Alisa Barba, Senior Editor, Fronteras Desk
Related Story: Drug Violence Dropped In Mexico In 2012
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. According to a new report from researchers at the University of San Diego drug-related violence in Mexico seems to have leveled off and decreased slightly. But researchers say they may have some trouble tracking violence in Mexico in the future and Mexico has begun to reduce access to data about the violence. I'd like to introduce my guests. Octavio Rodriugez is with the transborder Institute at USD. He is co-author of the report titled drug violence in Mexico, data and analysis through 2012 and Octavio, welcome to the show
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: Thank you very much Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Alisa Barba is also joining us. She is senior editor for the Fronteras desk. And Alisa hello.
ALISA BARBA: Hi there, Maureen. How are you?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Great, thanks. Octavio this particular report is part of a series of reports that the transborder Institute has issued in violence in Mexico?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: This is a fourth report in a series of drug-related violence research that we started back in 2006 2007 first as an attempt to inform audiences about drug violence through fact sheets and it became more serious research and we started to produce reports.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some of the key findings in this report is that violence is dropping in Mexico. By how much did you find it dropping?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: According to official data on overall homicides, homicides decreased around 8% from 2011 to 2012. And related to organized crime style homicides it seems like at least increased at least 5 to 8%.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This doesn't sound like a big number but is this the first time the numbers have gone down for a while?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: It's true starting in 2007 violence started to increase at a rate of 26% yearly. So this is the first year that we do not see an increase in violence.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you know every country unfortunately as its homicides. How does Mexico define homicides related to drug violence?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: This is a big problem since what we call organized crime style homicides are not a type of crime itself. So we have to take into consideration a lot of variables such as the type of weapon used, the level of violence in committing such a crime, meaning the use of torture, decapitation dismemberment the so-called narco, banners, messages left with the bodies or in the bodies, among other variables we take into consideration.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And is that data, does that come to you along with the factThat there are a certain number of homicides in other words, does a city saying okay this is the manner in which this homicide occurred, so you can make the designation yes, okay this we're going to count as organized crime or drug-related homicide.
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: So the Mexican government started to track this type of homicides and released some information back in 2011 actually taking into consideration all of the elements in making a separate data set from the current data set on overall homicides at the same time media outlets such as reform Mexican media outlets have done the same for the last three or four years.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you give us some specific information about Baja California because it's where most San Diegans will visit Mexico?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: Just to (inaudible) in Tijuana was the second most violent city in Mexico in 2000 city right now it is the eighth. It's not among the top five most violent cities in Mexico the level of violence has decreased dramatically in comparison to what we used to see in 2006 2008.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is the most dangerous city in terms of homicides now in Mexico?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: Acapulco, the touristic spot of Acapulco on the coast. Ciudad Juárez had been the most violent city from 2008 two 2011 and this year surprisingly it fell around 40% in the levels of overall homicides and became in second position right below Acapulco.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We did a show about the decreasing level of violence in Ciudad Juárez just recently. And of course people there are very happy about that. And I suppose the people in Baja California are quite relieved as well.
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: Yes, Tijuana is no longer considered a violent city even now even the Mexican government has pointed out there is a Tijuana model, not just in terms of security, but also in terms of successful implementation of the new criminal justice system.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Octavio, we hear about areas of violence, you just told us about areas of violence shifting within Mexico. Is that because the drug cartels themselves are shifting areas of operation?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: That has to do with strategy followed by the last administration, the cult around administration to target, to try to dismantle organizations would cost big organizations to become more molecular, meaning that in trying to break organizations, they started to create new
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Splinter groups?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: Less protectable, more violent because they are smaller and control less territory and therefore are not as visible as the traditional big cartels.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So, with your report showing that the number of drug-related organized crime related homicides have decreased slightly overall in Mexico, does that actually mean that it is really any safer in Mexico?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: It is important to mention that violence is level, it is measured through homicides. We have seen less homicides in Mexico but, there is no reliable data so far in regard to some other types of crime and of course the most presumable type of crime is theft, robbery so there is no, at least we don't have that data yet to really say that it is less violent, or it is safer to be in Mexico but at least a better way to measure is homicides and we've seen a decrease.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me bring Alisa Barba into the conversation as editor of the frontiers test, what is your take on the report?
ALISA BARBA: You know I think they are codifying something that we see on the ground in the northern border cities of Tijuana and there's a lightning of the atmosphere there is a sense that kind of life is coming back, that the restaurants and nightclubs and kind of normal life in vibrant cities is coming back and it is nice to know the statistics, nice to know there is a decrease in some of the homicide rates I mean Ciudad Juárez feels different, Tijuana feels different I think we have to remember and I think Octavio would told you that these statistics are very difficult to come by and very difficult to follow and very difficult to confirm their accuracy. I think that there has been a troubling falloff in the number of statistics that are coming out of the Mexican government since paying you enter, the new government came into power he's basically said they are no longer going to provide the same kind of statistics that they did in the past because they don't want to focus on much on the deaths. Frankly it is bad PR, it does not look good and a lot of journalists and researchers have relied on one newspaper, reform kind of tracking of violence statistics as of December they kind of abruptly stop publishing them so well I think that obviously these figures are good and interesting and worth paying attention to for 2012 I think I think we may anticipate some difficulty tracking this information in the months to come.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to speak more about this apparent crackdown on the numbers of homicides in Mexico by the Mexican government. Alisa, you mentioned the fact that people in border cities like Baja California and to Ciudad Juárez, the atmosphere is a little bit later, people seem to be able to carry on their normal lives a little bit more comfortably. As I translated you think, because I know that the frontiers desk does a lot of reporting about the Southwest including San Diego, has that translated into a changing public perception in the US of Mexican Violence?
ALISA BARBA: It has not yet, but going down to Tijuana and number of different times in the last three or four months to check out there's a lot of talk about the new Baja med and wine and all that there's a lot of ex-pats living in Tijuana and promoting it so I've gone down a few times and I cannot convince anybody to go with me are you kidding me it is to file and there is still a perception that this is a no go zone, and I think it's taken a number of years to kind of destroying Tijuana and Baja as a frequent escalation for syndicates are Californians I think it's going to take a few years for it to come back. You know it is quite we are not seeing the same kind of violence and drive-bys that we would hear about in days past, but it certainly doesn't mean that the drug cartels have gone away. It doesn't mean that the people who are kind of controlling the organized crime racket in northern Baja have disappeared, have been silenced. And basically means according to this report and other reports there's been a consolidation of control by one major drug trafficking organization so it has not gone away.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Octavio, before we move on to the topic of the crackdown and information there is one thing in this report that really stuck out for me. At this level and violence in Mexico compare with other Latin American countries?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: In trying to confirm that point of Alyssa, it has been a lot of media coverage of Mexican violence just imagine an example the New York Times covered five times more Mexican violence did not violence in Honduras which is presently the most violent region in the Americas and Mexico is even below the average of the homicide rates of the region. It is below 25%.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In other words what you are saying countries like Honduras and Central America have a higher homicide rate than the one in Mexico.
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: Yes we measured the rate of total numbers divided by 100,000 inhabitants and therefore we have a higher rate in places such as Honduras, Guatemala or even Columbia.
ALISA BARBA: Maureen a much higher rate, four times the murders per capita in Honduras.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The reason we don't hear about that is because most Americans go to Mexico instead of Central America?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: The reason is like most US living abroad living in Mexico. Mexico is one of the first, I am not saying it's not the most important business part partner of the US so that's a very important country for them and there's a reason why there is so much coverage and attention.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, let's go to the idea and difficulty of trying to get data on violence and homicides in Mexico so, Octavio is, as Alisa alluded to, are they actually stopping giving out information the New Mexican government about the new number of homicides?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: They suggested they will not continue releasing that information we have to mention that the Mexican government under the Calderon administration did stop releasing the data on the last year. They say there was a national security issue and therefore that information will not be available for the public. Opinion yet tell information, administration has said they are not going to focus on violence and nonviolence with the previous administration did and will not release the data because they said as well that they don't share the methodology of the previous government in measuring organized crime style homicides.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: They also change the policy when it comes to cracking down on drug cartels. Tell us a little bit about that.
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: Yes, well the Pena Nieto administration has mentioned that his focus is going to be to prevent crime. And they're going to focus on the three crimes that they consider most harmful to society which is kidnapping extortion and homicides. This is, and also there have been a lot of institutional changes within the government trying to concentrate power and Tijuana ministry which is the Ministry of the Interior whereas in the previous administration we had the secretary of public security which has now disappeared or been dismantled to the Ministry of the Interior, so there is a different approach in how the government tries to solve the problem.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Would it be fair to say that the difference in approach Octavio is basically leaving drug cartels alone so that they do not necessarily start these internecine warfare that has resulted in so much death?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: I think we cannot ensure that. I think the only thing is that there will not be as much attention as there used to be. Pres. Pena Nieto said very clearly they're going to continue the labor of fighting organized crime however the only thing is they are not going to do it as publicly or they are not going to put just much attention as they did in the past.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So the government will not be releasing a lot of data about this. Allie get information on whether the tactic itself is going to be working for Mexico?
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: Well, since gathering organized crime it has been very difficult always and has Alyssa mentioned, without official statistics we have to rely on media outlets and reform has been a very good source for the last four or five years but now she mentioned they stopped publishing that information in December of 2012. So now we are really having a problem to measure data. That is why we started the new project within the transborder Institute to try to compile the data for ourselves and from of course available media information and trying to meet all the requirements of this type of homicide to be measured.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're going to keep this up
ALISA BARBA: I was just going to chime in that we've been reading a lot obviously there's a real problem a real difficulty in Mexico with reporting on violence. It is very dangerous as a reporter in Mexico and numerous reporters have been killed in the last few years so we've been reading in fact about how a lot of reporters have begun to rely on twitter and anonymous social media methods of reporting what is going on so it will be interesting over the next year to see whether those kinds of sources will become the place where we learn what is really going on on the ground.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to wrap it up there I've been speaking with Octavio Rodriguez at the transborder Institute at USD and Alisa Barba senior Producer for the fronteras desk, thank you both very much.
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: Thank you very much, Maureen.
ALISA BARBA: Thank you.