Mexico placed second in the number of homicides among countries considered to be in armed conflict, according to a report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies — but a number of observers and Mexico itself have disputed the report's assertions.
The nearly 23,000 intential homicide victims in Mexico in 2016 exceeded the 17,000 and 16,000 registered in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, and were only less than the 50,000 killings recorded in Syria, the IISS report states.
The report put El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — the Northern Triangle — on par with Afghanistan, seeing 16,000 homicides in 2016.
Those three countries and Mexico all outstripped Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan in terms of homicides, according to the report.
"Mexico is a conflict marked by the absence of artillery, tanks or combat aviation," IISS director general John Chipman said during the report's release. Most killings, he said, took place in Mexican states that are "key battlegrounds for control between competing, increasingly fragmented cartels" that are fighting to secure lucrative trafficking routes.
"It is very rare for criminal violence to reach a level akin to armed conflict," IISS said in a release, saying (emphasis added):
"But this has happened in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) and, especially, Mexico. In all four countries, armed forces have been deployed for many years specifically to fight criminal gangs and, in the case of Mexico, transnational drug-trafficking cartels, with military-grade weapons and vast financial resources."
"In all four countries, criminal groups have ambitious territorial claims: they fight amongst themselves and use arms to challenge the state directly for local control. Unlike traditional political conflicts, these criminal conflicts are fought to establish autonomous territories, not to pursue national politico-ideological goals."
While much of the coverage of Mexico has revolved around the country's deadly violence, Mexico's inclusion among states mired in civil conflicts or wars based on political disputes elicited surprise and consternation.
The Mexican government, in a statement issued through the foreign and interior ministries, objected on a number of grounds, saying the report "reflects estimates based on uncertain methodologies," and that the existence of criminal groups and the use of the armed forces to maintain domestic order were "not a sufficient criteria" to speak of armed conflict.
A number of analysts also raised issues with the report's conclusions and the data it considered. One of the main points of contention was how the homicide figures were weighed. The IISS report ranked countries in part by the total number of homicides, rather than by a per capita rate.
Antonio Sampaio, a research associate at the think tank, told Reuters many countries in armed conflict lack reliable population data, precluding per capita rankings. "We think absolute numbers are a good way of measuring intensity," he said. "Plus 23,000 is a huge number; no doubt about that."
On a per 100,000 person basis, however, Mexico's homicide rate — about 17 per 100,000 people in 2016 — appears to be middle of the pack in Latin America — which is admittedly one of the most violent regions in the world.
UN Office on Drugs and Crime data through 2014 put Mexico behind all the countries of the Northern Triangle as well as Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and a number of smaller countries like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Belize. Data for 2015 also found Mexico near the middle of the ranking.
Mexico's total population, more than 120 million people, vastly outweighs the populations of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen, which, according to Mexican news site Punto Decimal, have a combined population of 114 million.
In absolute terms, Mexico's homicides are comparable to what has been recorded elsewhere in the region.
In Venezuela, home to about 30 million people, one nongovernment organization counted more than 28,000 violent deaths in 2016, more than 18,000 of which the government there classified as homicides. In Brazil, where more than 200 million people live, the last several years have seen total homicide counts close to 60,000. Colombia, with about one-third of Mexico's population, recorded about 12,000 homicides in 2016, its lowest tally in 42 years.
Observers also criticized the IISS report's apparent inclusion of all of Mexico's 23,000 homicides — a number reported by Mexico's Executive Secretary for the National Public Security System — last year as related to organized crime.
The SESNSP homicide totals include deaths related to domestic and interpersonal violence and those stemming from common crime, not just deaths related to organized crime. According to the Justice in Mexico project, something like one-third to a half of Mexico's homicides appear to be related to organized crime.
Others noted that the conditions laid out by in IISS' release — organized groups armed with military-grade weapons fighting for control of territory — likely applied to other countries in the region, such as Brazil, where in some places large armed gangs fight each other and have retaliated against police operations with public violence, and Venezuela, where organized armed groups challenge the state's control in some areas.
The Mexican government in its response said "violence related to organized crime is a regional phenomenon" that goes beyond Mexico's borders. "The fight against transnational organized crime should be analyzed in a comprehensive manner."
Mexico does have a problem with violence — one that is exacerbated by impunity, weak institutions, and economic underdevelopment. And much of the spike in deadly violence seen there in recent years is likely related to organized crime.
But responses to a report seen as oversimplifying or methodologically questionable were withering.
"Equating these [countries] with Syria is analytically lazy and lends itself to the wrong policies," Tom Long, a professor at the UK's University of Reading, said on Twitter. "They aren't mainly political conflicts."
"Yes there's tragedy in Mexico, but not accurate to suggest it's like Syrian war," Brian J. Phillips, a professor at the CIDE in Mexico City, said on Twitter. "and per capita other countries have much more violence."
"I hope these morons are happy," Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope tweeted. "Their idiotic report was already retweeted by @realDonaldTrump."
The International Institute for Strategic Studies did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
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