years: Envipe registered 33.1 million total, a roughly 50 percent increase from the 22.4 million registered in 2011. 

The most common crimes were robbery, extortion, and car theft, all of which increased significantly. The four states showing the highest rate of victimization were Mexico City, Mexico State, Baja California, and Jalisco. The states showing the largest increases — and thus those largely responsible for driving the national increase –were Coahuila, Chiapas, Mexico State, Tlaxcala, and Oaxaca. 

This widespread increase in victimizations is a major part of the reason why more Mexicans are saying they feel unsafe. According to the most recent survey, 73.3 percent of Mexicans report feeling insecure, the second straight increase under Peña Nieto, following a tally of 66.6 percent in Felipe Calderon’s final year in office. 

All of this occurs amid a much celebrated decline in homicides: in 2013, Peña Nieto’s first full year in office, the National Public Security System (SNSP) tallied 18,331 murders, a decline of roughly 15 percent from the previous year, and a drop of almost 20 percent from 2011. This decline has been a landmark achievement for Peña Nieto’s administration, and has earned him plenty of praise. 

So how does one explain this divergence? How is it that, amid a historic and long overdue decline in the murder rate, Mexicans are saying they are increasingly beseiged by other types of crime, and feeling increasingly unsafe?

InSight Crime Analysis

The divergence between increased rates for crimes like extortion and robbery rates on one side — contrasted with dropping murder rates on the other —  has been much remarked upon, and represents a significant hole in Peña Nieto’s “saving Mexico” narrative. The Envipe survey offers further evidence of that trend. 

One way to explain this dynamic is by looking at recent developments in the world of organized crime. As Lilian Chapa of public policy think-tank Mexico Evalua pointed out to InSight Crime, the most prominent feuds have subsided: the Juarez Cartel and Sinaloa Cartel no longer clashing over Juarez, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel’s struggle for the northeast has subsided, and the scraps of the Arellano Felix Cartel are no longer battling Sinaloa for Tijuana.

Furthermore, as these larger groups have weakened, their replacements are often smaller, more local gangs. These are less capable of arranging drug shipments from producers in South America, or transporters in Central America. Instead of transnational drug trafficking, the revenue for these smaller gangs comes from crimes like robbery, kidnapping, and extortion.

Jaime Lopez-Aranda, a former official with Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Security, told InSight Crime that the drop in murders essentially represents a regression to the mean — a return to what Mexico’s average murder rate has traditionally looked like. Additionally, the decline in murders can be explained by the fact that “the majority of the homicides were concentrated in a small group of states in which there was and is a massive deployment of army, marine, and Federal Police forces, combined with the exhaustion that a prolonged war implies for the criminal organizations.”

Nevertheless, the Envipe survey could also be interpreted to suggest something more nefarious — that Mexico’s homicide statistics, so touted by the Peña Nieto administration, do not include a large number of untabulated killings. Of course, one could argue that the difficulty in hiding dead bodies means it’s unlikely that there’s a large number of uncounted murders.  But the frequent and widespread discovery of mass graves — relevant examples include Tamaulipas, Durango, and most recently in  Guerrero — and the thousands of Mexicans who have gone missing in recent years suggests that the recent improvement under Peña Nieto is at least partially illusory. 

Notably, in an e-mail to InSight Crime, Chapa noted that by and large, Mexico uses a poor methodology when registering murders. The murder statistics are compiled across Mexico’s 32 states without using a common manual for how to do so, he added. “Their tallies are unverifiable,” he stated. 

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