Almost 500 Military Deaths Since Start of Mexico’s Drug War

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Mexico’s defense secretary says nearly 500 military personnel have been killed since the start of the country’s drug war a decade ago, an alarmingly high figure that nonetheless pales in comparison to the huge number of civilian casualties over the same period. 

A recent report (pdf) by the National Defense Secretariat (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional – SEDENA) counted 496 deaths of military officers during anti-narcotics operations since December 2006, when newly-elected President Felipe Calderón ushered in a more aggressive approach to combating the country’s drug cartels.

El Universal, which did a comprehensive analysis of the report, found that shootouts were the most common cause of death, accounting for 249 of the cases. Vehicular accidents were a distant second (111), while airplane crashes came in third (50). 

Tamaulipas has seen twice as many military deaths as any other state, with 120 cases. Sinaloa (60), Michoacán (54), Guerrero (39) and Chihuahua (27) round out the top five. 

The most violent year for military personnel was 2010, when there were 89 deaths. Last year saw the fewest number of deaths, with authorities registering just 24 cases. 

Two security experts interviewed by El Universal agreed that the government should stop exposing military officers to such high-risk environments and should begin withdrawing the armed forces from the drug war. 

The authorities “must establish the expiration date for the intervention of the armed forces in the fight against organized crime, in order to avoid more military deaths,” said Rodrigo Soto, an academic and security specialist at Universidad Panamericana.

InSight Crime Analysis

The security analysts are right to point out the extreme dangers that members of Mexico’s military face when deployed to fight organized crime. But the overwhelming share of violence has been inflicted on the country’s civilian population. According to a recent report by Milenio, 92,551 people have been killed due to organized crime since the start of the drug war. Other tallies have put that figure as high as 150,000.

The government’s reliance on the military to combat the cartels — first under Calderón and now under President Enrique Peña Nieto — has been an important factor contributing to the high death toll. The military has been implicated in several cases of extrajudicial killings, and its entrance into the drug war has been linked to a huge rise in reports of torture and abuse by Mexico’s security forces.

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Unsurprisingly, the states with the highest number of military deaths are also those where organized crime is strongest. In the northern border states of Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, criminal groups battle over valuable drug trafficking routes into the United States. Turf wars have also perennially made Sinaloa, Michoacán and Guerrero among the most violent states in the country. 

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