Over 10,000 Dead: Is Mexican Drug War Violence Ebbing?

Statistical Slights-of-Hand and Temporary Lulls Have Obscured the Drug War's Rising Costs

The Mexican Attorney General's Office (PGR) reports that as of March 13 of this year it had counted 10,475 executions since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's term on December 1, 2006.  Furthermore, almost 10% (997) of the victims were public servants.

According to the PGR's official count for 2008 (released this past February only after an NGO filed a Freedom of Information request), 6,262* people died "violent deaths" in 2008--a 154% increase over 2007's official (according to the PGR) death toll of 2,477.  The NGO, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, had requested the year's organized crime death toll broken down by month and by state.   In response, the Mexican Attorney General's Office released one sheet of paper (PDF file) breaking down the violent death toll by state, but not by month.

The Mexican government has been quick to manipulate the 2009 numbers to demonstrate some sort of success in the war on drugs.  Eduardo Medina Mora, the Federal Attorney General, told press that the approximately 1,600 executions the PGR has recorded during the first three months of 2009 constitutes a 25% decrease over the last three months of 2008. (The AP reported that the drop occurred when the first three months of 2009 are compared to the first three months of 2008, but that is a misinterpretation of government officials' statements).

Milenio, however, notes that the most violent period of the Calderon administration occurred in January 2009: between December 26, 2008, and January 27, 2009--a period of 32 days--one thousand people were executed.  It points out that in 2007, it took 115 days to reach the first one thousand executions of the year; in 2008, 120 days.  Milenio also notes that the most violent day of Calderon's term was February 12 of this year, when 52 organized crime-related violent deaths were reported.  January 2009 was also the most deadly January under Calderon's watch: Milenio counted 480 executions in January 2009, 247 in January 2008, and 204 in January 2007.

Milenio points out that these numbers do not include people who are disappeared and presumed dead: that statistic is a "black hole." The death counts also don't include victims who may never be found: those whose cadavers are hidden in cement at construction sites and in new bridges and roads, buried in mass graves on ranches in backyards, and those that were dissolved in acid.  Santiago "El Pozolero" Meza Lopez, for example, admitted that he dissolved about 300 victims in acid for a drug baron linked to the Tijuana cartel.  Similarly, Charles Bowden, writing for Harper's Magazine,  interviews a former cartel hitman who says he's buried 250 victims, not all of whom have been found.  The victims are buried in mass graves all over Juarez, similar to the notorious "House of Death," a Juarez house where a dozen victims' bodies were found buried. 

At least some US officials appear to be buying Medina Mora's statistical slight-of-hand.  From April 3-5, a delegation from the US House of Representatives visited Mexico. The delegation included: Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE), Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Rep. Norman Dicks (D-WA), and Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL).  Upon returning from Mexico, Rep. Blunt told reporters that Medina Mora indicates that violence might have peaked and is beginning to decline (as paraphrased by the Joplin Globe).

Juarez: Martial Law Means It's Still a War Zone

A commonly cited example of the success of Calderon's military strategy (as measured by a peak and subsequent decline in violence) is the case of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.  With about 1,600 executions last year, Juarez is the most violent city in Mexico.  The state of Chihuahua, where Juarez is located, has registered more than twice as many violent deaths as the next most violent state, Sinaloa.  In 2008, the PGR counted 2,044 violent deaths in Chihuahua; Sinaloa registered 985 (less executions than in Ciudad Juarez alone).  Moreover, a Juarez police blotter leaked to Narco News correspondent Bill Conroy shows that for the first half of 2008 (the only time period for which information was available), homicides rose steadily--almost without exception--every month.  The violence had gotten so bad that at one Juarez resident posted a sign outside his office: "Dumping Trash or Cadavers Strictly Prohibited." The man was later murdered himself.

In response to the increasing violence in Mexico's deadliest city and claims from US corporate media and some US government officials that drug war violence is spilling across the border into the US, the Mexican government sent approximately 5,000 more troops to Ciudad Juarez in March of this year as part of "Joint Operation Juarez." When the surge is complete, 8,500 soldiers and 2,300 militarized federal police will occupy the city of 1.4 million people.  This means that there will be one soldier or militarized police officer for every 130 residents, and about 92 troops per square mile.

Thousands of soldiers have already arrived in Juarez, creating a situation of de facto martial law.  Soldiers have disarmed 380 transit police and will accompany them as they carry out their duties. Thirteen current and retired military officers have taken control of Juarez's police force: Ret. Gen. Julian David Rivera Breton, who made a name for himself in Chiapas when he was one of the military officials in charge of anti-Zapatista operations there, is the new police commissioner.  Twelve other past or current military officials join him as chiefs of Juarez's various police forces and as precinct heads.  The military will also take control of the Juarez prison.

The media immediately began to trumpet the success of Joint Operation Juarez.  One of the more popular stories was that of the Juarez morgue.  In a city that is accustomed to multiple murders per day, the Juarez morgue began to report entire days without a single "incident" (murder).  Morgue director Héctor Hawley Morelos told Proceso, however, that "Of course, all of the shifts that passed without incident were voided by the prison riot" on March 4 that resulted in 21 dead prisoners.

Government statistics and news reports show that violent crimes do in fact appear to be decreasing following the military build-up, although every government official and newspaper appears to report different death tolls for Chihuahua state and Juarez.  The Chihuahua State Attorney General's Office counted 157 murders in January and 232 in February, according to El Economista.  In March, the National Public Security Council reported 31 murders in Juarez (this number may be low, as the National Public Security Council only reported 178 Juarez murders in February, much lower than the State Attorney General's count for that month).

The question at hand, then, is: Will the downward trend last?

In "Juarez murders shine light on an emerging 'Military Cartel,'" Narco News correspondent Bill Conroy interprets a leaked police blotter to come to the conclusion that Juarez experienced a one-month lull in April 2008 following a late March military surge in Chihuahua.  The lull was short-lived: murders shot up from 30 in April to 115 in May.  The AFP reported that the murders continued to climb throughout 2008: the most violent months in Juarez were August  and December, with 228 and 200 murders respectively. The AFP reported 1,653 murders, meaning that from July to December 2008, the monthly average was 198--well above the 112 murders Conroy's leaked police blotter reports in June.

2008 Juarez murdersMurders climbed throughout 2008 despite the fact that about 2,500 soldiers and federal police have occupied Chihuahua since March 2008; the number includes 2,026 soldiers and 425 Federal Preventive Police. The majority of the federal troops were concentrated in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City.   The media has reported increased numbers of troops since then, eventually bringing the number of federal troops in Juarez alone to 2,500.

One possible explanation for the brief lull and then continuing climb despite the soldiers' presence is drug trafficking organizations' adaptation and evolution.  This is the US Department of Justice's explanation for why Plan Colombia has failed to decrease drug cultivation and production in Colombia: growers and criminal organizations adapted to new circumstances and adjusted accordingly. 

The question remains: Now that there is a fourfold increase in the number of federal troops occupying Juarez, will the drug trafficking organizations be able to adapt again?

The "Cockroach Effect"

There are already some reports that drug trafficking organizations are adapting to their new working conditions in Juarez.

Chihuahua Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez reported during the Justice, Security, and Combatting Organized Crime conference that the military surge has caused a "cockroach effect."  "The fight [between cartels] continues," she told conference attendees.  "They're reorganizing themselves in other parts of the state."  El Universal reports that while homicides have decreased in Ciudad Juarez, they've increased 50% in the rest of the state.  

Furthermore, while Chihuahua experienced an overall decrease in homicides in March (Ciudad Juarez's homicides account for 78% of Chihuahua's homicides, meaning that even though homicides are on the rise in the rest of the state, Juarez's significant decrease in homicides means the state can report an overall decrease), other states have seen increases in the number of executions.  Those states are, according to El Universal: Baja California, Campeche, Chiapas, Mexico City, Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Morelos, Nuevo Leon, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Sinaloa.  The states that stand out are Baja California (with 9 murders in February and 25 in March), Sinaloa (with 72 murders in March, compared to 43 in February), Durango (70 murders in February, 81 in March), and Michoacan (where, despite an ongoing military campaign there, murders doubled from 11 in February to 22 in March).  There is speculation that criminal organizations, feeling the heat in Juarez, are turning their sights on other parts of the country further to the south that are also in dispute.

There are also complaints that human rights abuses have increased in Juarez following the military surge.  Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a representative in Chihuahua for the official National Human Rights Commission, told a University of Texas forum that the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq "is a kinder game to what the soldiers are doing here (in Juarez)," reports the El Paso Times.

De la Rosa told Reuters, "I saw, at a checkpoint, a federal police officer open a woman's blouse and pop his hand under her bra (to look for drugs) in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day, in front of a thousand people, and completely surrounded by armed soldiers."

Reuters also reports that used at least one car dealer is complaining that soldiers are extorting money from his business.

The army is also accused of murdering two men, kidnapping a third, and beating a fourth man at a roadblock, all in one week.

In the first case, witnesses report that soldiers entered 41-year-old Eduardo Gonzalez Ramirez's home at 2:30pm on April 9, threw him into his bathroom where they beat him, and then they took him away.  His lifeless body was found the next day dumped at a Juarez intersection; his pelvis had been broken and he'd received heavy blows to the head.

In the second case, Sergio Fernandez and Javier Rosales had gone out in the early hours of April 7 to purchase beer when a military vehicle marked with the numbers 2321370 pulled up.  The soldiers, who were under the command of a Captain Molina, grabbed the two young men and threw them in the vehicle.  Fernandez reports that the soldiers accused the men of selling drugs and tortured them both, but that Rosales received the worst punishment because of his tattoos.  The soldiers allegedly accused Rosales of belonging to the Los Aztecas gang, so they tortured him the worst, says Fernandez.  The soldiers then dumped the men behind a hill.  Rosales died from his injuries; Fernandez made it to his mother's house.  His family left to search for Rosales' body where Fernandez said he left it.  The body had disappeared.  It showed up the next day in a place that had already been searched. 

When Fernandez attempted to file a complaint with local and federal authorities, no one would accept the complaint.  The government said it would only investigate if the Mexican Defense Ministry confirmed that the kidnappers were members of the military.  The military, of course, denied that its soldiers had participated in the kidnapping and murder, meaning that for now the case is closed.

In the third incident, soldiers stopped electrician Julio Escamilla Torres on April 13 at an intersection to search him.  Upon finding the screwdrivers he uses for work, the soldiers accused him of using the tools to mug people.  They beat him, breaking several ribs and severely injuring his leg. 

Human rights commissioner De la Rosa summed up the climate in occupied Juarez when he told a University of Texas crowd that if they approach an army checkpoint, "I advise you to stop.  Because if you run the checkpoint, they will shoot you in the head."


* As with all statistics about drug war death tolls, it is, of course, impossible to know how many of these "violent deaths" are organized crime related and how many are murders completely unrelated to organized crime.  Police who investigate, and even reporters who write about, organized crime deaths often receive death threats or are killed.  Therefore, many violent deaths are never investigated and never solved.  However, it is generally accepted (even by the government) that most violent deaths are organized crime related, and that violent deaths, regardless of whether they are related to organized crime or not, represent a measure of security or lack thereof in a nation at war.

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