State Dept. homicide stats put Narco-bogeyman scare on ice

In late January, only a few weeks into the new year, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to U.S. citizens that urged them to avoid the border area in Mexico because of escalating violence due to narco-trafficking activities.

Few in the media questioned the veracity of the warning. After all, if the government says it’s so, it must be so. But what do the numbers tell us?

If U.S. citizens are facing a greater risk to their safety along the border, shouldn’t there be a way of measuring that increased risk, an accounting of the increase in murders, kidnappings and disappearances?

The State Department warning began as follows:

This Public Announcement is being issued to alert U.S. citizens to the current security situation along the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border in the wake of increased violence among drug traffickers. Although the majority of travelers in the region visit without mishap, violent criminal activity, including murder and kidnapping, in Mexico's northern border region has increased. The overwhelming majority of the victims of violent crime have been Mexican citizens. Nonetheless, U.S. citizens should be aware of the risk posed by the deteriorating security situation. This Public Announcement expires on April 25, 2005.

The warning has been buttressed by a barrage of media reports blaming the supposed rash of violence against U.S. citizens on the evil deeds of narco-traffickers along the border. The FBI even issued a bulletin warning that narco-traffickers were plotting to kidnap and murder federal agents along the border -- a plot that the FBI admitted was not credible a few days later.

Critics of Narco-bogeyman scare being fueled by the State Department, FBI and mainstream media point out that narco-traffickers rarely kidnap or murder U.S. Citizens who are not linked to the drug trade. Such activity, the critics explain, would focus more law-enforcement attention on the activities of the narco-traffickers, which would be bad for their business.

The Narco-bogeyman hype, these critics point out, has more to do with bolstering the White House’s leverage in Mexican affairs --particularly in the upcoming Mexican presidential elections -- than it does with protecting U.S. citizens. Convincing the public that their safety is being threatened by violent narco-thugs, critics contend, opens the door for U.S. policymakers to more directly interfere with the affairs of Mexico -- and to prop up a Mexican presidential candidate more in line with official U.S. interests.

So how can we know the truth beyond the rhetoric? Narco News set out to answer that question.

Seeking answers

Narco News filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Jan. 27 with the U.S. State Department in an effort to get hard figures on the number of U.S. citizens who have been kidnapped, murdered or who have disappeared in Mexico over the past 10 years. The FOIA request was filed only after Narco News attempted to get the same information from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, and was greeted with the following response.

“We don’t have figures to respond to this question at this time,” said Diana Page, assistant press attaché for the U.S. Embassy Mexico. “The consular section is working on helping Americans, so getting statistics together has to wait.”

A couple weeks after filing the FOIA request, Narco News was contacted by Greg Blackman, a State Department program analyst. Blackman informed Narco News that the State Department would not likely be able to produce the 10 years worth of information being sought through the FOIA. In particular, Blackman said he was not aware of any report that tracks kidnappings or disappearances of U.S. citizens in Mexico on an aggregate basis over the course of multiple years.

“... I severely doubt we have the information you're looking for, “ Blackman said. "... I have people looking into it now, so I don't know for sure what records are kept or how yet."

What? Does that mean the State Department is warning U.S. citizens about an increased danger to their safety in Mexico, yet they don’t even track, in a systematic fashion, how all those threats are playing out?

That might be true in part. Although Blackman is not aware of any reports or coordinated tracking system for kidnapped or missing U.S. citizens in Mexico, that doesn’t mean the data doesn’t exist. Maybe there is such an accounting record buried somewhere in the bowels of the State Department bureaucracy, which is what the FOIA request is designed to bring to the surface.

But clearly, if there is no such record maintained, then it certainly does raise serious questions about the basis for the State Department’s warnings with respect to the threat to U.S. Citizens along the border.

Blackman did shed some light on another part of the numbers game, however. He pointed Narco News to a report on homicides in Mexico, a report tucked away within the cyber-seams of the State Department Web site.

By the numbers

A little known provision of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal 2003 requires that the State Department “collect and make available on the Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet Web site certain information with respect to each United States citizen who dies in a foreign country from a non-natural cause.”

So, as of Sept. 30, 2002, the State Department began tracking such U.S. deaths abroad, including homicides. The information is updated every six months. As a result, there are two full years of statistics related to U.S. citizens who were murdered in other countries, including Mexico.

The data does not reflect kidnappings or disappearances, but it still provides a revealing snapshot of the level of violence experienced by U.S. citizens who are either living in or visiting another country. As a result, it should be viewed as at least one major indicator of whether narco-trafficking has suddenly flared up in Mexico over the past year, as the State Department’s narco-scare advisory indicates is the case. After all, these are the State Department’s own figures.

The report, called U.S. Citizen Deaths From Non-Natural Causes, By Foreign Country, does include a few caveats, which are covered in the introduction to the report:

Important Note: The table below should not be considered a statistically complete account of U.S. citizen deaths in foreign countries during the reporting period. The table includes only those deaths reported to the Department of State and for which information available to the Department establishes the death was by a non-natural cause. Most American citizens who die abroad were resident abroad. In some instances, it does not occur to surviving family members to inform the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate of the death. The report may not include some deaths of U.S. military or U.S. government officials. To accommodate privacy concerns the table omits identifying information.

Still, even with those reservations, it is clear that these are the only deaths that the State Department knows of in an official way. Any travel warning issued by the government would have to rely, in large part, on this data, then – unless our government is prone to extrapolating anecdotal evidence to create its foreign policy.

So, to the point: What do the figures show?

In 2003, the first full year for which homicides figures are recorded, a total of 42 U.S citizens were murdered in Mexico, the report shows. A total of 18 homicides that year occurred along the U.S.-Mexican border.

In 2004, through Dec. 31, a total of 35 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico, with 17 of those homicides occurring along the border.

That’s right. The murder rate actually dropped between 2003 and 2004.

So how can we explain the recent travel advisory issued by the State Department? It appears the numbers, at least in terms of homicides, don’t support the Narco-bogeyman scare.

Granted, there is no way to determine the circumstances of the homicides. The murders could have been due to any number of factors, including love gone bad, robberies, family dysfunction, drug trafficking and just plain whacked-out behavior.

But the fact remains, based on the State Department’s own figures, U.S citizens were less likely to be murdered in Mexico in 2004 than during the prior year. And remember, the State Department’s travel warning was issued on Jan. 26, 2005, and was drafted, in part, as a response to murders that occurred in 2004.

The following is from a Jan. 27 story in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Liza Davis, spokeswoman at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, said incidents along the Texas border were the "initial impetus" for the alert.

...With 39 homicides in the Tijuana region this year, "the embassy felt it merited inclusion in a general announcement to American citizens," Davis said.

Her concern may be genuine, but it’s not quite clear what hat Davis pulled the number 39 from, however. According to the State Department report, a total of seven U.S. Citizens were murdered in Tijuana in 2004. That figure is actually down from the 13 homicides recorded in 2003, the report shows.

One area south of the border did experience a sharp increase in homicides. In Mexico’s Baja region, located south of Tijuana, the murder rate for U.S. citizens jumped from four to 11 between 2003 and 2004. But this area also has become a haven for not only U.S. tourists, but also U.S. citizens looking for cheap beachfront housing for permanent residences.

An Oct. 26, 2003, article in the New York Times describes the scene:

NOPALÓ, Mexico — Slowly but surely, acre by acre, Mexico's Baja Peninsula is becoming an American colony.

"For Sale" signs are sprouting all over the 800-mile-long peninsula, offering thousands of beachfront properties. Americans are snapping them up. They have already created communities where the dollar is the local currency, English the main language and Americans the new immigrants transforming an old culture.

"Everything's for sale, every lot you can imagine," said Alfonso Gavito, director of a cultural institute in La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur, a state with 400,000 citizens and some of the last undeveloped beaches in North America. "It's like 20 years of changes have happened in three months."

This new land rush, involving billions of dollars, tens of thousands of Americans, and hundreds of miles of coastline, is gaining speed despite the fact that Mexico's Constitution bars foreigners from directly owning land by the sea

... Baja is closer by land and air to the United States than it is to the rest of Mexico; state officials recorded more than 30 million trips by Americans who spent well over $1 billion last year. They say they have no idea how many Americans are living in Baja today, because a certain number are illegal immigrants who never register their presence. Anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that the number is more than 100,000, probably far more, and growing fast since the Sept. 11 attacks and the souring of the economy in the United States two years ago.

Maybe Baja is not only attracting U.S. citizens, but also the problems that come with their culture. Given the track record of violence in the United States, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the increased murder rate in the Baja may well be do to gringos killing gringos – just as they are prone to do in the United States.

Another conclusion that can be drawn from the State Department report, which some in the U.S. government might find shocking, is that Mexico appears to be a safer place to be for U.S. citizens than their own homeland. The State Department figures show that a total of 77 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico during the two-year period ending Dec. 31, 2004. That’s for the whole country.

By comparison, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, in 2003 alone, 109 people were murdered in the mid-sized city of Milwaukee. In Washington, D.C., where State Department officials cook up their policies, a total of 248 people were murdered in 2003, the FBI report shows. New York City weighed in with 597 murders that year.

Maybe the State Department should consider issuing some domestic travel advisories as well, because it appears U.S. citizens face far greater odds of being murdered in the United States than they do in Mexico.

With that said, maybe it’s also time for U.S. policymakers to put the Narco-bogeyman on ice.

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