Despite having 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for 36% of homicides worldwide. With this fact the region could be dubbed the most violent in the world, except homicide is not the only violent crime. Rape, kidnapping and assault are all violent crimes, however these are rarely reported to authorities for reasons ranging from fear of criminal reprisals to fear of authority to feelings of hopelessness regarding the probability of having justice; this is especially the case in many Latin American countries where the rule of law is a rare commodity.
Given the high rates of unreported incidents (i.e. dark figure) involved in these other types of violent crime, using these data for analyzing crime trends is rather unpractical unless complemented with survey data, which are collected on longer timeframes. Add the fact that homicides are much harder to hide (though not impossible, as witnessed in Mexico), and that makes it one of the least faulty indicators of violence. For that reason, it’s still too common to use homicide as a general proxy of criminal violence.
For the indicator to be a valuable tool for crime analysis, however, it must be further disaggregated. For the purpose of analyzing violence in Mexico, focusing on firearm-related crime could be a more reasonable enterprise than reporting changes in intentional homicide alone, as violence perpetrated by criminal groups is often done so with a firearm.
Keeping track of violence in Mexico has been a challenging endeavor. Most official crime data are collected and reported by state prosecutor’s offices, but these procedures are neither standardized nor transparent. Unreliability has also been a constant, and a recent study describing how state authorities manipulate crime figures has cast further doubt on the credibility of most crime indicators presented by authorities.
Some non-governmental organizations have kept tabs on extortion and kidnapping, both considered high-impact crimes for their acutely damaging effects on society. A major problem is that these data are highly unreliable; the latest national victimization survey showed that in 2015 up to 98% of extortion incidents were not reported to authorities. (A dark figure for kidnapping is not presented, but the survey estimates that 62,636 individuals were kidnapped in 2015; state authorities reported only 1,067 kidnappings last year, less than 2% of the estimated victims, and thus, a similar dark figure of 98%.)
Homicide figures are not infallible. Some of the most common methods of disposing of victims’ bodies – e.g. dissolving or burying bodies – have progressively been used by organized crime in the past years, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of people gone missing. In that sense, there are likely thousands of more homicide victims that are not being counted, much less getting justice. Of all recorded offenses, however, homicide is one of the least faulty because of the relative difficulty in concealing the crime. (Car theft, too, has a low dark figure, mainly because car owners have the added incentive of insurance claims.)
Nevertheless, trying to parse homicides in an increasingly unruly criminal environment is demanding. With the upsurge of violence associated to transnational drug trafficking a decade ago, efforts to quantify homicides directly linked to these activities mounted. National newspapers and consultancies began tallying homicides with certain characteristics and calling them organized crime-related executions. These figures, however, come with little to no clear and transparent methodologies.
Homicide data have been collected continuously for over 25 years. The national statistics agency (INEGI) reports data on homicide victims from death certificates since 1990, while the states’ prosecutor’s offices records homicides based on open investigations since 1997 (compiled by the national system for public security, or SNSP). Although INEGI releases data on homicides once a year and with a 7 to 9-month lag, these are nonetheless more reliable figures to analyze homicidal violence. Unlike recorded crimes that distinguish between premeditated and unintentional homicides (legal definition), INEGI classifies homicides simply as taking a life with intention (a medical definition) and are most comparable to the legal definition of premeditated homicide.
According to INEGI’s data, the national homicide rate¹ jumped from 8 to 24 homicides per 100,000 people in just three years – more than thrice the epidemic level of 10 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants as classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) – and thereafter slowly descended to 17 by 2015. This year, however, an uptick in violence is expected to reverse this downward trend. Most of this violence has been attributed to drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and other criminal outfits that sprouted following the crackdown by federal forces since 2007.
As shown below, homicide reports exceeded homicide victims from 1997 up until mid-2008. It’s likely that up to that point many of the investigated homicide cases ended up tallied as manslaughter or some other type of crime. As violence began to creep up in 2008, this gap quickly closed and the number of victims began to continuously exceed that of reported cases. One likely reason for this is that with greater number of military operations against DTOs and internecine criminal conflicts, multiple victims per homicide case became increasingly common.
Homicide Rate in Mexico
For a sharper picture of what these trends entail in terms of criminal violence, it’s useful to zoom in on one particular homicide subtype.
Homicide by firearm
The latest UN report on homicides worldwide (with data up to 2012) shows that Latin America has by far the largest proportion of homicides by firearm (PHF), 66%, well above the global average of 41% and the 28% registered in Africa and in Asia. Across the region, Mexico has had one of the largest increases in this type of homicide. (When comparing homicide figures, it’s important to consider that definitions and classifications vary across jurisdictions, both at the national or sub-national levels.)
Homicide by Firearm in Latin America
In Mexico, INEGI keeps data on homicides by firearm since 1998. It disaggregates firearm homicides according to the weapon used (handgun or rifle; shotgun or other types of long guns; or other types of firearms) and the setting of the homicide (in a household, school, or public building; street; highway; commercial space; industrial zone; or farm).
When comparing the overall homicide trend with that of homicide by firearm and other means (see graph 3), it’s clear that the increasing trend in homicides at the national level followed the path of growing firearm homicide markedly, particularly since 2007. In fact, both the overall and firearm homicide rates skyrocketed since then and trebled to its highest point in 2011. Homicide by other means saw an uptick as well, but much less pronounced.
Homicide Rate by Firearm in Mexico
Furthermore, the proportion homicides by firearm (PHF) began to ramp up quickly in 2008 as well. Homicides by firearm comprised between 51% and 57% of all homicides between 1998 and 2007. The PHF spiked from 57% to 63% in 2008, peaked at 71% in 2010, and since then, has lingered above 60%. These homicide data are an aggregate of all of the subtypes of firearm homicide mentioned above, as it would be a mistake to assume which of these homicides were linked to criminal activity based on the firearm used or the setting without considering delving into police case files.
Proportion of Homicide by Firearm in Mexico
These data shed a light on several key matters. Mexico, as a whole, looks like a violent place. Indeed, its total homicide rate – which remains well above the epidemic rate – escalated quickly and significantly starting in 2008 up until 2011, and a slow but steady decline since then has been reversed. Perhaps a more illustrating point is that homicide by firearm has been driving the overall homicide trend. Six out of 10 homicides are committed with a firearm, on average, and the rate of homicide by firearm is also above the epidemic rate.
But just as homicide by firearm seems to be the driving force behind the country’s homicide epidemic, several parts of the country seem to be driving most of this upheaval. Five of 32 states – Baja California, Chihuahua, Guerrero, Michoacán and Sinaloa – have been consistently violent in terms of homicide by firearm throughout the past 18 years, with extreme increments in some period between 2008 and 2015. However, other states such as Coahuila, Colima, Morelos, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas – saw sudden and severe spikes of homicide by firearm as of 2008.
Subsequent posts will delve into the state-level variations in homicide by firearm across time and look at how this subtype of homicide drives overall homicide rates.
¹ Crime rates in Mexico are calculated using population data from the National Population Council (Consejo Nacional de Población – CONAPO).
² Graph 2 was based on data from INEGI, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and complemented with data from the following sources:
- Chaparro-Narváez et al (2016) “Mortalidad por homicidios en Colombia, 1998-2012”, Obervatorio Nacional de Salud. Available at: www.revistabiomedica.org/index.php/biomedica/article/view/2811/3401
- De León-Escribano, C. (2014) “Disminución de homicidios en Guatemala: una mirada desde la prevención”, Instituto de Enseñanza para el Desarrollo Sostenible. Available at: www.iepades.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Disminución-de-homicidios-en-Guatemala.pdf
- Marroquín, D. (2015) “Homicidios de 2015 casi igualan a los de 2012 y 2013”, elsalvador.com, October 7. Available at: www.elsalvador.com/noticias/nacional/165632/homicidios-de-2015-casi-igualan-a-los-de-2012-y-2013/
- Santos, J. (2013) “2012, El segundo menos violento en 10 años”, La Prensa Gráfica, January 3. Available at: www.laprensagrafica.com/2012–el-segundo-menos-violento-en-10–anos
- Small Arms Survey (2014) “Las armas de fuego y la violencia en Honduras”, Research Notes, Number 39, March. Available at: http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-39-SPA.pdf
- Small Arms Survey (2016) “Medición de la circulación de armas ilícitas: Honduras”, Research Notes, Number 62, November. Available at: www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-62-SPA.pdf