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Here’s What Violence Along the U.S.-Mexico Border Really Looks Like

Northern Mexican cities are among the hemisphere's most violent. Across the border, it's a different story. Español

This article is published as part of the campaign Instinto de Vida

Border fence between San Diego's border patrol offices in California (left) and Tijuana, Mexico (right). Public domain.

Part of the justification for President Donald Trump’s “great wall” is that it is needed to keep America protected from what lies below – northern Mexico is rife with drug violence and there exists a very real risk of that violence spilling over into American cities and towns.

But the dynamics of the drug trade – and the numbers – point to a different reality.

At the Igarapé Institute, we’ve compiled the most up-to-date official homicide data from both sides of the border. The results show that towns along the U.S. side are among the safest in the country; northern Mexico, meanwhile, is one of the most violent places in the hemisphere. They also suggest that the threat of spillover violence is unlikely to increase or decrease with the presence of a physical wall.

In 2015, the average homicide rate in the 23 U.S. border counties was 3.2 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, lower than the national homicide rate for the same year, 5.3 per 100,000 habitants. U.S. City Crime Rankings does not list a single U.S. border city among the 60 most dangerous metropolises in America. Meanwhile, in the same year the 35 Mexican border municipalities had an average rate of 20.8 per 100,000, that is, 6.5 times more than its northern neighbor.

Is the physical barrier that already exists between the U.S. and Mexico responsible for “keeping America safe?” Not likely. Drug cartels already operate on both sides of the border (that’s what their business is based on) and guns and ammunition are easier to come by in the U.S. than they are in Mexico. Rather, the border dynamic is costlier for Mexico than it is for the U.S. because limited points of access to U.S. markets generate violent competition between those who wish to control them. In other words, the border itself is part of what makes northern Mexico so violent. As Ioan Grillo, author of Gangster Warlords has argued, the wall only makes illegal transactions more expensive, which in turn gives more money to criminal networks.

Homicide Rates in the US–Mexico Borderland, 2011-2015

This dynamic is even more evident when examining violence levels over time. Omar García-Ponce and Hannah Postel of the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC, demonstrated how in the past two decades the US homicide rates have remained consistently low, while the Mexican side has always been more violent, with murder rates fluctuating between 15 and 20 homicides per 100,000. According to García-Ponce and Postel, between 2007 and 2010, this murder rates spiked drastically, coinciding with violent territorial disputes among drug cartels and between these and the Mexican government’s militarized response.

The most recent data show that this trend changed between 2011 and 2015, with a consistent drop in homicide rates on both sides of the border. During those five years, the average homicide rate in the Mexican border municipalities decreased from 38.6 (2,692 murders) to 20.8 (1,529 murders). At the same time, in the US counties along the border the homicide rate fell from 3.9 (393 murders) to 3.2 (339 murders). This could, at first glance, suggest a positive relationship between violence on either side of the border – but while this drop in violence in Mexico was accompanied by a (smaller) drop in the U.S., spikes in murders south of the border to not show a similar correlation to rising violence north of it.  

Homicide Rates in the US–Mexico Borderland, 2011-2015

The bad news is that the situation in Mexico has changed during the last year. In 2016 the homicide rate in the border municipalities rose again, with an increase from 20.8 per 100.000 inhabitants to 26.5 – six points in just 12 months. This change is related to the gradual fracturing of the cartels and many small clashes between less stable and predictable groups. Murder rates jumped in municipalities like Tecate (from 19.8 to 50.6) and Tijuana (from 35.5 to 49.8) in Baja California, and Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua (from 18.9 to 32.7). But again, there was no concomitant rise in border counties in the U.S. – a rise that would be expected if spillover violence were an urgent threat. 

Homicide Rates in the US–Mexico Borderlands, 2011-2016

Given this reality, to prevent the deterioration of security conditions along the border, the proposal to build “great, great wall” and the order given by president Trump to fight head-on against “the cartels” are unfortunate and probably irrelevant. The border doesn’t need a new wall to contain cartels that are on the verge of extinction in the criminal world. The border requires a serious cooperative strategy, based on the co-responsibility of both countries in the problem of transnational organized crime, to protect US and Mexican communities and to reduce the number of homicide victims on both sides. The US can have a positive role – building a wall probably shouldn’t be part of it. 

References

The Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics (https://ucr.fbi.gov), The New Mexico Department of Public Safety (http://www.dps.state.nm.us/index.php/uniform-crime-reports/), The Arizona Department of Public Safety (http://www.azdps.gov/about/reports/crime_in_arizona/), The Texas Department of Public Safety (http://www.dps.texas.gov/administration/crime_records/pages/crimestatistics.htm), the US Census Bureau intercensal population estimates (https://www.census.gov/en.html), Consejo Nacional de Planeación – Secretaría de Gobierno (http://www.conapo.gob.mx/es/CONAPO/Proyecciones_Datos), Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública (http://secretariadoejecutivo.gob.mx/incidencia-delictiva/incidencia-delictiva-fuero-comun.php)

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This article is published as part of the campaign Instinto de Vida (https://www.instintodevida.org).

About the author

Juan Carlos Garzón es investigador asociado de la Fundación Ideas para la Paz, del Woodrow Wilson Center (Washington D.C) y asesor regional del Instituto Igarapé (Brasil). Politólogo de la Universidad Javeriana (Colombia) y especialista en Teoría y Resolución de Conflictos Armados de la Universidad de Los Andes (Colombia), recibió su titulo de Maestría en Estudios Latinoamericanos de la Universidad de Georgetown (EE.UU). Escribe para El País en España y para El Espectador, La Silla Vacía y Razón Pública en Colombia.

Juan Carlos Garzón is Research Associate at Ideas for Peace Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Center (Washington D.C.) and regional advisor of Igarapé Institute (Brazil). Political scientist from the Universidad Javeriana (Colombia), and specialist in Theory and Armed Conflict Resolution at the University of Los Andes (Colombia). He received his master's degree in Latin American Studies at Georgetown University (USA). He writes for El País newspaper in Spain and El Espectador, La Silla Vacía and Razón Pública in Colombia.


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