The Mexico Peace Index 2016, A Cautionary Tale – by Ev Meade and Michael Lettieri

The headline on Institute for Economics & Peace website for the release of the Mexico Peace Index 2016 reads: “For 85% of Mexicans, where they live is more peaceful today than it was in 2011.”

In other words, they claim that most Mexicans live in greater peace than they did at the height of the “drug war,” raging since 2007. A credible claim? Sure. But, what does it really mean? And does the ranking of the states by relative levels of peace make any sense? We are not so sure.

The Institute for Economics and Peace’s “Mexico Peace Index” offers an annual in-depth look at violence and justice, with metrics that attempt to measure the country’s “positive peace” reserves—things such as the business environment, foreign relations, and resource distribution. In vivid colors, the accompanying map tracks changes from year to year, showing how “peace” has remained fleeting in Sinaloa, but has, for example, improved significantly in Coahuila. Using indicators such as homicide, violent crime, weapons crime, incarceration, police funding, organized crime, and justice efficiency to assess peace is generally useful – the states at the bottom extreme of the scale are experiencing crises that threaten the basic security and well-being of ordinary citizens.  Just as the Global Peace Index showed for Mexico as a whole, the Mexico Peace Index offers a window on the places in Mexico where chronic violence has created  situations in which the experience of ordinary citizens is akin to that of civilians living through a multi-party civil war.

At the same time, the Index does not capture key aspects of what it means to live at peace or in a state of chronic violence and uncertainty.  This is most evident in two areas:

First, the Index underweights government repression, and the way it magnifies the negative impact of other threats to peace and security.  Veracruz, for example, ranks as the country’s third most peaceful state on the index.  That would come as quite a shock to the parents currently searching for their missing children in clandestine graves in Amátlan de los Reyes, or the young men kidnapped and murdered by state police forces in Papantla, or the 21 journalists who have been murdered or gone missing since 2010, or the University of Veracruz faculty and students currently engaged in a desperate struggle with the current administration over funding that the government has refused to provide, despite its obligations.

Mere anecdotes?  Perhaps, but the murder of journalists in particular has made a far greater negative impact on local society in Veracruz than a similar number of ordinary homicides.  Adding lower-level forms of intimidation, harassment, and  retaliatory aggression against journalists and others who try to hold the state government and its allies accountable reveals a widespread atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and self-censorship for which the relatively low levels of crime do not properly account.  To be fair, the Index is an annual metric, and these incidents are spread over more than a decade (and in some cases have happened beyond the state’s borders), but the environment remains toxic (and toxic by national standards), no tangible steps have been taken to correct it, and the Index does not account for this.

Protestors carry the photo of a journalist murdered in Veracruz. Photo: AVC Noticias

Protestors carry the photo of a journalist murdered in Veracruz. Photo: AVC Noticias

Of course, there’s a more obvious example – the 27,000 forced disappearances admitted by the government, half of them under the present presidential administration.  Credible, in-depth investigations suggest that somewhere between 10% and 40% of these cases involve law enforcement or government officials.  In the most infamous example – the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students in 2014 – the government has obstructed the investigation, changed its story multiple times, tampered with witnesses, and attempted to discredit a team of international experts tasked with investigating the case.  The government’s own (largely disproved) version of the case holds that corrupt local and state officials captured the students and handed them over to members of a local drug cartel, who murdered them and then burned their bodies at a trash dump – this is the current government’s best case scenario.  In the course of the investigation, moreover, mass graves with hundreds of other unidentified bodies have been discovered in Guerrero alone.  Can we really put these under the rubric of “justice efficiency”?


A clandestine grave in Veracruz. Photo: SinEmbargo Archive/Cuartoscuro

Second, the current metrics neither indicate nor dis-aggregate the disparate nature of the violence besetting different regions of Mexico, or its origins.  Admittedly, this is more of a guide or cautionary tale for users of the Index, or those who seek to draw sweeping comparisons from it, than a critique of the Index itself.

The five least peaceful states on the 2016 Index—Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, Guerrero, and Morelos—face very different challenges, which the state ranking system obscures.  Examining the homicide data from the four states reveals a range of more than 400%, from 9.5/100k in BCS to 42.2 in GRO (I’m using data from the Semáforo Delictivo from here on). If we look at the rate of executions by organized crime, the range increases to more than 500%, from 4.5/100k in BCS to 27.2/100k in GRO.  If we compare two of the states where the homicide rate is similar – 21.9/100k in MOR and 20.8/100k in BC – factoring in organized crime reveals very different patterns.  In Morelos, 73% of all homicides are organized crime executions, compared to only 44% in Baja California.  As a result, if we factor out organized crime, Morelos would have a very low homicide rate 5.8/100k, less than half the national average for Mexico, but Baja California’s would remain 11.6/100k, close to the national average.  The data suggest that murder in Morelos tracks the practices and logics of organized crime, whereas Baja California’s homicides more closely track classic sociological models of crime, rooted in poverty, inequality, and structural dislocations.  These two phenomena imply very different experiences and expectations for everyday life, and very different relative levels of “peace.”

Even this metric can miss huge gaps in the qualitative experience of violence.  For example, factoring out organized crime executions, Baja California and Sinaloa would have nearly identical homicide rates, 11.6 and 11.7/100k respectively.  Their experiences with homicide over the last few years, however, couldn’t be more different.  (TBI has ongoing programs and collects survey data in both places, so we speak with some confidence here).  Sinaloa is the capital of the most powerful drug cartel in the world; the cartel’s presence is obvious and well-known; and associated violence affects nearly every aspect of local politics, economy, and society.  As a result, murder is somewhat predictable, but also deeply intertwined with the fabric of power in the state, making meaningful justice or prevention unlikely, and making individual murders into implicit political messages that cause a broader intimidation effect in society.  In Baja California, by contrast, there are a variety of weaker organized crime groups in competition with each other, and lots more generalized crime unattached to the illicit drug trade or larger networks of political corruption.  As a result, violence is less predictable, but there are also fewer obstacles to justice and the impact of individual crimes does not necessarily radiate out to the broader society.

In most states in Mexico, one pattern or the other is measurably dominant.  Indeed, Guerrero is the only state in Mexico where the homicide would rate remain higher than the national average even after factoring out executions carried out by organized crime.  And this holds true despite the fact that Guerrero has a high rate of organized crime executions and these account for a high percentage of overall homicides (64%).  Guerrero has both phenomena, and a complex, multi-factorial pattern of violence reflected in grim realities, such as the 17 armed groups fighting to control the city of Acapulco, only 2 of which are drug cartels.

Of course, labeling either organized crime or ordinary crime “worse” in terms of the experience of peace is an inherently normative exercise.  Indeed, the irrational fear of places like Sinaloa provoked by the notoriety of the cartel obscures the fact that most visitors are likely much safer from harm there than in places with higher levels of general crime, like Baja California.

Families flee a military operation in pursuit of El Chapo. From The Faces of Fear: Displaced by the Hunt for El Chapo. Photo: Ríodoce

Families flee a military operation in pursuit of El Chapo. From The Faces of Fear: Displaced by the Hunt for El Chapo. Photo: Ríodoce

But, isn’t the whole point of creating a “peace index” rather than using standard metrics of crime and social well-being to allow us to properly account for new an evolving forms of chronic violence that do not count as formal armed conflicts, or which are obscured by nominal peace?  And, if we want to make these comparisons and call out those responsible, then we need to find the situations in which the pattern of violence is deeply interwoven with the structure of power (rather than crime in general).  There’s a lot of international law to back this up.  The Convention Against Torture addresses “government actors”; the Refugee Convention and Optional Protocol define the persecuted as those whom “the government is either unwilling or unable to protect,” and indeed the entire treaty-based human rights reporting system is designed to hold states accountable.   The system has evolved to incorporate non-state actors operating at the behest of corrupt or overwhelmed governments, but following the same principle of holding those with the most power and authority responsible for maintaining basic standards of peace and justice.

For those of us who lived in Mexico City in the 1990s or early 2000s, there’s a simple metric that might help here.  Mexico City had then and continues to have quite a bit of street crime, robbery, and murder.  Before 2007, people in the provinces and many local residents viewed the capital as a dangerous place.  After the present wave of violence swept over the country, many of the same people have flocked to Mexico City as a safe haven, despite the fact that violent crime remains fairly static (it has fluctuated but remains similar on average and did not spike as it did elsewhere after 2007).  Mexico City has not been overwhelmed by organized crime and all of the attendant violent spectacles, and the rate of organized crime executions remains very low – 1.9/100k.

Ordinary people voted with their feet.  The same thing has happened in Guerrero, Sinaloa, Oaxaca, and Michoacán, where there has been a quiet exodus from region to region within their borders, to other parts of Mexico, and abroad.  But this does not hold true in Baja California, despite the fact that it ranks one place away from Sinaloa near the bottom of the Index.  Baja California, in fact, has become a place of large-scale immigration, most of it not headed for the United States.  Sure, expanding agricultural, manufacturing, and tech sectors have attracted job seekers, but most of those same migrants are also seeking a safe haven from the violent spectacles, political repression, extortion and para-military policing of their home communities. From our perspective, a peace index should capture this.  (The authors of the Index might point out that a variety of different crime and violence indicators have been quietly worsening in Baja over the last few years, and it’s a fair point.  The positive indicators their and the palpable local desire for positive change may have blinded us a bit, as well).

Indeed, the fact that the bottom five states in last year’s 2015 Mexico Peace Index are all places from which thousands have fled suggests that  the authors of the Index are not far off. Perhaps adding a displacement or migration metric to the Index would help to fully account for this phenomenon.

On the whole, the Index is very provocative and full of useful data we just need to be careful with the state-to-state comparisons we draw from it.

Ev Meade, Director, Trans-Border Institute
Michael Lettieri, Program Officer, Trans-Border Institute

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