Mexico's Drug War Numbers Suggest Flaws in Strategy

Latin America and the Caribbean

In December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon kicked off a new phase of the decades-long drug war when he sent thousands of federal soldiers and police into his home state of Michoacán to battle criminal groups operating in the region. This battle soon became a nationwide war that continues to this day.

Just last week, 42 presumed criminals died during a three-hour raid by the Mexican federal police at a ranch on the Jalisco-Michoacán border. Some are already speculating this could be another massacre of unarmed civilians by the federal forces, similar to the other incidents of mass murder and enforced disappearance carried out by Mexican federal security forces at Tlatlaya last June, Iguala last September and Apatzingan this January.

Between 2006 and 2010 U.S. military and police assistance to Mexico skyrocketed as both countries deepened their commitment to this federalized and militarized anti-crime strategy. U.S. assistance fell back to previous levels after 2010, but both countries continue to operate under the same framework to this day.

However, a growing body of research indicates that Mexico's strategy of deploying federal troops and police to crack down on areas where criminals are suspected of operating has not led to any lasting improvements in citizen security in Mexico. Rather than becoming safer, Mexico's annual murder rate more than doubled from roughly nine homicides per 100,000 citizens in 2006 to nearly 20 per 100,000 in 2013. Over the same period, complaints of human rights abuses by Mexico's federal security forces also increased.

Meanwhile, Mexico continues to lag on most major social and economic indicators. More than 90 percent of all crimes in Mexico go unpunished. Mexico ranks 103 out of 175 countries in Transparency International's 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index and 148 out of 180 when it comes to press freedom, according to the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. Almost half of Mexicans currently live in poverty and the country ranks at the bottom among developed nations in terms of income inequality. Roughly half of Mexico's population lacks access to adequate healthcare, and despite many improvements in the country's education system, the World Bank recently concluded that Mexico’s "marginalized populations continue to face unequal education opportunities."

Mexico's own government has even admitted that "the cost of the current strategy has been disproportionate in terms of the related harm and the unsatisfactory results provided."

However, security analyst Alejandro Hope recently concluded that the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto ”remains unwilling to forcefully push for significant change to the international drug control regime." Exact statistics are hard to come by, but these estimates help to give a sense of the scale of the conflict since 2006:

$2 billion U.S. dollars. This is the approximate amount of aid the United States has allocated to Mexico in bilateral security assistance since 2006. In addition, the United States has sold more than $1 billion worth of military equipment to Mexico over the past year alone, on top of approving $4.5 billion in military equipment transfers from 2007 to 2013. Moreover, the U.S. has provided Mexico with extensive training and intelligence assistance over the years, and has even put its own personnel on the ground in Mexico during high-risk operations.

$1 trillion pesos ($65.5 billion U.S. dollars).  A recent study by the Ethos Public Policy Laboratory (Laboratorio de Políticas Publics Ethos), which used figures adjusted for inflation and other factors, showed that Mexico spent more than $826 billion pesos ($54.1 billion U.S. dollars) on public security between 2008 and 2012, an average of $206.5 billion pesos ($13.5 billion U.S. dollars) per year. Mexico's 2015 budget for security totals more than $188 billion pesos ($12.3 billion U.S. dollars). According to the newspaper El Universal, the latter figure represents a historic high in nominal terms.

More than 23,000 people missing or disappeared. Current official figures register 23,271 missing persons in Mexico, nearly half of whom disappeared since the start of Peña Nieto's administration in 2013. However, as with other crimes in Mexico, disappearances and kidnappings are often massively under-reported. One delegate to the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances said recently that while accurate numbers on Mexico's missing are difficult to obtain, the "only clear picture is that it is many, and too many."

Between 80,000 and 120,000 people killed. Most experts agree that 80,000 represents the low-end estimate of the number of deaths that have occurred as a result of the drug war in Mexico since 2006. Many put the actual number above 120,000. To date, most drug war-related deaths likely occurred under former President Calderon's administration from 2006 to 2012, but some analysts have predicted that current President Enrique Peña Nieto could preside over an even bloodier six years in office. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mexico experienced 15,000 conflict-related deaths last year alone - more than any other country besides Syria and Iraq.

Nearly 2 million people displaced since 2006. According to the Mexican think tank Parametria, 1.65 million people were displaced by armed conflict in Mexico between 2006 and 2011. And since 2011, Mexico's Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights estimates that there have been more than 140 "mass displacements" contributing to 281,418 internally displaced by the drug war.