Mexico's Drug War Death Toll: 8,463 and Counting
A record-breaking 5,612 people were executed in Mexico’s drug war in 2008, making the drug war more deadly than the drugs
Mexico's daily El Universal, which began counting drug war executions four years ago, reports that 5,612 people were executed in Mexico’s drug war in 2008. This year’s deaths more than doubled 2007’s total of over 2,700 executions. By El Universal's estimates, about 8,463 drug executions have occurred during the first two years of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s six-year term in office. Calderon deployed the army and federal police to combat drug cartels almost immediately upon assuming office in December 2006.
The 2008 death toll means that the drug war in Mexico alone (that is, not including the copious number of drug war deaths in Colombia) is more deadly than illicit drugs in the United States, which is the biggest drug market in the world and the destination for the overwhelming majority of the American continent’s drugs.
In 2005, the latest year the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) has published statistics for fatal drug overdoses, 22,400 people fatally overdosed in the US—this statistic includes both intentional and unintentional overdoses. However, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines/amphetamines caused only 39%, or about 8,736, of those overdoses. Marijuana does not cause fatal overdoses. When presenting the 2005 statistics, the CDC stated that it expected the number of fatal overdoses to increase in subsequent years, but said that prescription drugs would be responsible for the increase. Prescription medications are the cause of more fatal overdoses than any other drug in the US.
The drugs in question in Mexico’s drug war—cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines/amphetamines, and marijuana—were responsible for 8,736 drug deaths in one year in the US, although 100% of these drugs do not pass through Mexico. Mexico has only recently become a major source for methamphetamines/amphetamines; it currently supplies about 53% of the meth found in the US. About 90% of the US’ cocaine passes through Mexico. About 11% of heroin seized in the US comes from Asia and does not pass through Mexico. For our purposes, the percentage of US marijuana that originates in Mexico is a moot point because it does not cause fatal overdoses. Therefore, it can be said that Mexico’s drug trafficking industry is not responsible for 100% of the US’ 8,736 fatal overdoses. However, because the CDC does not offer a drug-by-drug breakdown of overdose deaths, which would allow a more accurate calculation of how many US overdose deaths are related to Mexican drug trafficking, we’ll continue assuming that all 8,736 overdose deaths are related to Mexican drug trafficking, knowing that this is an inflated estimate.
The US has a population of approximately 305,522,804 people, meaning that approximately 1 out of every 34,972 US residents fatally overdose on drugs that could have possibly originated in or passed through Mexico.
Mexico has a population of approximately 108,700,891 people. In 2008, 5,612 people, or 1 out of every 19,369 Mexicans, died in the drug war, meaning that the drug war is almost twice as deadly for Mexicans as illicit drugs are for US residents. Does this mean that a US resident’s life is nearly twice as valuable as that of a Mexican?
The death toll only continues to rise in Mexico. In addition to more than doubling 2007’s death toll and breaking an all-time execution record in Mexico, the drug war death toll has steadily—and rapidly—increased in 2008. During the last two months of 2008, drug executions reached a rate of one per hour.
Chaos and Violence: Anticipated and Desired
Drug war experts as well as Mexico’s own National Defense Department (Sedena in its Spanish initials) expected that drug trafficking-related deaths would increase as a result of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs. US President George W. Bush and President Calderon have both said that the increased homicides and drug-related deaths are signs of success because they mean that the drug cartels are getting desperate.
Rather than being an undesired consequence of the drug war, the increased death toll appears to be part of Sedena’s strategy. In a report obtained by the Mexican daily Milenio entitled “The National Defense Department in Combat Against Drug Trafficking” Sedena’s thirst for war is obvious. Sedena refers to its current military campaign as a “crusade” in which Milenio reports its “top priority is to attack the adversary in a coordinated manner on all fronts in order to be ready for a sign of weakness that would allow it to “annihilate”’ the cartels. The report states that one of Sedena’s four fundamental “aspects of combat” is to “cause [the cartels] the greater number of deaths; create divisionism in their structures; provoke internal confrontations and induce their self-destruction.” The chaos and violence caused by Calderon’s deployment of troops against the cartels was not only anticipated, but desired.
Plan Colombia has demonstrated that eliminating cartels does not eliminate the drug market. Plan Colombia destroyed Colombia’s two biggest cartels, but they were quickly replaced by numerous smaller boutique cartels. Thanks to drug traffickers’ ability to adapt to new circumstances, coca production has increased 15% during Plan Colombia, and cocaine production has increased 4%.
The Institute for Policy Studies’ Sanho Tree explained to Pacifica Radio’s Drug War News why Mexico’s strategy of “annihilating” cartels has caused what he refers to as a “bloodbath.” Tree argues, “When you have this kind of turf battle going on between rival cartels, the worst thing the state can do is get in the middle of that.” He says he explained this to staffers on Capitol Hill when Congress was debating Plan Mexico, also known as the Merida Initiative. Plan Mexico throws the might of the US military industrial complex behind Mexico’s drug war.
Tree's warnings obviously fell on deaf ears in Congress, which passed the first year of Plan Mexico funding.
Tree compares Mexico’s turf wars to street dealing in the US:
If you pull a small-time dealer off a street corner, you've opened up a very valuable piece of real estate, and so other groups try to move in, to control that space, because that's where people go to buy drugs. You can't really go to a judge and say "Your Honor, I've been dealing drugs in this city for 15 years, and here comes this upstart gang from across town moving in on my turf." So the way they settle that is with violence or threats of violence, and you can see that on the macro level in Mexico. There, the Gulf cartel and the Sinaloa cartel are having this ongoing turf battle, and President Calderon's reaction when he first came into office was to be Mr. Tough Guy: "I'm gonna go down there and kick some butt and put the army in there.” And all that does is keep these rival cartels off-balance. Because the profits are so extreme, they're going to keep struggling to get the upper hand. It's an endless cycle. Being tough is not the same as being effective.