Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The numbers game

Reliable numbers are hard to come by in Mexico... So goes the old foreign correspondent adage. Sometimes, this phrase is simply used because the correspondent couldn't be bothered to try and get the reliable numbers. (check out, it's incredibly useful at times.)

Sometimes, the truth is, reliable numbers can indeed be hard to come by.

For instance, the government is now reportedly claiming that 22,700 people have died since the drug war was launched in late 2006. This – and a new tally for last year's killings – is higher than estimates calculated by the media, who tend to add up every killing they report on after one phone call to the authorities. Given that reporters here determine the cause of death from that one call to the authorities in the immediate aftermath of a discovery, it's unsurprising that Reforma, El Universal and Milenio rarely agree with each other on the narco bodycount. (Followup investigations into killings are extremely rare; in large part because of media resources but also due to a "this is mexico, people die, and I don't particularly give a shit nor am I going to solve anything" attitude. If the guy on the phone at the prosecutor's office tells you it's drug-related, it's drug-related; subsequent news of the probe rarely warrants more print space unless it's a big case.)

This also isn't the first time the government's numbers have outpaced the media counts. Last year, Calderon's own announcement of killings was higher than the newspaper tallies. His estimate was also higher than that of the attorney general's office.

My question is why there is so little government coordination regarding these numbers. On another occasion, Medina Mora and Garcia Luna both came out and said the homicide rate was lower than it was in the 90s. Why not get Calderon to say this, too? Why have different officials (gomez mont, garcia luna, medina mora, the defense secretary etc) release contradicting numbers?

Maybe it's a lack of coordination between government agencies, but it could also be disagreement over how exactly the government should politicize the homicides, which of course, are rarely the result of serious investigation.

What constitutes a drug-related homicide, and how the government decides how to classify it? As one Sinaloan human rights activist likes to complain, investigators in Mexico tend to ask what the victim did wrong, and then close the case on that information alone. So, say young Jose gets shot, the investigators ask "did he hang out with any ne'er do wells" (yes, i did use that word) and if the answer is yes, well, it's a drug-related homicide. Never mind the fact that Jose might have just got caught in the crossfire, might have slept with the wrong woman (his friend's girl?) or robbed a liquor store and gotten paid back for his misdemeanor. A gomero in the hills gets shot or macheted to death? These days it's drug-related, even if it was actually the result of an age-old land dispute. Or whatever.

So I guess, after all this rambling, my question is why the government is releasing these new numbers. My sense is that the Calderon administration has decided that a high bodycount can and should be used as a sign that the government is winning its war, (not the first time it's made that argument) that the "bad guys" are getting killed by the dozen and killing each other relentlessly, and that it's time to declare the drug war "won."

Incidentally, the government also claims that more than 121,000 drug suspects have been detained since 2006. Either 40,000-60,000 more have been arrested since October last year when the government last released such data, or these numbers are about as suspect as the alleged narcos arrested.

1 comment:

  1. Two months ago, The AP quoted Garcia Luna as saying the murder rate was 14 per 100K (less than the 1997 rate of 17 per 100K). Now, Mexico is saying the murder rate is 11.5 per 100K.
    It seems the government's own data is as suspect as the media.