What kind of violence kills Mexicans? (Do not believe everything you read)

Publicado 22-12-2013

The Foundry, a conservative blog from the Heritage Foundation, contains an account of Mexico as a land of total lawlessness and hopelessness where “… Americans in general face a deadly threat close to home”.[i] Although many readers will doubt the ethical bases of these views, many others will indeed agree that they serve as indications of the image that this country has recently gained overseas and the damage in the international reputation that the war against organized crime has caused.

One disclaimer, however, before proceeding: The following discussion is not concerned with proving or disproving the capacity of the Mexican State to provide safety and peace, which is a topic that consistently dominates these kind of discussions, nor is it interested in complaining about the failure of the Calderon strategy against organized crime which is also another dominating topic. The discussion at hand is only interested in informing of what kind of violence actually kills Mexicans. This discussion is about the empirical truth of the last twenty years.

I will explain now the method that informs and guides this (very) brief discussion. Unlike the Foundry, I use valid data to check reality. The Mexican National Institute of Statistics (INEGI) provides recorded mortality data all way back to 1893. These data is divided into four main sections: General, maternal, infant, and accidental and violent deaths. The latter section makes a distinction of three main types of accidental and violent deaths: Accidental, homicide (i.e. intentional homicide) or suicide. Some deaths are recorded as either “ignored cause” or “not specified”. The original sources of these data are either the Police and/or the Civil Register (Ministerio Publico and Registro Civil).

The period of my observation runs from 1990 to 2011, which I believe is the history period most readers will be interested in. In this respect, INEGI reports that a total number of 1.2 million violent deaths occurred in this period of 22 years (See Table 1). It is clear that most violent deaths have been accidents. Nearly 64% of total violent deaths are related to an accident. An “accidental” violent death is defined as any death due to external causes and unintended circumstances such as injuries, poisoning or any other adverse causes. Homicides and suicides cannot obviously be classified as such.

It is convenient now to calculate some basic rates from the data to make comparisons and to discern patterns. First, in the last row of Table 2, I show the arithmetic mean of the rates per type of violent death for the entire period. The historical rate of accidental deaths (38.0) is 2.6 times the rate of deaths by homicide (14.7) and 5.6 times the rate of “other” violent deaths (6.8). Between 1990 and 2007, the rate of violent deaths decreased steadily to become a half of what it was at the beginning of the period (See Chart 1). Year 2004 is the year in the history of this country when we finally entered the one digit rate of homicide. And 2007 was the year with the lowest homicide rate ever recorded.[ii] However, a breaking point can be seen in 2008 at which this trend of peace abruptly changed direction. The cause of this change is clear: This breaking point can be associated to the beginning of the war against organized crime.[iii]

Chart 1. Rates of violent deaths per type, 1990 to 2011

Data source: Sistema Municipal de Bases de Datos (SIMBAD). Defunciones Accidentales y Violentas. INEGI. Yearly rates are per 100 thousand inhabitants. Own calculations.

 

Notice two more things. First that the trend of violent deaths by accident has not changed direction: it has been slowly decreasing (almost every year) since 1990. Second, the “other” category of violent deaths, seen over time (again most of these deaths can be associated to suicide), is an entirely different case from the previous two. Here data show an increasing trend (in fact are the increases in suicides what are driving this trend).

Thanks to the data at hand it is possible to understand, even for loyal readers of the Foundry, two really simple facts. First, homicide is not the leading cause of violent death in Mexico. This is not the case, by far. Second, if it had not been for the war on organized crime, ceteris paribus, the homicide rate would have fallen to the 4.7 per 100 thousand inhabitants mark by 2011.[iv] This is a figure similar to the U.S. homicide rate of 4.8 per 100 thousand in 2012.[v]

But let me be quite clear too: These data also provides an example of the fragility of peace and progress. It clearly shows too that political decisions (or the absence of) play a key role in explaining how quickly a society in the path of peace can return to levels of violence not seen in many years. Briefly put: Mexican political elites were not successful in maintaining the advances made against violence. In just two years (2008 and 2009) we lost what we had advanced in twenty. But a very different thing is to say that our American neighbors face a deadly threat in Mexico. Not even us living here expect this deadly threat. That argument is intellectually unstructured. It is simply not true when one examines reality.

Table 1. Total number of violent deaths per type, 1990 to 2011

Year
Homicide
Accidental
Other*
Total
1990
14,520
39,400
4,984
58,904
1991
15,143
39,020
5,190
59,353
1992
16,605
38,246
5,285
60,136
1993
16,056
37,024
5,157
58,237
1994
15,844
37,234
5,522
58,600
1995
15,625
35,567
5,727
56,919
1996
14,508
35,073
6,256
55,837
1997
13,562
35,876
6,594
56,032
1998
13,716
35,523
6,783
56,022
1999
12,287
35,699
6,573
54,559
2000
10,788
35,329
6,012
52,129
2001
10,324
35,477
6,171
51,972
2002
10,143
35,648
6,672
52,463
2003
10,139
35,416
6,770
52,325
2004
9,330
34,880
7,113
51,323
2005
9,926
35,865
7,319
53,110
2006
10,454
36,282
7,118
53,854
2007
8,868
39,343
6,818
55,029
2008
14,007
38,880
7,287
60,174
2009
19,804
39,461
8,144
67,409
2010
25,757
38,120
8,643
72,520
2011
27,213
36,694
11,413
75,320
Total
314,619
810,057
147,551
1,272,227
Percent
24.7%
63.7%
11.6%
100.0%
Data source: Sistema Municipal de Bases de Datos (SIMBAD). Defunciones Accidentales y Violentas. INEGI.
*After 1995 more than half of these deaths are related to suicide.

 

Table 2. Rates of violent deaths per type, 1990 to 2011

 
Homicide
Accidental
Other*
Total
1990
17.9
48.5
6.1
72.5
1991
18.3
47.1
6.3
71.6
1992
19.7
45.3
6.3
71.2
1993
18.7
43.0
6.0
67.7
1994
18.1
42.5
6.3
66.8
1995
17.5
39.8
6.4
63.7
1996
16.0
38.6
6.9
61.4
1997
14.7
38.8
7.1
60.6
1998
14.6
37.7
7.2
59.5
1999
12.8
37.3
6.9
57.0
2000
11.1
36.3
6.2
53.5
2001
10.4
35.9
6.2
52.6
2002
10.1
35.5
6.6
52.3
2003
10.0
34.8
6.6
51.4
2004
9.0
33.7
6.9
49.7
2005
9.5
34.2
7.0
50.7
2006
9.8
34.1
6.7
50.6
2007
8.2
36.5
6.3
51.0
2008
12.8
35.6
6.7
55.0
2009
17.9
35.6
7.3
60.8
2010
22.9
33.9
7.7
64.6
2011
23.9
32.2
10.0
66.2
Mean
14.7
38.0
6.8
59.6
S.D.
4.6
4.5
0.8
7.6
Data source: Sistema Municipal de Bases de Datos (SIMBAD). Defunciones Accidentales y Violentas. INEGI. Yearly rates are per 100 thousand inhabitants. Own calculations.
*After 1995 more than half of these deaths are related to suicide.

 

Notes


[i] See if you like: http://blog.heritage.org/2010/03/23/obama-security-team-in-mexico-the-threat-closer-to-home/

[ii] Including before 1990.

[iii] And this break in the trend is of course statistically significant at p < 0.01. In other words, it was unlikely, and very unexpected by pure chance.

[iv] Based on a linear prediction approach.

[v] Source: UNODC Homicide  Statistics, 2012.