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In Mexico’s Elections, the Dead Will Be 'Spun'

Posted: Mar 13, 2012

The estimated 50,000 dead in the Mexican War on Drugs will become victims once again. This time they’ll fall to political spin in the upcoming presidential campaigns.

Although the country’s GDP is expected to grow between three and four percent in 2012, the War on Drugs will overshadow this achievement. Analysts expect campaigns to center largely on the dead.

“Everyone is going to talk about it [the War on Drugs], even Josefina Vázquez Mota [candidate for the incumbent PAN],” says Luis Estrada, a former spokesman for the secretariat of the interior under President Felipe Calderón.

PRI presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto is touting himself as the purveyor of change, and he vows to rectify the current administration’s strategy against crime. The leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador is preaching a message of love and forgiveness, a contrasting message to President Calderón, who has vowed to fight until the end.

And Vázquez Mota has government spin on her side.

The current administration has recently presented a statistic that works in their favor: an 11 percent increase in drug-related homicides in 2011, down from 70 percent the year before. The claim is subject to analysis, though, as the government’s official database is called the “Database of murders allegedly related to organized crime.” This means that they are basing their figures on unfinished investigations.

The death toll of the Mexican War on Drugs, which began almost immediately after Felipe Calderón was inaugurated as president, will probably never be known for certain.

Although the release of figures was never constant during the Calderón administration, the numbers for what many consider to be the bloodiest period in his six-year mandate have been listed as classified for an indefinite amount of time. The final official count, which covers the period until September 2011 will remain at 47,515 dead.

Lack of governmental transparency has led newspapers to keep their own estimates, in what has come to be known as “ejecutómetros,” or “execution-meters.” Their estimates range from 46,000 (Reforma) to 60,000 (Zeta).

These numbers are splayed out in front pages and in bright colors. Hence the name “execution-meters.” They are presented like football scores.

But neither the government nor the papers disaggregate their tallies. This means that there are no figures that indicate whether the dead are civilians, criminals or members of the army. It is difficult to accurately measure whether the war has been a success or not by these standards.

The latest available report regarding the military, obtained by newspaper El Universal April 2011, states that 395 members of federal forces -police, army and navy- have died since 2006.

However InSight, a firm that analyses organized crime in Latin America, says the numbers may not be reliable because the Secretariat of Defense released the same exact figure for two different periods: 111 soldiers killed in action between January 2007-July 2009 and between January 2007-July 2010.

“I think that more than the number of [military] deaths, the number of [civilian] victims and missing people will be important [in the election],” says Daniel Lizárraga, deputy director of information at Animal Político [Political Animal], a Mexican news website. It stands to reason: Mexicans want to know how many innocent people have been killed in the war.

President Calderón and members of his cabinet have said on different occasions that 90 percent of the victims of the war are members of organized crime. Calderón has been lambasted by groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) for not backing up those assertions. “How can the government claim this when there are no investigations?” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of HRW’s Americas Division, in January.

The only federal agency that mentions civilian victims is the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), which reports an estimate of 16,800 missing people as of November 2011. Out of those, more than half are unidentified bodies -meaning more than 8,000 Jane and John Does-. But the CNDH does not have the capability to determine how many people on their records have a connection to the War on Drugs.

On the bright side, the violence seems to be curbing, at least according to the government.

Alejandro Poiré, current secretary of the interior, told the Associated Press in early February that “it appears that the increase in homicides reached its highest point last year.” He added that according to government information, there was a reduction in homicides during the last trimester of 2011. But the information to support this claim is precisely the one that has been declared classified.

Estrada thinks that the government, and Vázquez Mota, will keep pushing this message: “Even though it doesn’t look like it, this is a positive thing for them,” he says. “If the homicide growth keeps decreasing, this will separate the PAN from the other two main parties, who have suggested negotiating with the cartels,” he says.

Moreover, the DEA is investigating three former PRI governors of the northern state of Tamaulipas for links to one of the cartels. Convictions would, ironically, shift the discussion back to economics, according to Estrada. “If the accusations turn out to be true, the PRI will focus on bringing out the government’s administrative incompetence,” he says.

The three main candidates have yet to release their strategy regarding drugs. Campaigns begin on March 30 and the election takes place on July 1st.

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