The Mexico Numbers Game

In recent years, media coverage of Mexico has painted a picture of widespread fear. It is a picture that bears little resemblance to what I experience living in central Mexico. Could this picture have been deliberately invented or exaggerated? Might the government of Felipe Calderón want to justify its policies of militarization to attract further U.S. support?

December 6, 2011


In recent years, media coverage of Mexico has painted a picture of widespread fear and apprehension. It is a picture that bears little resemblance to what I see and experience living in central Mexico. Could this picture have been deliberately invented—or at least exaggerated? Could reporters have missed the real story by relying on easy-to-come-by government press releases that dramatize the violence of the drug war? Might the government of Felipe Calderón want to do everything possible to justify its policies of militarization and the attraction of active U.S. support?

A year ago, the reported number of dead in Mexico’s drug war was adjusted overnight from 19,000 dead from December 2006 through 2010, to 30,000 dead over that same period—a 50% increase in the estimated number of casualties. The new number came from Alejandro Poiré, then-spokesperson for the Mexican government’s national security strategy.

This escalating number provided ammunition for the policy of hard-line militarization, but also supported the opposition's criticisms of Calderón’s policies. Not surprisingly, the number went unchallenged. Current estimates are 50,000 dead since Calderón escalated the war against organized crime upon taking office. Do these high numbers call for an end to the drug war or further escalation? Who benefits?

On April 28, 2010, the Associated Press published an article datelined, Cuernavaca—my hometown. The piece drew a portrait of a fearful Cuernavaca so different from my reality that I decided to track down the people quoted in the article to ask them if they indeed had said what the AP reporter quoted them as saying. Two said they’d been unrecognizably misquoted; the third said he’d only been quoted partially and then distorted out of context.

Based on these interviews, I contacted the AP and sent a letter questioning the truthfulness of the article. Instead of the retraction I expected, AP’s Latin America Editor, Niko Price, said what I had done was “creepy.”

“Never, in my long career has anyone ever re-interviewed people quoted in my articles,” said Price. There was no apology for the misrepresentations.

“Did you send your reporter out to slander Cuernavaca?” I asked.

“No, I sent her to write about fear,” he replied.

Subsequently, The News, Mexico City’s English-language daily, picked up the story and ran an article with the long title: “AP Shows its Stripes; Reporter Goes to Cuernavaca With a Story in Mind, Not Seeking Truth.” This story created some waves in journalistic circles; Price was reportedly very angry. Nonetheless, within a few months his bruised ego was mended by a promotion from Mexico City to Paris.

Only a year before, the swine flu media-induced hysteria had destroyed Mexican tourism and threatened foreign investment. Within weeks the Mexican economy was devastated. Washington barred many Mexicans from cross-border travel; Mexicans themselves bought into the hysteria. Schools and government offices closed. Mexico City became a virtual ghost town. The reported numbers of dead went up and down until, finally, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, issued a press release stating that swine flu was no more dangerous than regular seasonal flu. Swine flu dropped off the radar when it started upsetting the U.S. economy. Coincidence? Why was it Janet Napolitano, not the Surgeon General or the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who made the health-related announcement?

Under the terms of a freedom of information law administered by Mexico's Federal Institute of Access to Information (IFAI), a Mexican citizen recently requested names, dates, and places of death of the victims of the drug war. The Office of the Presidency replied that the information was classified. The IFAI overruled the presidency and ordered that the information be given to the citizen. As far as I know this information has yet to be made public. Until the government complies with the IFAI’s request I continue to question the government numbers.

There are incentives for inflating these figures, including the continuation of the U.S. presence in Mexico. In November 2010, the weekly news magazine Proceso reported on an address: Reforma 265, the tallest building in that area of Mexico City. Dish antennae, visible from the street, line the roof. A building directory in the lobby refers to the top five floors, not by the names of its occupants, but with a cryptic “Ocupado” (occupied). The article reports—and this report has gone un-denied—that those floors are occupied by U.S. agencies, including intelligence agencies, and that the various agency staffs no longer even bother to maintain the charade of being with the diplomatic service.

In March 2009 Washington nominated Cuban-born Carlos Pascual as U.S. ambassador to Mexico. At first glance he appeared a good choice; one might presume the State Department chose him because he understands Latin America, or, perhaps, because he speaks fluent Spanish. While it was a breakthrough for a career diplomat to be posted to Mexico, it is probably not coincidence that Pascual’s specialty is “failed states.” At the time of his appointment, Rosario Greene, a former secretary of foreign relations, now president of the Mexican Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, said, in reference to Pascual’s appointment, “the messenger is the message.”

Ambassador Pascual is now referred to as the highest-ranking victim of WikiLeaks. He presented his resignation after being embarrassed by his frank reports indicating that a good portion of the drug war in Mexico is supervised and ordered by those U.S. agencies with offices in Reforma 265. Is the specter of a failed state in its backyard enough to encourage the United States to willingly fund the departments operating out of Reforma 265? What are the concessions Washington receives from Mexico in exchange?

As this is written, the Calderón administration has been in office for 59 months and 20 days. 1,815 days have passed since Calderón was inaugurated on December 1, 2006; 50,000 violent deaths divided by 1,815 equals 27.5 people killed per day in a country of over 105 million people. Are these figures inflated? Is Mexico a willing puppet of Washington, with the U.S. puppet master pulling the strings to choreograph the creation of a “failed state" on its southern border? Is this the missing piece of the story? Does the United States, perhaps, covet Mexico’s natural resources?

Despite all its bravado, Mexico is a very peaceful country; citizens are not accustomed to ownership of weapons, nor do they have much experience with using them. Very few people enter the armed forces. Even though the Mexican Army has the world’s fifth highest number of generals, there are fewer than 400,000 active members in all three branches of the armed forces combined. Young men in their first year of adulthood are required to do a year of military service—one weekend day a week, which they accurately refer to as “marching.” They are not trained to use weapons. When weapons are used, Mexicans are rightfully fearful.

Despite the doubts I have expressed, I stand firmly with the Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity and its demand that the Mexican government change its drug war strategy, treat drug addiction as a health issue, decriminalize illegal drugs and—I would add to those demands—legalize the ill-gotten fortunes from the drug trade so that they can be used for legal investment in the economy, as was done in the United States upon overturning Prohibition.



Charlie Goff is an anthropologist, a longtime Cuernavaca resident, and a columnist with The News, Mexico City’s English-language daily. For more on the Mexican drug war, see the May/June 2011 NACLA Report "Mexico's Drug Crisis," or read "The U.S. War in Mexico," by NACLA blogger Fred Rosen.

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