The Year in Which Mexico Will No Longer Live in Danger

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An alleged document containing targets for the incoming Mexican government outlines Enrique Peña Nieto’s goal of reducing the country’s homicide rates by 50 percent in his first year, a target which analyst Alejandro Hope notes will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

Reforma newspaper published an article a few days ago discussing a document supposedly produced by Enrique Peña Nieto’s (EPN) transition team. According to the article, the document told the same old story, proposing the target of a 50 percent drop in the number of homicides and a 30 percent drop in the number of kidnappings during the first year of government (it seems like this is based on numbers from 2011).

I haven’t seen the document, only the articles that highlight it. Given the degree of generality in the listed proposals, it looks like a working document. Even still, it is surprising that the transition team is thinking about committing to such an ambitious reduction in violence. The goal is laudable, but is it possible that violent crime rates could improve so much in so short a time?

It’s possible. It’s also extraordinarily difficult. A few numbers illustrate the complexity of the task:

  • According to the article, EPN’s team proposes reducing the homicide rate from 24 to 12 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013. This suggests they are using [government statistical agency] INEGI’s mortality statistics. Let’s do the calculations based on this.
  • Taking demographic change into account, a rate of 12 per 100,000 will equal approximately 13,800 intentional homicides in 2013.
  • According to INEGI, in 2011 there were 27,199 homicides. Given current trends (using Executive Secretary of the National System for Public Security (SESNSP) numbers as reference), this year will see some 25,000, an average of 2,083 homicides per month.
  • To reach the proposed target, the monthly average will have to drop to 1,150, a level not seen since 2008. Let me put it another way: the difference between the monthly average is equivalent to all the homicides committed in Michoacan in the past year. That is to say, reaching the goal would be equivalent to erasing a Michoacan every month.
  • Things get trickier when considering that, no matter what they are thinking about doing, the results aren’t going to be seen immediately. A couple of months will pass while the new officials take office, come into agreement over a new strategy and get it off the ground. Let’s say three months to be optimistic. We will assume that in January and February there will be inert results (some 1,800 homicides per month), but March will already see the effects of the new measures (whatever they may be). Afterwards, the average monthly number of homicides will need to be 1,020 after March. This is equivalent to erasing a Federal District every month.

Now, this doesn’t mean the goal is totally unreachable. In individual cities, there are examples of accelerated drops in violence. We don’t have to go very far to find them: Tijuana, just like Ciudad Juarez, both experienced an 80 percent reduction in the number of homicides in two years. But nationwide, the examples are scarcer. Dropping homicide rates by 50 percent took four years in Colombia (and at the time was considered almost miraculous). In the United States, it took 19 years (1991 to 2010) to achieve a similar reduction. The few cases which occur to me, for the most part, are countries that entered a peace process after a civil war (Iraq, Bosnia). I don’t think they’re much of a guide for how this can be achieved in Mexico.

The only relevant case which occurs to me is El Salvador. As I’ve commented in previous posts, the Salvadoran government, along with the Catholic Church and a few legislators, managed to establish a truce last March between the two principal gangs or maras: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. The arrangement required a non-trivial concession from the government: the main mara leaders were transferred from a high security prison to a normal prison. Nevertheless, the results have been notable: the daily average of homicides dropped 60 percent in the first two months that followed the beginning of the truce, and these low levels have been maintained since then.

This doesn’t mean that the only way to rapidly reduce violence is to start negotiating with criminal gangs. Nevertheless, it does imply that if dramatic results are wanted, probably non-conventional measures are needed, in which the impact doesn’t require long periods of maturation.

Unfortunately, nothing listed by Reforma as possible measures of the Peña Nieto administration  approach this definition. There is talk of creating a national gendarmerie, doubling the number of elite troops in the Federal Police, creating a scientific police force, deploying patrols and modern surveillance teams to the federal highways, and establishing emergency and immediate response systems in the states.

These ideas could be very good, but they have a basic defect in terms of the proposed objective: none of them can be done in the short term. Establishing a working gendarmerie, for example, would require several legislative changes, rules and manuals of operations, the purchasing of uniforms and equipment, authorization of installations, etc. All of this will take several months, optimistically. Consequently, the impact of this new force on crime rates during the government’s first year will be, in all probability, close to zero (and this is obviating the small inconvenience that, as described in the Reforma article, the gendarmerie will be made up of military personnel already involved in the fight against organized crime. So there will be the same number of elements, doing more or less the same thing, probably in the same places, but with a different uniform. Unless the new uniform is magical, I don’t understand why the results would be very different from the current ones).

The rest of the list is hardly mold breaking. There is nothing there that could cause a dramatic drop in criminal violence levels during the first twelve months of the government. As mentioned before, it’s possibly that the document highlighted by Reforma is no more than a working document with a few preliminary ideas. Maybe some short-term proposals will be included in later documents. We can hope: the country will breathe easier if the goal is met and bodies are no longer piling up with the speed of recent years. But you can be sure this won’t be achieved by magic. If the strategy of today, with a few adjustments, continues, the results are going to be like today’s, with a few adjustments. It will be that easy and that inevitable.

Translated and reprinted with permission from Alejandro Hope*, of Plata o Plomo, a blog on the politics and economics of drugs and crime published by Animal Politico. Read the Spanish original here.

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