Dexter Boniface

Who’s Afraid of Mexico?

In Mexico, Violence on March 15, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Mexico’s violent drug war is again making headlines. The coordinated and brutal murder of two Americans (a pregnant Mexican-American consular employee, Lesley A. Enriquez and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs) and a Mexican married to another U.S. consular employee in Ciudad Juarez prompted outrage from the White House. In the same weekend, 24 more people were killed in drug-related violence in Western Mexico. How dangerous is Mexico and Latin America more generally?

How Violent is Latin America?

The answer is: rather extremely violent and dangerous. However, it also depends. Latin America is a diverse region. Some countries and cities are extremely violent and others are perfectly safe. For example, an analysis of one commonly used measure of violence — the homicide rate per 100,000 people — reveals dramatic variations from country to country.*

Canada (1.6) has the lowest homicide rate in the hemisphere, comparable to Western Europe (1.4). Peru (3.8) is not far behind. Several other countries – Argentina (5.7), Chile (8.5), Costa Rica (7.6), Cuba (6.2) and Uruguay (5.5) – have homicide rates that are comparable to that of the United States (5.6).

Mexico (11), Panama (11.6), Nicaragua (13.2), Bolivia (14.9), Paraguay (16), Ecuador (17.9) and the Dominican Republic (18.1) – are notably more violent than the United States but still more pacific than, say, Russia (19.9).

A final set of countries exhibit fairly extreme levels of violence – Haiti (21.6), Brazil (26.6), Guatemala (36.4), Honduras (39.2), Venezuela (40), Colombia (50.4), and Jamaica (51.6). El Salvador (59) has one of the highest reported homicide rates in the world, edging out South Africa (47.5) and Lesotho (50.7).

*Data sources: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Homicide Statistics (the rates reported here are the country averages for all sources for the years 2003-2008). The data for Russia, South Africa and Lesotho are from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Human Development Report 2007/2008 (2007), Table 27. The map is from UNODC (2004).

The Surprisingly Safety of (parts of) Mexico

The nature and scope of violent crime in Mexico is certainly shocking. As Bloomberg.com bluntly summarizes, “News reports in Mexico are filled with stories about police turning up dead by the dozen, discoveries of decapitated bodies, and firefights with drug gangs using assault rifles.” Since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels in December 2006 it is estimated that drug-related violence has claimed as many as 23,000 lives. Ciudad Juarez, a northern border city of approximately 1.5 million people, had more than 2,500 murders in 2009 alone (476 in September). With a horrifying homicide rate of 173 per 100,000, it is one of the deadliest cities in the world.

Nevertheless, the escalating violence in certain parts of Mexico conceals the surprising fact that the country’s homicide rate has actually declined over the past twelve years. As an interactive map by the Los Angeles Times illustrates, drug-war-related deaths are largely concentrated in the Northern border states of Baja California (home to Tijuana) and Chihuahua (home to Ciudad Juarez), the Pacific coast states of Sinaloa, Guerrero and Michoacan and adjacent states such as Durango and Mexico state. Furthermore, the vast majority of the dead are criminals.

Many popular tourist destinations like Cancun and the Yucatan peninsula, Oaxaca, Puerto Vallarta (Nayarit) and Cabo San Lucas (Baja California Sur) are largely untouched, a fact highlighted by an LA Times feature on “Mexico’s family-friendly hot spots” (see also their feature on American exapts (“refugees”) in Mexico, “One man’s war zone is another’s paradise“). Mexico City, often derided for its excessive pollution and crime, has a homicide rate on par with Los Angeles (and less than a third of that for the American capital, Washington, D.C.); pollution levels have also declined to semi-endurable levels. As a recent Miami Herald article summarizes, “The annual murder rate for the estimated 500,000 American citizens in Mexico at any one time has risen – but still remains lower than in some U.S. cities: about 15 per 100,000. Baltimore’s 2009 homicide rate was 37 per 100,000 residents.”

Global Danger Zones: Central and South America

Tragically, the gruesome violence in Mexico pails in comparison to that of much of Central and South America. As the UN map above makes clear, the level of violence in these regions is rivaled only by that of the southernmost countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. Trends are particularly worrying in Central America, where the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have increasingly been ravaged by violent gangs (maras) and organized crime. The tiny country of El Salvador (population seven million) registered 4,365 murders in 2009 (up from 3,179 in 2008), a homicide rate exceeding 60 per 100,000. With a population of 7.7 million, Honduras recorded 6,236 murders in 2010 (and more than 20,000 over the last five years), making it perhaps the most violent country in the world. Violence levels are also shockingly high in many parts of South America. In Brazil, some 11,000 people were shot dead by the police since 2003, which is to say nothing of the even greater casualties inflicted by the country’s violent criminals.

Drug violence has killed nearly 14,000 people nationwide since the government launched a crackdown on cartels in 2006.
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  1. Great post. The stats from Mexico and across Latin America only seem to highlight that the causes of the current explosion of violence in Mexico mirror the causes associated with the explosion of violence in the United States in the 1980s. I.e., conflict among criminal syndicates trying to establish control over territory to insure profits from drug activities. If we want to counteract the violence we need to talk about how we can reduce the profit associated with criminalized drug use. I don’t believe we can seriously discuss legalization, but ignoring the problems with criminal structures associated with drugs seem problematic.

  2. This article specifically addresses homicide in Mexico. Yes, Mexico is a dangerous place IF you work for the Cartels, yet even with those numbers included, Mexico is safer than most American cities. If you remove the ’employee’ deaths and police deaths. (combatants in this drug war) Mexico is almost (even TJ) as safe as the safest in the US, San Diego. However, petty crime is on the rise, as it is in most countries affected by the current economic situation. Travelers should be extra alert as to protection of cash and valuables when traveling, as criminals make tourists as ‘easy marks’ Come on down and enjoy the sun, Mexico is stilla great, warm friendly place to vacation.

  3. Wish I’d seen this post prior to our Women & Globalization spring break trip to Mexico – would have reassured a lot of parents who emailed us. Margaret McLaren assured them that it was like going to Dubuque, Iowa rather than Compton or Detroit. You would never tell a US tourist that the whole country was dangerous.

  4. The homicide rate per capita is insufficient to measure the extent of violence in a region. The biggest problem is Mexico are not the homicides, but more the kidnapping and human trafficking of sexual slaves. (If you don’t know, the narcos don’t just sell drug). Disappearances of people, kidnapping and rapes are not in the homicides statistics. Crime does not always kill.

    Central America have similar problems than Mexico. But it’s also an area with violence related to political problems and guerrillas, and nobody is trying to sell you trips to “paradise” in these countries, unlike in Mexico. Stop saying that the U.S. is more dangerous than Mexico and stop promoting tourism in this dangerous country.

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