A new report from a US political science professor examines the causes and impacts of murders in Mexico, arriving at a handful of new policy prescriptions.
The report “The Local Educational and Regional Economic Foundations of Violence: A Subnational, Spatial Analysis of Homicide Rates across Mexico’s Municipalities” (pdf) was written by State University of New York (SUNY) professor Matthew C. Ingram for the Woodrow Wilson Center. In the document, Ingram examines all of Mexico’s murders in 2010 — a particularly violent year — categorized by municipality.
According to Inegi, the federal government’s statistics agency, Mexico witnessed 24,374 murders in 2010, the second-highest annual total of Felipe Calderon’s presidency. This figure represented a 23 percent increase on the prior year, which saw the second-highest jump in homicides of the Calderon administration.
As Ingram points out, and as has been widely reported, the murders were concentrated in a minority of Mexico’s 2,455 municipalities. Ingram also notes a number of other characteristics correlating with a high municipal murder rate, many of them novel observations.
For instance, Ingram notes that regions where three states intersect tend to lend themselves particularly to a high murder rate. Such was the case in the tri-border regions of Nayarit, Jalisco, and Zacatecas; Sonora, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa; and Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas. While this is a somewhat unusual perspective on Mexico’s problems, border areas (both within Mexico and around the world) tend to suffer from coordination problems among authorities in the relevant entities, allowing criminals to build a sanctuary on one side while wreaking havoc on the other.
Ingram also looked at the relationship between economic factors and the 2010 murder rate, arriving at a counterintuitive conclusion:
Specifically, an increase in economic inactivity (e.g., unemployment) decreases local homicide rates. This much is consistent with findings in the U.S., where scholars argue that economic inactivity may constrain the circulation of people, thus affording fewer targets for violent crime (e.g., Baller et al.).
Although this finding has been supported by US-based research, it does contradict the popular narrative that Mexican security reached bottom largely because of the global financial crisis that kicked off in 2008.
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Ingram also looked at education and topography in relation to crime. He found that at the local level, educational attainment was correlated with a lower murder rate within a specific community, though the spillover effects were limited. This finding fits with the widely-posited theory that the existence of millions of so-called “ni-nis” (a Mexican euphemism for youths who neither work nor go to school) is a major driver of violence.
With regard to topography, Ingram found that the more uneven the terrain in a given area, the higher the murder rate was likely to be. This makes sense. Internationally, mountainous terrain is often the most politically unstable, and such regions have frequently served as the focal points of insurgencies. In Mexico, the Sierra Madre Occidental has long been an area the state has struggled to dominate, and has spawned the nation’s most prominent drug traffickers for generations.
Based on his observations, the author makes a number of policy suggestions. First, to combat the coordination problems that often emerge in cross-border and tri-border areas, Ingram suggests using the federal government to oversee security policy. Both the Calderon government and the current administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto have relied on the federal government regularly in extremely violent areas, though the focus is typically not on the border regions per se, and coordinating among different agencies is often a secondary priority.
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In regard to his findings about educational achievement, Ingram recommends that the government concentrate educational resources in municipalities struggling with high murder rates. It is not clear how quickly such efforts could have benefits, but at the very least they would seem to represent a sound long-term investment. If the mechanism through which education reduces crime is simply by occupying at-risk youth, then it is plausible that funding for education could have a shorter-term impact as well, especially if coupled with the sort of after-school social programs put into place in Ciudad Juarez as part of the Todos Somos Juarez reconstruction plan.
One clear shortcoming of the paper is that Ingram is only looking at a year of data. Many of the findings, therefore, may be anomalies that disappear when one looks at subsequent years. Ingram recognizes this, offering his paper up as a first step for further research and cautioning against using his conclusions as the sole basis for policy prescriptions. At first view, however, Ingram’s analysis of the data appears to generate a handful of sound conclusions and wise prescriptions.