Tombs of the Unknown: Mexico's Mysterious Deaths

In a war where less than one in 20 crimes is investigated, the conflict's most fundamental questions -- who is doing the killing? whom is being killed? why? -- remain unanswered

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Morgue workers prepare a coffin with the words "Unknown 49, Colony San Vicente" to be buried along with other unidentified bodies found recently in mass burials / Reuters

MEXICO CITY, Mexico -- On any given day in Mexico, tens of people will die in the violent conflict between government forces and criminal cartels. Some of them will be decapitated, others left with graphic messages on their corpses. Bodies will hang from bridges or turn up in mass graves. Still other casualties will be exacted on the streets in gun battle. As best anyone can count, between 35,000 and 40,000 people have died in Mexico over the last five years. And nearly all of those deaths have been violent. They're also becoming more common: The number of deaths in the conflict increased by 60 percent between 2009 and 2010.

The death toll is shocking, but the story gets worse from here. No one knows much about who these tens of thousands of people were -- whether the dead were criminals, soldiers, policemen, or just plain civilians. Nor is it clear why they are being killed; the vast majority of deaths are never investigated. Mass graves are dug up with back hoes rather than archaeological brushes. Decapitated corpses are attributed to the cartels, often without evidence, and quickly buried. All of this means that no one knows exactly why Mexico, which has been home to drug cartels for decades, has suddenly descended into brutal war. No one knows how many people are dying, or why. And no one knows why it is getting worse.

In recent weeks, the death toll -- and where it comes from -- has become the most contested issue in Mexico. The debate is far from academic. Without knowing who is dying and why, it can be near impossible to understand this conflict and where it is going. The administration of President Felipe Calderon said at the turn of the year that some 35,000 people have died in drug-related violence, nearly all of them related somehow to drug and criminal industries. If that's true, Calderon's strategy is also the right prescription: The high casualty rate is a sign that the cartels are under pressure and they're fighting tooth and nail to cling on as the government cracks down. If civil society leaders are right, however, a vastly different picture emerges. Activists put the death toll far higher -- at least 40,000 and probably 45,000 by the end of the summer. According to their counts, about half -- or at least a sizeable proportion -- are civilians. And the perpetrators, they say, were as likely to be military as criminal.

As presidential elections loom here in 2012, the stakes of this question are growing. If the cartels are truly close to folding, the fight must go on. If the security forces are exacerbating the problem, it's time to rethink the country's war on drugs. The candidates running for Mexico's top job will have to decide where along this spectrum they fall, even as the casualties continue to mount.

To understand how Mexico got to this point, it's worth a brief look back at the how the country's strategy in the war on drugs evolved over the last five years. When Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched an assault on the country's organized drug cartels in 2006, most everyone cheered. His popularity shot up to two-thirds of those surveyed, and intellectuals of across the board applauded the courage that it took to tackle the problem before, rather than after, Mexico became a narcostate. Many looked to the example of Colombia -- a country that has been largely stabilized after decades of drug wars -- as solace.

Calderon's strategy was full-frontal assault. Fearing that the local police were infiltrated or ill-trained, the president sent some 30,000 armed forces across the country to root out the drug traffickers. "This will be a great battle that will take years, will carry a high cost of force, including economic resources, and ... will probably require the sacrifice of Mexican lives, " Calderon proclaimed in a speech in November 30, 2006. "But it is a battle that we set up undertaking and that we will win, and for which we must remain united." He's won international applause as well; the head of the UN's Office of Drugs and Crime in Mexico, Antonio Mazzitelli, described Calderon's war as a "no choice situation" for the Mexican state's viability. Over the next several years, the number of troops and federal police deployed rose to 50,000. Security forces apprehended cartel leaders and extradited record numbers of alleged drug traffickers to the United States for trial.

But two other numbers rose too: the death toll and the number of Mexican states affected by the violence. After seeing just over 2,000 deaths in 2006, by 2009 that number had more than tripled. In 2010, it reached 15,273. Likewise, whereas just 53 municipalities saw more than a dozen annual executions in 2007, there were 200 such localities in 2010, according to data from the Mexican presidency recently published by Eduardo Guerrero, a political consultant and former advisor to the Mexican presidency, in the monthly Mexican magazine Nexos. "The violence in Mexico has an epidemic quality," Guerrero said in an interview. "And it's spreading exponentially in a way that [seems] uncontrollable."

As the human price tag of the conflict has risen, the government has continued to categorize nearly all the deaths as organized crime-related. In 2010, Calderon argued that 90 percent were criminals, 5 percent were police, and the rest civilians. Alejandro Poiré, spokesman for the national security strategy, wrote on his official blog on June 20 of this year that the increase in violence is the price his country is paying for so many years of tolerating the cartels: "Over many years, the inaction and tolerance of criminal organizations allowed it to grow and expand to include crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, and robbery."

"Calderon and his security policy argue it is necessary to pass through a stage in which there is more violence, in order to end the violence," Arturo Borja, an economist and researcher at Mexico's Center for Economic Investigation and Teaching (CIDE), told me.

But how, exactly, do they know that the victims of this conflict are bad guys? And how do we know it was the good guys who killed them? The answer is simple: We don't. "It's very hard to know what kinds of people are dying, because there are no investigations," Alejandro Fontecilla, an expert in policing at Mexico's Institute for Security and Democracy, noted. According to a recent study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), a mere 1 out of every 100 crimes ever goes before a judge, and only 4.5 percent of reported crimes are ever investigated.

Short of official evidence, an increasing number of victims' families are beginning to question the good guy-bad guy narrative themselves, arguing that a much larger proportion of the casualties are made up of ordinary people somehow caught up in the fighting. Human rights advocates say anecdotal evidence supports the claim. Countless families and communities who have come to those groups looking for help, suggesting more of the victims are innocent civilians than the official narrative claims. One of the refuges for victims is the Mexican Center for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, where researcher Silvano Cantú works to offer victims legal assistance and other guidance. Like everyone, he says he doesn't know how many of the victims are civilians, "but the perception is that the proportion of civilian casualties is very high." Cantú also points to bits of the casualty toll that are almost certainly civilian: a U.N. report that documents the deaths of roughly 1,000 children as a result of the violence, for example. Hundreds of migrants are also falling victim, many found later in mass graves.

Who is killing them? Deaths are as likely to be attributed to security forces as to criminals, he believes. "The means of responding to organized crime is also a source of violence," Cantú told me. One survey, put together by a group of independent researchers calling themselves Equipo Bourbaki, supports this claim. The report found that only about half of the casualties (including deaths, illegal detentions, robberies, and other crimes) were committed by criminal organizations. Often, the culprit was a member of the security forces. A mere 6 percent of the victims of organized crime were themselves members of the criminal organizations.

Even if the security forces aren't directly implicated in the violence, the government's military strategy still might be aggravating this conflict, Guerrero, the political consultant, argues. Writing in Nexos in June, he argued that the government's strategy, "with focuses on detaining and fighting the members of organized crime groups," has actually just dispersed the violence, fracturing coherent, disciplined organizations into hundreds of undisciplined and violent smaller ones. Every time the government has cut the head off of a big cartel, he wrote, the organization has reacted like a hydra, replacing the lost branch with three or five new ones. The number of major cartels in Mexico has doubled since 2006, he noted, from six to 12. The number of local delinquent groups, an indicator of organized criminal behavior as well as a symptom of general lawlessness, has increased tenfold, from 11 to 114. Violence, he reported, has risen every time one of the cartels has been fragmented. "The government is focusing on the big guys," he said in an interview. "But these groups are not one guy -- they're 400."

Another popular theory for why the war is worsening, first articulated by Shannon O'Neil in Foreign Affairs in 2009, states that Mexico's democratization opened the door to carnage. Peace broke down, the theory goes, when Calderon's current ruling party took power in 2000, after seven decades of single-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had developed complicit arrangements with the cartels over a matter of decades. "As the PRI's political monopoly ended, so did its control over the drug trade," O'Neil told the U.S. Senate in 2010. "This allowed existing organizations to assert their independence from the government."

As elections approach, this latter argument is gaining currency on the ground -- and winning popularity for the PRI, which is keen to portray itself as able to deal with the cartels. The PRI's presidential candidate for next year's elections, Enrique Peña Nieto, currently leads the polls. In January, he called for a new security strategy, arguing that peace couldn't be achieved by relying on the army. Edgar Cortez, a researcher at the Mexican Institute for Human Rights and Democracy, summarized the PRI's resurgence with a question. "How much can the government really do with organized crime -- eliminate it or manage it?" Maybe the PRI won't end the cartels, but it might, the argument goes, make them bearable.

An increasing number of people here in Mexico just want the violence to end -- even if that means some sort of compromise. Yet despite the wide debate over the death toll, for the moment, all the solutions to lowering it remain speculation alone. Barring investigations into the deaths, it's one man's word against another about who has died, why, and how. It's a matter of ideology as much as fact whether this drug war is a mess made by the government or a necessary struggle to save Mexico from descent into a mafia republic.

For years, Guerrero lamented, the government has not been interested in that debate. "It's all about a political rationale, which contaminates the debate. You can't debate, actually." And while that has worked for some time, he said, "the problem is that with the dispersion of the violence and crime, the people already understand this problem. They're already victims of the crime."