MEXICO CITY—It seemed like great news for Mexico and its gringo neighbor to the north, where many fear drug-related violence has spilled over the border. In an interview last week with Charlie Rose, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said the number of homicides so far this year has fallen by a whopping 25 percent since 2012, a sign that the worst has passed in Mexico’s drug war. “There are more cartel bosses in jail,” the president said, “and less murders in the country.”
Both would clearly be good signs in a country where more than 80,000 people are estimated to have been killed since 2006 in drug-related violence. And Peña Nieto’s government certainly has something to brag about when it comes to taking down the nation’s most wanted cartel bosses.
Yet some observers say the Mexican government’s official numbers are a little, well, optimistic—to put it lightly. “It’s probable that the official figures are underestimating the real number of homicides,” says Alejandro Hope, one of the country’s most respected security analysts. “There is some improvement in the security situation, but it’s not very significant.”
When Hope crunched the numbers, he found the decrease in drug-related homicides happened in two strange bumps, instead of a relatively steady decline. Between December 2012 and January 2013, the average number of daily killings suddenly dropped from 56 to 49, according to Hope. After that, the numbers stabilized, until there was another similarly sudden drop in May, once again followed by a quick stabilization.
These figures refer to murders in general; the number of people killed by firearms, meanwhile, never actually went down. “How do these facts fit in the government’s narrative of a radical reduction of homicides related to organized crime?” he wrote in a column for website Animal Político. “They don’t. It’s that simple.”
Hope isn’t the only one who has problems with the official data. In Guerrero, south of Mexico City, for instance, human rights organizations have similar doubts. Guerrero is widely considered one of Mexico’s most violent states, and Acapulco, once a popular resort town located at the Pacific Coast, has become the nation’s murder capital.
And yet, this year, Guerrero reported 961 murders last year, a drop of 33.9 percent. That seems rather odd, as the state has continuously made headlines last year as citizen vigilante groups took up arms to fight organized crime because the authorities were unable or unwilling.
“There definitely is an underreporting of crime in our region, and it’s not just homicides,” says Abel Barrera, director of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center in Guerrero. “Threats and other kinds of violence are also far more prevalent than the official statistics show us.”
Many of these murders go unreported, Barrera says, because people are afraid to speak out. “Many consider the police to be in cahoots with criminals,” he says. “In at least four of Guerrero’s seven regions, the law is dictated by whoever is the strongest. You don’t report violence in such an environment.”
The president’s spokesman declined to comment on the accuracy of the government’s statistics. But critics such as Barrera say Peña Nieto’s chest-thumping is a classic example of political spin. “The government is clearly intent on steering public opinion away from the drug war and towards economic reforms,” says Luis Chaparro, a journalist covering crime in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, which was until recently considered the epicenter of violence in Mexico.
Barrera agrees. “In some regions, such as Guerrero, there is so much insecurity that there’s simply no way you can accurately register all homicides,” he says. “The authorities know this, but they go ahead and publish optimistic numbers anyway.”
Hope is a bit more cautious. “It’s partly spin, but it’s also a problem of registry. State governments haven’t all handed over the correct numbers, so we’ll probably see a correction in the next few weeks.”
“Nevertheless,” he says, “the government should be careful not to exert too much optimism. After all, even if the number of murders went down, we’re still talking about more than 40,000 people killed in only the first two years of this administration.”