Experts: True Number of Mexico’s Homicide Victims May Never be Known

By Mark Browne | September 8, 2016 | 7:57pm EDT
(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

Mexico City ( – Thousands of citizens are murdered in Mexico’s drug war each year, but experts say clandestine mass graves, inadequate forensics and corrupt local law enforcement make it impossible to know the true scale of the killings.

The Mexican online publication Zetatijuana claimed in an investigation released this week that 78,109 citizens have been murdered since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December of 2012 – an average of 21,199 homicides annually for the years 2013, 2014 and 2015.

But the true homicide rate might actually be higher, Zetatijuana said.

The Department of the Interior reported 63,816 homicides since Peña Nieto took office, the investigation said.

It accused the government of covering up the actual number of killings.

Francisco Rivas, director of a citizens’ group promoting justice and security, Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano, said the figure of 78,109 total homicides reported by Zetatijuana may be “relatively reliable.”

Rivas said, however, that there was “no evidence” to support the charge of an intentional cover-up.

But he contended that the government’s methods for recording homicides are far from trustworthy.

To begin with, recording homicides is the responsibility of local rather than federal officials, Rivas said, adding that local law enforcement agencies do not adequately investigate homicides.

Errors recording homicides also occur at state and local levels, due to lack of training and equipment and inadequate forensics, he said.

Bodies left in clandestine mass graves linked to organized crime violence may never be identified, so those deaths were not reported.

And when citizens go to local authorities to report a homicide, Rivas said, the authorities often “minimize the problem,” and some cases do not even investigate.

“At this point, I don’t know what to believe,” said Dr. Hiram Beltran Sanchez, a health and population expert at UCLA, and the lead author of a study of life expectancy and Mexico’s murder rate released last January.

“I would go so far as to say probably Mexico doesn’t know the precise homicide rate, or if they do, they don’t put it in the official data because there are so many discrepancies in the data sources,” Beltran said.

What is certain, though, was that drug-related violence in Mexico, formerly restricted to the northern regions bordering the U.S. according to his research in 2005 and 2010, has since spread south to many other parts of the country.

Beltran said there is “generalized violence throughout the country,” with the most violent states being Mexico, Guerrero, Chihuahua, Jalisco, Sinaloa, Colima, Michoacán, Veracruz, Tamaulipas and Mexico City.

Tristan Reed, a Mexico security analyst with the Texas-based independent intelligence analysis firm Stratfor, agreed that Mexico has seen significant reductions in crime in the north as the violence has shifted further south, and away from more populous areas.

Reed said Peña Nieto’s administration has made “very modest and in some cases unnoticeable gains in security.”

But compared to the previous administration of former President Felipe Calderon, he said, the incumbent president has achieved “significant reductions in homicides.”

But while the country’s northern cities, such as Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo and Juarez, have seen “significant reductions” in violence, there’s been a recent increase in Tijuana, Reed said.

Driving through the southern state of Guerrero “can be quite hazardous,” while Acapulco, the state’s well-known tourist destination, has “exceptionally high levels of violence” – although mostly outside tourist areas, where travel “can be quite dangerous.”

According to Stratfor, there were 29,920 homicides in Mexico in 2015.

A Stratfor study released earlier this year said that since the late 1980s Mexican drug cartels have multiplied into “more geographically compact, regional crime networks.”

The report predicted that the cartels would “continue to erode in 2016,” due to division and infighting, with no criminal group “immune to downsizing and decentralization.”

The report also predicted that organized crime-related violence would be “less severe” in 2016.

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