Mexico Kidnapping Figures Drop, Skepticism Remains

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Mexico has registered substantial declines in its rates of kidnapping in 2015, seemingly addressing one of the lingering challenges of the current security landscape.

As reported by Excelsior, according to the National Public Security System (known as the SNSP for its initials in Spanish), through the first ten months of 2015, Mexico has tallied 1,064 kidnappings. This represents a 32.4 percent drop from the corresponding figure of 1,619 in 2014.

The trend for extortion was similar, if not as drastic: after opening 5,400 investigations into alleged extortions from January through October 2014, this year the figure slipped to 4,479, a decline of 17 percent.

Many of Mexico’s most populous and violent states registered the biggest declines. Mexico State, by far the nation’s largest state by population, saw 145 kidnappings from January to October 2014, compared to 124 over the same period this year, a drop of 14.5 percent.

The proportional decline was even larger in many other key regions. Kidnappings in Nuevo Leon plummeted from 37 to 17, a 54 percent decline. In Sinaloa, they fell from 17 to 9, 45 percent less. In Guerrero, Mexico’s most conflictive state over the past several years, kidnappings dropped from 95 to 68.

While the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto has coincided with a sharp decline in the murder rate, the frequency of kidnappings has been more resistant to decline. As InSight Crime reported in 2013, the initial drop in murders at the outset of the Peña Nieto presidency contrasted with an uptick in reported abductions. Earlier this year, Animal Politico reported that the first 27 months of Peña Nieto’s presidency registered 52.7 percent more kidnappings than the final 27 months of Felipe Calderon’s term.

InSight Crime Analysis

Over the past ten years, large criminal organizations have fragmented and their remnants have diversified into crimes such as extortion and kidnapping, as well as other activities like human trafficking, car theft, and the theft of primary resources. The SNSP indicates that from 2007 to 2012 — in essence, Calderon’s first and last year in office — the national figure for kidnappings more than tripled, leaping from 438 to 1,418. The number of extortion cases more than doubled from 3,123 to 7,284.

While Mexico’s murder rate has rightfully received a great deal of attention as a barometer of organized crime, kidnapping and extortion have a comparable or even greater impact on popular sentiment regarding public security. Unlike organized crime-related murders, in which gunmen and their bosses typically aim for rivals and leave ordinary citizens alone, extortion and kidnapping frequently target non-combatants. It is no coincidence that even as murders have declined substantially under Peña Nieto, popular perceptions of public security remain persistently grim.

It stands to reason, then, that amid the current decline in kidnappings, Mexico’s citizens will likely express a greater level of confidence in the nation’s security.

However, a complicating factor in looking at kidnapping and extortion, and one that demands significant skepticism in interpreting government figures, is the fact that the vast majority of such crimes are not reported. A successfully realized extortion racket or kidnapping for ransom will not leave evidence, and victims have a powerful disincentive against reporting such crimes. Estimates derived from victimization surveys suggest that approximately 98 percent of kidnappings are never reported to authorities, and would therefore never appear in the SNSP statistics.

The reliability of reporting varies tremendously from state to state. In Chihuahua, where some of the nation’s most powerful gangs operate and home to the key border crossing and former world’s deadliest city Ciudad Juarez, the SNSP has tallied just 11 cases of extortion and six kidnappings, both of which are absurdly low. The figure of nine cases in Sinaloa is similarly unbelievable.

Statistics revealing trends from one year to the next should theoretically be more reliable, but this relies on the rate of this non-reporting, known in Mexico as the “cifra negra,” remaining constant. In fact, a drop in the cifra negra from 98 percent to 97 percent, which could respond to random variation or to any of several other possible factors, would account for virtually all of the variation in the SNSP figures from 2014 to 2015.

Of course, a drop in the number of registered kidnappings is much preferable to the alternative. But before anyone celebrates a victory on this key challenge, the SNSP trend needs to continue for years to come, or it must be corroborated by other sources. Otherwise, it’s not clear we are looking at much more than noise.

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