On May 15th, the NYT reported the latest in a series of reports from Mexico on drug violence:
Couples were walking hand in hand. Children were frolicking. Just down the road in this northern Mexican town, 49 bodies, headless with their hands and feet severed, had been found, then cleared away.
If you pay attention at all to reporting of goings on south of the border you would imagine one giant mass of headless bodies. And those still alive being kidnapped.
According to a large scale study more Mexicans currently living in the United States are returning to Mexico than Mexicans currently in Mexico coming legally or illegally to the United States. Why? Because the Mexican economy is stronger than ours. Jobs are more plentiful. A minor glitch is that many of the Mexicans returning home don’t speak Spanish since they were born here.
The drug war is real. There have been over 47,000 drug-related murders alone in the past five years. Its murder rate – 18 per 100,000 according to this United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime report – is more than three times the US rate of 4.8 per 100,000. But it’s happening between the combatants fighting for territory as the Mexican government cracks down on the border territories where each gang has a territory (don’t get me started on why all this violence is really our fault since the drugs are coming to feed United States demand all because we have an irrational drug policy).
The killings are brutal but they are all about business, not random acts of violence. Tony Soprano isn’t going to walk up to some vacationer in his hood and put a bullet in him. But if you were to attempt to interrupt his financial mechanisms, he would most certainly enforce his will with the use of violence. Multiple that times a thousand and you begin to understand what is going on in very localized areas of Mexico where the drug trade occurs (another misunderstanding is the belief that the drug trade occurs throughout the huge geography of Mexico rather than a very small percentage of the country).
As a result if you are American the chances of somehow getting exposed to violence in Mexico are very slim. According to FBI crime statistics, 4.8 Americans per 100,000 were murdered in the US in 2010. The US State Department reports that 120 Americans of the 5.7 million who visited Mexico last year were murdered, which is a rate of 2.1 of 100,000 visitors. Regardless of whether they were or weren’t connected to drug trafficking, which is often not clear, it’s less than half the US national rate.
The gateway to Disney World, Orlando, saw 7.5 murders per 100,000 residents in 2010 per the FBI; this is higher than Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, with rates of 1.83 and 5.9 respectively, per a Stanford University report (see data visualization here, summarized on this chart, page 21). Yet in March, the Texas Department of Public Safety advised against ‘spring break’ travel anywhere in Mexico, a country the size of the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined.
Looking at the numbers, it might be wise for Texans to ignore their Public Safety department’s advice against Mexico travel. Five per 100,000 Texans were homicide victims in 2010, per the FBI. Houston was worse, with 143 murders, or a rate of 6.8 – over three times the rate for Americans in Mexico.
As usual, when all you do is read the headlines in the US press you get a very skewed view of reality. Is violence between warring drug gangs in Mexico a problem resulting in horrific violence? Of course. But there is a heck of a lot more to the story than that.