Debate rises over death toll in Mexico drug war

AP News
Posted: Jun 02, 2011 2:32 PM
Debate rises over death toll in Mexico drug war

The debate over how many people have died in Mexico's 4 1/2-year-old drug war is intensifying as the government's silence over the figure grows longer.

The last official count, more than 34,600 dead, came almost six months ago, and the number of lives lost is now obviously far higher, with daily reports of slayings and shootouts in drug hot spots and the occasional horror of mass graves containing hundreds of bodies.

Some Mexican news media are reporting that their counts show the death toll has risen past 40,000, a number that includes rival gang members killed in turf battles, as well as innocent bystanders, extortion victims, police and soldiers.

The most recent official count came in January, when the government released a database of drug-related deaths as a gesture of openness about President Felipe Calderon's military assault on drug cartels, which began as he took office in December 2006.

Government officials also had occasionally released updated numbers in past years when pressed by the news media. But they have not given any figures since the database was released, nor have they updated the database since.

The government also has cut back on the public dialogues with activists and nongovernmental organizations it started last year, even as new and shocking crimes come to the fore. Mass graves holding more than 400 corpses were discovered in two northern Mexico states in April and May, and thousands of people have massed in protests against the violence in several Mexican cities.

Anti-crime activist Francisco Torres said Wednesday that the lack of openness on the issue only increases Mexicans' insecurity.

"Transparency, and the chance that it will eventually create accountability, is fundamental for making the public feel we live in a nation of laws," said Torres, who heads the group Mexico United Against Crime.

"But when this doesn't happen, as long as the figures remain hidden and information isn't forthcoming, the public lacks the tools that enable people to make decisions about what to do and what not to do, where to work or study," he said.

But Mexico's federal security spokesman, Alejandro Poire, refused to confirm or deny those figures or to release a new count when asked earlier this week.

"At some point, the appropriate update will be made," Poire said.

Security consultant Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez wrote in the June issue of Nexos magazine that he believes the figure has already surpassed 40,000.

The issue isn't just a mathematical question for poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was killed along with six friends on March 28 in Cuernavaca, a resort and industrial city south of Mexico City. Prosecutors say drug gang members killed them after a couple of Sicilia's friends had a chance scuffle with the gangsters 10 days before.

Sicilia, who also believes the total death toll is now about 40,000, has mounted a series of protests against the drug-war violence, and has proposed writing the names of the dead on plaques at the spots where they were killed throughout the country so that they won't just be numbers.

Jorge Chabat, en expert in Mexico who studies the drug trade, said releasing the figures has a cost for the government.

"Obviously, if the number is high, it provides a tool to identify the problem, but it also opens the government to criticism," Chabat said. "I think in these cases one has to choose the least costly option, and I think releasing the figures is less costly."

Many critics allege that Calderon's offensive, which ramped up Mexico's existing use of troops against traffickers, was launched without adequate preparation, strategy or understanding of how strong the cartels had become.

The government has launched an ad campaign branding those accusations as false.

Roy Campos, president of the polling firm Mitofsky, said it would be understandable if the government stopped releasing figures, if it had some strategic reason to do so.

"All government actions, including information, should be part of a strategy," Campos said. "If releasing the figures threatens to hurt the strategy, then don't release them."

Campos thinks the strategy might be just simple public relations: better a big storm of criticism every few months when figures are finally released, than a steady drumbeat every day.

Campos suggest administration officials may feel "it's better for them to criticize us every six months, than to criticize us every day for 10 more deaths."