SINCE Mexico ramped up its fight against organised crime at the end of 2006, it has made impressive progress in arresting or killing the leaders of the country’s murderous drug-trafficking “cartels”. By the end of last year, ten of the 24 most-wanted were dead or detained. On Friday, another senior villain bit the dust. But the violence has continued to rocket. Official figures for 2011 aren’t out yet, but the news reports this year have so far seemed no less bloody than last.
Many commentators, including this newspaper, have suggested that in some cases taking out cartel leaders has sparked even more violence, as deputies have fought over succession rights, and other cartels have moved in to hit their rivals while they are weak. An interesting article this month in Nexos magazine by two Mexican government officials argues that in at least one case, this was not the case. The story (in Spanish) is worth a read. (Google does a slightly wonky but more or less intelligible translation here.)
The authors totted up the murders in the states of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit throughout 2009 and 2010. Halfway through 2010 an important boss in the Sinaloa cartel, Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, was killed by the army in Jalisco. Coronel had been in charge of the port of Manzanillo, and his death sparked a scramble among other narcos to control the area. The number of murders in the region during the second half of that year was much higher than during the first half. But the government’s researchers point out that violence in the region actually surged a good two months before Coronel’s killing. Further, they say, the rate of increase in killings before Coronel’s death was higher than it was afterwards—six extra killings every five weeks, versus one. Had he not been taken out, they speculate, the violence might have been even worse.
The article doesn’t tackle other regions—it would be interesting to see what the authors made of the case of Morelos, for instance, which erupted after the killing of Arturo Beltrán Leyva towards the end of 2009. Maybe such an analysis is in the works. It also shows the limits of the government’s anti-kingpin strategy: Coronel’s killing didn’t lead to a fall in violence around Jalisco; nor did it even cause the high levels of violence to remain stable. Instead, the security situation continued to deteriorate—it just deteriorated at a slower rate than previously. That might be an achievement of sorts, but after four years of war against the cartels, the government must surely have hoped for more to boast about by now.
But at the very least the research underlines the improvements that Mexico has made in analysing and keeping track of crime data, which in the past have been unreliable and hard to get hold of (and for many crimes still are). Now, you can download three years of homicide statistics, broken down by municipality, from the presidency’s website. Excel spreadsheets are pretty cold comfort to the states that remain wracked by violence. But the faster the government understands the nature of its crime problem, the faster it might start to reduce the killing.