By Ryan McMaken*
2017 may have been the worst year for homicide in Mexico since the government began keeping track in the 1990s.
It’s a safe bet that the homicide rate isn’t coming anywhere near what it was in the years surrounding the revolution. But it may be the worst rate in several decades.
German news site DW reports:
The Interior Ministry said authorities … put the country’s  homicide rate at 20.5 per 100,000 inhabitants.
The highest figure ever recorded in Mexico before last year was in 2011, during the peak of the Mexican government’s war on drugs.
Unfortunately, some observers think the Mexican state is fudging the numbers:
Mexican security analysts Alejandro Hope told AP news agency that the [official] figure is based on the number of murder investigations opened last year, not the number of victims.
Hope added that it also doesn’t take into account that a killing may result in more than one victim. He placed the homicide rate closer to 24 per 100,000 inhabitants.
According to the official stats in recent years, the homicide rate in Mexico hit 22.6 per 100,000 in 2011, and then declined after that. If critics are right, and the current rate is near 24 per 100,000, that would be a new peak.1
By comparison, the homicide rate in the United States was 5.3 per 100,000 in 2016 (the most recent data available) ranging from 1.3 per 100,000 in New Hampshire to 11 per 100,000 in Louisiana.
Why Are Rates So High?
Violent crime may be Mexico’s largest problem for its economy, growth, and its standard of living. In recent decades, Mexico has moved beyond single-party political rule. It now has competitive elections in more than name only. It has several metropolitan areas which are — outside of the crime issue — considered good places to do business. It is increasingly connected to the global economy. The UN ranks it “high” on its Human Development Index. Along with other rapidly modernizing Latin American Countries like Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Panama, it would be very wrong to call Mexico a “third world” country.
So why the persistent violent crime?
This is one of those issues that has no simple answer. Part of the problem is due to a lack of local control. Some is due to the Drug War — as is the case in the US and other countries. Part is due to demographics.
This doesn’t stop some commentators, though, from attempting to assign easy explanations to the problem.
One such recent trend in polemics is found among gun-control advocates who attempt to blame Mexico’s crime woes on the availability of small arms in the United States.
This blame game results in part from the fact that Mexico is not exactly laissez faire when it comes to firearms. As Vox notes:
Mexico maintains some fairly strict gun laws: All guns must be registered through the federal government, carrying a gun requires a license, sales are legally limited to one store in Mexico City, and carrying licenses can be taken away at the federal government’s discretion.
Like much of Latin America, Mexico is a country with strict gun laws, but high homicide rates.
So how to explain the problem?
Well, in the case of Mexico, the answer for gun control activists is to blame the United States: “one way for Mexicans to get around their country’s strict gun laws is to simply walk across the border.”
The logic proceeds accordingly: The presence of more guns means more homicide. And, although Mexico has strict gun laws, Mexico is unfortunately located close to the United States where guns can be easily purchased. Guns are then introduced into Mexico where they drive a higher homicide rate.
There are some problems with this logic. Even if we account for all the black-market guns in Mexico, gun totals are still much higher in the US. That is, according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, it is estimated that there are around 15 million privately-held guns in Mexico, on the high end. Even accounting for an additional increase since 2007, we’re looking at a rate of fewer than 20 guns per 100 people in Mexico. In the United States, on the other hand, that total is around 100 guns per 100 people.
So, if one is going to pin Mexico’s violence problem on “more guns,” they have to account for why there are more than five times as many guns in the US, with only a small fraction of the homicides.
Moreover, the often-quoted statistic allegedly showing that as much as 70 percent, or even 90 percent, of guns seized in Mexico come from the US is not true. That statistic is based only on seized guns that are also traced by the ATF. How many of all guns seized in Mexico come from the US? According to Stratfor, “almost 90 percent of the guns seized in Mexico in 2008 were not traced back to the United States.” Nor does the Mexican government ask the ATF to trace all guns seized in Mexico. This is because many of those arms can be traced back to the Mexican government itself.
After all, it’s not as if Latin America has no locally produced firearms. The 2012 Small Arms Survey notes:
Latin America has a long tradition of gun production, with some manufacturers tracing their history back many decades. Brazil has the largest arms industry in the region, followed by Argentina. Firearms are also produced by private or government-owned industries in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. While most of the production is intended to equip the military and law enforcement institutions, some of the production is for private use.”
The report also refers to “major exporters” of small arms in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Brazil. So we know Mexico contains local arms-producing manufacturers to the point that some are “major exporters” who also produce arms for government institutions. And government stockpiles are a source for black markets as well.
Even worse, the same government institutions that work to keep firearms out of the hands of peaceful private citizens, are often in league with the cartels. As a recent New York Times article noted about local resistance in Michoacan to cartel-sown chaos, “Townspeople formed militias to eject both the cartel … and the local police, who were seen as complicit.”
In other words, there is often no clear line between law enforcement and the cartels themselves.
Often, official law enforcement simply can’t be bothered. Things are even worse when, as one cartel member put it, “soldiers and cops are … really on our side.”
Thus, it shouldn’t exactly be a surprise that many of the guns seized in Mexico are coming from official government sources.
It requires quite a bit of creativity to then take these facts and twist them into a narrative which concludes “too many guns in Texas leads to more Mexican homicide.” If Texan guns are fueling homicide in neighboring jurisdictions, why aren’t US states close to Texas experiencing similar problems?
New Mexico, after all, is next to Texas. But New Mexico’s homicide rate of 6.7 per 100,000 is a mere fraction of its neighbor to the south — Chihuahua state — where the homicide rate is over 40 per 100,000. Chihuahua is also next to Texas.
Moreover, increases in gun totals over time in the United States have not shown increases in homicides. In fact, the opposite is true. According to statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, new guns manufactured in the United States, since 2011, have been more than double what they were throughout most of the past thirty years. Total gun production rapidly increased from 2001 to 2013, yet, homicide rates were cut in half from the 1990s to today. Although homicide rates have trended up in the past two years, they remain near 50-year lows.
Indeed, some American border towns have persistently low homicide rates, even by American standards. The homicide rate in El Paso, Texas, for example, was a very low 2.7 per 100,000 in 2016. Just across the Rio Grande, the city of Juarez is one of the murder capitals of the world. Moreover, 80 percent of El Paso residents are of Hispanic — primarily Mexican — origin, meaning we can’t even resort to a bigoted explanation about how Mexican ethnicity leads to more violence.
So, why should it be outlandish to conclude that Mexican gun control might be an important factor? After all, on the southern side of the border, guns are reserved for cartels and often-corrupt police officials. Has this situation improved things life for average Mexicans? It’s hard to see how they have.
About the author:
*Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
This article was published at MISES Institute.
1. Historical figures from the World Bank’s data site: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/VC.IHR.PSRC.P5