Much Ado about Mexico, the State

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A new report examines the clamor over insecurity and the government’s insufficient response in Mexico’s largest state, and finds that reality and security priorities do not always overlap.

The report — titled “Why So Much Commotion with the State of Mexico and published by Animal Politico in cooperation with the Mexico Evaluawatchdog group — seeks to reconcile the upsurge in attention to the security problems in the State of Mexico (also known as EdoMex, for its abbreviation of Estado de Mexico in Spanish) with the more nuanced state of affairs on the ground.

As the authors note at the outset of their analysis, “Various media outlets have pointed to an increase in violence in certain cities” with the state. The challenges to EdoMex security have also earned the attention of some of the nation’s most prominent political operators: Governor Eruviel Avila called the surge in violence “atypical and temporary,” while Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong recently announced an EdoMex security plan on behalf of the federal government. 

In other words, it sounds like an “all hands on deck moment” when Mexico’s journalistic and political leaders realize that the time has come to take a security deterioration seriously. Yet when one breaks down the numbers, the picture is muddied. 

According to the National Public Security System (known for its initials in Spanish as the SNSP), EdoMex has one of the highest rates of automobile theft in the country, far above the national average and the corresponding rates of its neighbors. Rates of reported extortion have likewise shot up; the state’s rates are significantly worse than the national average and worse than they were just a few years ago.

But the homicide rate, though it has ticked up, has been below the national average every year since 2007. In 2013, it registered a rate of under 13 per 100,000 residents, compared to a national rate of roughly 16.5. EdoMex’s murder rate was also substantially lower than in neighboring Guerrero, Michoacan, and Morelos. The dynamic is similar with kidnapping, which has grown worse in EdoMex since 2007, but remains far less prevalent than in Guerrero, Morelos, and Michoacan. 

What explains the divergence in the statistics and the public perception of the same? And why does it appear that EdoMex is slipping into chaos?

The authors present three possible explanations, all of which could simultaneously play a role. One is the widespread lack of clarity in the criminal statistics, which can generate confusion or a lack of trust in government prescriptions. Each state is responsible for submitting its statistics to the SNSP, and there is no way to verify their veracity. Government officials have a natural interest in making statistics seem more positive, and there is little barrier to an unscrupulous official doing so, whether by discouraging reports of extortion or reclassifying homicide as manslaughter.

Even if the numbers are genuine in this case, the broader pattern of statistical uncertainty means that government assessments, even those based on statistical data, always face something of a barrier to acceptance in Mexico. 

Another potential explanation is the denial of reality as a government strategy. As a result, the public outrage builds as crime worsens and officials do nothing, instead merely standing by as “observers,” in the authors’ phrasing. They only seek to take action when the crisis boils over. Prescribing reasonable measures to solve the crisis and that prevent future crime are much harder to implement. 

The authors also mention the tendency of state and municipal governments to ignore their responsibilities on security issues, which overlaps with the denial of reality. Mexico has a long tradition of central control over a wide range of government functions, including those (like security) that are best handled primarily at the local level. As a result, when security worsens, the local governments merely look to the federal government to step in and help. Unfortunately, without local governments committed to taking an active role in preventing crime, the federal government will always be playing catchup, and the potential for a sudden deterioration will always be worse. 

The report also demonstrates one other enduring aspect regarding Mexican security: not all regions are created equal. Compared to Chihuahua or Tamaulipas, the problems in EdoMex are manageable afterthoughts. However, because of its connection to the capital (and because of the region’s ties to current President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is a former governor of EdoMex), the issues that do surface there reverberate far more than they do elsewhere in the country.

Other prominent metropolises, such as Monterrey or Mexico City, have faced similar media barrages in reaction to security issues, even when the statistical data is not particularly noteworthy. At the same time, many comparably remote areas of Mexico suffer security crises far worse than what EdoMex has experienced, without triggering any alarm bells among national media outlets or federal officials.

As a result, federal priorities are not guided by a logical calculation of what is the most urgent problem for the largest number of Mexicans. Rather, they are motivated by which region has the attention of the largest number of cameras, which is often not the same. 

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