A march for the missing in Mexico City this month. A march for the missing in Mexico City this month. Sashenka Gutierrez/EPA

MX No. 2 for conflict? It’s simply not true

Armed conflict study's results don't add up for two main reasons

According to a report published in early May, Mexico has become the second-deadliest conflict zone in the world in 2016.

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The claim came from a press release for the 2017 edition of the Armed Conflict Survey (ACS) by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank. And a media frenzy followed. The Conversation

The IISS press release stated that the 23,000 deaths in 2016 that it attributes to Mexico’s struggle against organized crime came second to the 50,000 fatalities caused by Syria’s civil war.

They said this was higher than those caused by conflicts in the rest of the countries covered by the survey, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the so-called “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

The claim was shared extensively, including via a retweet by U.S. President Donald Trump. But it drew swift criticism from Mexico’s government, which argued, among other things, that Mexico’s organized crime-related violence is not comparable to armed conflicts in Syria or Iraq.

In response, IISS published a blog post outlining why it thinks Mexico is in a state of conflict, including Mexico’s own characterization of criminal groups as an existential threat under the previous government.

But I argue that the comparison placing Mexico as the second-deadliest conflict zone is fallacious for two main reasons.

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First, the comparison did not take into account the vastly different sizes of the countries in the study. Mexico’s population (127 million) is larger than the most recent population figures for Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen combined (114.2 million).

All else being equal, it is expected that countries with larger populations will have more fatalities or homicides in absolute terms. For example, there where almost twice as many homicides in the U.S. (12,000) as there were fatalities in Yemen (7,000), but this is because the U.S. has a population that is 12 times bigger than Yemen’s, not because it is deadlier than Yemen.

To account for different population sizes in cross-national comparisons, mortality and homicide figures are usually expressed as incidents per 100,000 people. This captures the probability that individuals in a given country face of being killed, and so are a better measure than absolute figures.

As seen in the graph below, once population sizes are taken into account, the probability of being killed in Mexico was much lower than in the rest of the countries in the ACS top five or in the Northern Triangle.

Second, the figures being compared are not measuring the same phenomenon. In the report, fatalities in Mexico and Central America refer to the total number of intentional homicides, while in the rest of the countries in the study they refer to deaths directly caused by armed conflicts.

It is true that intentional homicides are sometimes used as a proxy measurement of organized crime activity in Mexico – something I am exploring in my ongoing research. However, that does not mean that it is appropriate to uncritically compare the absolute number of homicides in Mexico to conflict-related fatalities in other countries.

That would suggest that all intentional homicides in Mexico – high as they may be – can be attributed to organized crime violence, which is far from the case.

Previous editions of the ACS in 2015 and 2016 also included Mexico and reported similarly high levels of fatalities. But the level of coverage of the 2017 report reflects a vastly different global public agenda.

Today, with Mexico-U.S. relations at a new low, a looming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the promise of a new physical wall between the two countries, it is not surprising that IISS’s press statement landed front and center in the international news media – even if such comparisons are not the main focus of the ACS.

Journalists undeniably “have to get better at reporting science.” But academics and those involved in research – especially in controversial issues such as crime and security – also need to exercise care when publicizing their findings.

There is a tension between the efforts to publicize research by highlighting headline-grabbing findings, and the risk of having such findings overhyped and misrepresented, or even spun into a deliberate political agenda, as the right-wing Breitbart News did with the IISS announcement.

Academics and think tanks may not have much control over how their findings are reported by the media once they are released to the public. So it is imperative to take extra care when communicating them to the press, and setting out clearly what are the limitations of the findings, as well as the generalizations that can accurately be drawn from them.

Patricio R. Estévez-Soto is a PhD candidate in security and crime science at University College London. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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  • Güerito

    This WashPost editorial/analysis from today does a much better and thorough job refuting the IISS study:

    “Is Mexico the second-deadliest ‘conflict zone’ in the world? Probably not.”

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/05/18/is-mexico-the-second-deadliest-conflict-zone-in-the-world-probably-not/

  • Güerito

    Also, his graph does not reflect population size, it just shows the total homicide figures for those countries. The WashPost link I have below does have a graph that shows homicides per 100,000 inhibitants. It shows that Mexico’s rate is well below Afghanistan and Iraq and is also below Venezuela, Brazil and Colombia.

  • Donnie W. Jennings

    As alarming as the homicides are in Mexico are, I 100% agree with the author! They were comparing apples to oranges and leaving out the population as part of the equation was ludicrous.

  • miabeach

    The author and most Mexicans are in denial.

  • K. Chris C.

    A study published with an agenda attached, is, by definition, propaganda. The thinking did have a good laugh at the “study.” The non-thinking are now, as desired, more confused. And lost: “Where’s Yemen? Is that that new restaurant over on Main? “

    An American citizen, not US subject.

  • csb4546

    It’s not surprising that Mexicans are sensitive about comparisons to lawless failed Middle Eastern states.
    But the best the author, or anyone, can offer is a debate about semantics – the facts don’t lie.
    Any objective observer will look at the statistics and see that the trends in Mexico are beyond ominous.
    Anyone living day-to-day in Mexico knows that the “statistics” about Mexican crime and violence are grossly UNDERREPORTED. For every registered homicide, every violent crime, there are many more unreported.
    So we can argue about fairness of comparisons all day – the fact is that Mexican violence is out of control.
    Mexicans need to look in the mirror for both blame and solutions – and quit pointing fingers elsewhere.
    No one seems outraged by the the statistics – they’re outraged by the unfair comparisons. Does that make sense?
    The comparisons are not unfair – just painful and embarrassing. Mexico’s real numbers are FAR WORSE.

    • cooncats

      I’d like to see you substantiate the claim that murder is grossly under reported. I would agree with this statement for lesser crimes but I do question your claim about murders. Looking at the numbers it would be necessary to have something on the order of 40 percent under reporting of murder just to equal Yemen, the next lowest. That’s an awful lot of bodies to hide.

      • csb4546

        Come on my friend, how many Mexican gang killings and kidnappings are accompanied by threats against the victims if they call the police? It’s 100%, isn’t it? How many victims’ families choose to keep quiet for their safety? Would 40% be a reasonable guess? We don’t know how far off the “official” Mexican homicide numbers are – but anyone who really knows Mexico knows that official homicide statistics are a joke. The crime of murder would be the crime most likely to be accompanied by threats against the families to keep quiet. Who can risk calling the police after being warned – what if the cops are on the cartel payroll? Would you risk death to report the killing of a family member?

        My point is – Mexicans should be outraged that their wonderful country could be included in such awful statistics and comparisons. Instead of outrage, I see deflection and debates about semantics.
        I love Mexico and Mexicans – but the current situation and the trends are beyond frightening.
        You’re right, Mexico is not Yemen – yet. But are you really confident it won’t be in Yemen 10 years?
        If your answer is yes – based on what? NOTHING is happening to fix this situation – just lots of talk.

        • cooncats

          Same comment. Don’t disagree with you about the crime problem here but I’m not convinced the murder statistics are this far off.

          Bad enough anyway, eh?

          • csb4546

            Yes, it’s so disheartening to even be having this discussion, and disappointing to see Mexico lumped in with failed states. I really fear that it’s already too late to save Mexico.

          • cooncats

            It is. My wife and I are getting disheartened as well. I think the country took a big step backwards when they let the PRI back in control and it just seems the grand theft politician here is spiraling out of control. We even see it in the small town we live in, the local municipio has become so corrupt they can’t even manage to pick up the trash competently. The country just seems to be going downhill very quickly as evidenced by the major drop in its standing in internationally recognized measures of corruption.

          • csb4546

            The worst part is – no political solutions from the ballot box.
            The trends are all negative, what’s the basis for hope going forward? I don’t see any – very sad.

  • Interesting. When I read the initial report, I thought it was ridiculous.

  • Fester N Boyle

    Mexico is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, perhaps 2nd to Venezuela in the western hemisphere. Mexico has lost control of much of its territory to narco gangs. The US should seize some of Mexico’s northern states as a safe zone to resettle all the refugees that have fled northward.

  • Commander Barkfeather

    I live in Mexico everyday. In my life, I have also lived in St. Louis, Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City, and Denver. I can state categorically that I feel infinitely safer on the streets of Ensenada than any of those US cities mentioned. The people I meet in Mexico are friendly, helpful, patient, and honest. In the US, strangers are regarded with suspicion and xenophobia. Some of the subsequent comments on this post speak for themselves. I have no problem with Americans staying away from Mexico.

    • csb4546

      Many comments here are from those living in Mexico, expressing personal experiences.
      It’s great that you have been fortunate enough to avoid violence and crime in Mexico – I hope your luck continues. Obviously, many others have not been so fortunate.
      And you seem to want to imply that “suspicion and xenophobia” are strictly American emotions?
      Nonsense, there are plenty of “anti-extranjero” sentiments among Mexicans, too.
      By way of example, with all the talk about “racism” against Mexicans by those who support US immigration enforcement – is it “racist” when Mexicans call me a “gringo” every day?

  • cooncats

    This is a good demonstration of how understanding that “figures don’t lie but liars sure can figure” is needed whenever some “journalist” puts up some simplistic numbers that fail the test of even cursory examination.

    Figures on any crime that don’t factor in per capita levels are meaningless as clearly demonstrated here. BTW, it should be made clearer that the right hand tab above the figure needs to be clicked on to show the comparison.

  • Mike S

    Very poorly written and confusing article. Sin embargo, the drug wars are out-of-control in Mexico. As long as a wealthy northern neighbor full of hard drug users is is willing to pay very high prices for their addictions, that need will be met by a much poorer neighbor with a 2000 mile border. Trump’s wall will have no effect on drugs moving north. Hard drugs take up a minuscule amount of space. The only answer I see is to stop criminalizing these users and spend money on rehabilitation instead of expensive incarceration which makes the problem worse. The trillion dollar 20 year “war on drugs” is a colossal failure. For those identified by MDs as “addicted”- provide prescriptions until they can beat their habit. The very small % that can’t beat their addiction…they will just have to keep using until they die just like alcoholics. Once the profit is taken away from the cartels and their $40 billion annual income dries up, Mexico will have a chance to turn a new page.

    • csb4546

      Why hasn’t Mexico legalized drugs already?
      It’s the “wild-card” solution to drug gang warfare in Mexico – nobody really knows what to expect.
      If all drugs were made legal, what would happen to the drug cartels in Mexico?

      • Mike S

        I don’t think drugs should be legal for the general public(other than pot). What I do suggest is that penalties should be mandatory rehabilitation instead of incarceration. And addictive opiates and certain other drugs should be made available by prescription to certified addicts while they are trying to beat their addictions. Serious mandatory classes should also be introduced into the school systems educating youth on the disastrous consequences on physical and mental health of hard drug use and the nature of addiction. If that was done, I predict drug demand would diminish over time. What we have now is not working. And policies like this would have to implemented in the US and Mx. Of course there could be abuses and corruption, but taking 2 steps forward and one back over time will work.

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