Mexico Govt Backtracks on Murder Data

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Despite its admirable openness in collecting and publishing data on violence, the Calderon administration has announced it will no longer make public the number of murders linked to organized crime in Mexico.

As Animal Politico reports, the Attorney General’s Office — the PGR, for its initials in Spanish — made the announcement in response to a request submitted last year through the Federal Institute for Access to Information. As a result, the only sources for the figure will be unofficial media tallies carried out by newspapers like Milenio and El Universal. The federal government will presumably continue to register the number of homicides through Inegi, its statistical bureau, and the National System of Public Security, but these agencies do not distinguish between murders in general and those tied to organized crime.

No public explanation was given for the change in policy, other than a perfunctory statement that such information was to remain confidential for reasons of national security. This is a silly argument; there is no logical reason to worry that the security of the nation could be compromised by releasing the quantity, location, and date of murders for public viewing.

If anything, hiding basic pieces of information has a negative impact on national security; it reduces the amount the public knows about what is going on, and feeds a generalized sense that no one is in control. Also, sooner or later, there will be significant, verifiable drops in the number of killings related to organized crime. This is something the government — though perhaps not Calderon, as he leaves office in December — will be eager to take credit for, but without a commitment to openness today, even genuine improvements will be treated with skepticism.

Presumably, the government’s decision is geared toward reducing the bad press regarding its security policies. Some have speculated that it is because the 2011 figures would reveal a new increase in the number of killings related to organized crime, providing fodder for Calderon’s opponents in this election year.

However, media tallies actually show a significant decline in the number of killings related to organized crime in 2011; according to Milenio, 12,284 murders were linked to organized crime last year, compared to the government’s figure of 15,273 in 2010. Measuring one year’s media figures against another’s government statistics is like comparing apples and oranges, and in the past media counts have been lower than the government’s tally. Despite this, it seems unlikely that, with virtually all media outlets arriving at numbers roughly similar to Milenio’s, the now-classified government total would represent an embarrassing spike.

Regardless of its reasons, the Calderon administration’s decision to block the information represents an unfortunate prioritization of short-term priorities over the long-term interests of the nation. While Calderon’s government has been rightly criticized various elements of its security policy, his team has been admirably open about the number of killings.

Indeed, when Guillermo Valdes, the director of Mexico’s intelligence agency (CISEN), announced in 2010 that some 28,000 murders linked to organized crime had taken place under the Calderon administration, this was significantly higher than most media organizations had counted. Similarly, despite the temptation to take advantage of the semantic murkiness and re-interpret the meaning of “linked to organized crime” in order to arrive at a lower number, Calderon’s team remained open about the data through most of last year.

In 2011, Alejandro Poire, currently the secretary of the interior and previously Valdes’ successor as the director of CISEN, continued the policy with the forthright admission that more than 15,000 of the prior year’s murders could be connected to organized crime, a sharp increase from 2009. In short, even as the numbers indicated a worsening climate, the government helped provide a fuller sense of the circumstances around Mexico.

Instead of hiding the stats, Poire’s approach was to dispute their significance. He argued, for instance, that the government’s targeting of capos did not cause the murder rate to spike, and repeatedly emphasized that the violence was concentrated in a relatively limited number of municipalities.

While InSight Crime has argued that many his arguments were misleading, presenting an alternative spin on unflattering statistics is far preferable to hiding them from view.

The danger of hiding the murder figures is made worse by the Mexican government’s long tradition of unreliable numbers. As InSight Crime has reported, the Calderon administration has been unable to offer a consistent account of all the federal troops who have been killed in the line of duty, providing several contradictory figures despite the fact that the number of dead is relatively small (no more than a few hundred).

This lack of reliable data reflects a longstanding institutional shortcoming, one that the Calderon administration, despite its laudable openness over the past two years, now appears to be embracing.

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