Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Reads of the Week: Mexico’s Drug War Deaths and Organized Crime in Central America’s Northern Triangle

by Shannon K. O'Neil
September 23, 2011

Narco Killings 2011 Map (Courtesy WM Consulting).

There has been much debate in Mexico about the number of drug-related killings since the start of drug war in 2006. The Mexican government provides an official database that puts this figure at some 35,000. Others, such as Reforma, provide an estimate near the official number — but more current — now totalling some 37,000.

As important as the total numbers is their breakdown. Here, the Mexican government provides some estimates, sorting the murders according to whether they were acts of aggression, executions or occurred as a result of a confrontation. Walter McKay at WM Consulting has built a useful tool by scouring local newspapers in many (but not yet all) Mexican states. This map depicts the murders according to whether the victim was a civilian, politician (or other high profile individual), or law enforcement official, and also shows the sites of car bombs and mass graves. McKay puts the number of deaths as a result of the drug war at some 47,000, significantly higher than the government estimate. As the policy debates continue, these various sources of information will be vital to informing steps forward.

This week the Woodrow Wilson Center released its report, “Organized Crime in Central America: The Northern Triangle”, which has many well researched and written chapters on the accelerated rise of criminal structures over the past three decades in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. To bolster weak rule of law institutions vulnerable to the influence of organized crime in the region, it argues, the U.S. will need to contribute more funds to the region’s security initiatives – even as individual  countries play a greater part by collecting more taxes. Though overall the picture is disheartening, this useful study lays out the complex factors underlying the violence in Central America today.

It also shows that while all Central American nations struggle with crime and violence, the real security challenges are in the Northern Triangle – where the magnitude and type of organized criminal operations are unparalleled. This finding questions the traditional blanket regional approach taken by the United States (through CARSI), or the way other Latin American or European countries develop multilateral security initiatives within Central America.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Jan Ithier

    The 47,000 figure is indeed staggering but in my opinion the tool’s categorization of narcos as civilians somewhat diminishes its effectiveness and reinforces the belief that the Mexican Government has lost its capability of providing security for the population. The violence of narcos-on-narcos is truly horrific but there are some in Mexico, specially among the elites, that may think that as long as they are killing each other it is a good thing. The right context is necessary for developing effective strategies and policies against the violence. For instance, if the issue is the killing of innocent civilians, then more police and military on the streets could address the issue. On the other hand if the issue is the brazen intensity and brutality of the narco-on-narco violence, then focusing on crippling the power and resources of the cartels to the point that they can’t afford to wage their wars may be a better option. Regardless, I think that your July OPED on the necessity of the elites shouldering responsibility is right on target and could be a game changer for restoring security to Mexico.
    J. Ithier

  • Posted by Steve Sturgill

    I scanned the Wilson Center document you linked, looking for some indication that the root causes of the problem were within scope. Apparently not.

    More specifically, I looked for something, anything, showing that the authors had considered the role played by drug prohibition in establishing fertile ground for the propagation of criminality. If there’s anything there it’s easy to miss.

    The image that comes to mind from looking at the document was of academics flogging their logs.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required