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

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Narco Killings 2011 Map (Courtesy WM Consulting).

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.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.