As Mexican President Felipe Calderón prepares to leave office Saturday, researchers are bringing into focus the dimensions of his bleakest legacy.
In the last year, researchers, reporters and government agencies have published data on the wave of violence that shocked and wounded the country. The results correct misperceptions about the violence unleashed when Calderón sent military and police forces into battle against organized-crime groups, and add nuance to the disturbing picture.
Among the key statistics:
• There have been around 100,000 murders in Mexico since the beginning of the Calderón administration in December 2006, likely more during that time than in the United States, which has nearly three times the population.
• Mexicans have reported 6,000 cases of people disappearing at the hands of soldiers, police or other authorities.
• At least 24,000 murdered people have been buried in paupers' graves without being positively identified.
"As Felipe Calderón's term ends, we're all trying to answer several questions: How many people died? How many people disappeared? How far did the violence extend around the country?" said Víctor Hugo Michel, a reporter for Milenio newspaper in Mexico City, in a Spanish-language email.
The obstacles to researching crime in Mexico make the progress in measuring the wave of violence there all the more remarkable.
"There's no uniform system of reporting, state to state, or city to city in any given state," said Molly Molloy, a researcher at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, who has worked to measure homicides in Mexico.
ciudad juarez number
Molloy is confident about the accuracy of her estimate of homicides in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, the city of about 1.3 million people south of El Paso that has been the epicenter of Mexican violence. The number: About 11,000 during Calderon's time in office.
This summer, Molloy turned her research to the country as a whole. Using figures from a variety of official sources not usually cited in measures of violence, she estimated in July that the number of murders during Calderón's term up to that point was at least 99,667.
That figure is significantly higher than the range usually discussed for murders in Mexico - 50,000-60,000. That estimate refers to killings related to organized crime, a figure put out by the office of Mexico's president, and covering the period through September 2011.
The president's office has decided not to publish any more of those figures because the criteria are flawed.
Molloy agrees the criteria for measuring organized-crime deaths are arbitrary, and in the end the figure is misleading.
"Just because someone was shot with an AK-47 doesn't mean it was a drug-related homicide," she said. She goes on: "It doesn't matter if they're drug related or not. They're all part of Mexico's social disintegration."
But some argue that the count of organized-crime deaths does matter, even if the figures are flawed. The president's office should continue to release those numbers, said Eric Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
"The answer to that is more transparency, more openness," Olson said. "Let researchers, newspapers, academics and scholars look at it in more detail to try to figure it out."
Mexican reporters have also done pioneering research on the violence, thanks in part to new transparency laws that allow access to government information. The newspaper Milenio published an investigation Oct. 28 on a category of deaths not previously compiled - the "NNs."
NN stands for "Ningún Nombre," the phrase that funeral homes, medical examiners and other officials use to refer to people buried without being identified. By making hundreds of requests under this new public-records law, Milenio reporter Michel was able to come up with a conservative figure for the number of unidentified murder victims buried during Calderón's term: 24,102.
"That doesn't include complete records from Mexico's most violent states, such as Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas," he wrote.
The idea for the investigation came to Michel in 2009 when he was in Tijuana, at a mass grave for victims of the narco-war that was tearing the city apart at the time, he wrote. A woman was at the graveside and said, "I know my brother's in there somewhere."
Michel views his work as incomplete.
"I want to complete the atlas of unidentified people with the data from other states and cities that didn't answer in the first round," he said in the email. "For example, I've begun to compile the data from Sinaloa and Tamaulipas, which I can publish later. That's the next step."
Those buried without being identified undoubtedly fit into another category that researchers have probed - the missing. Mexico's Human Rights Commission has estimated the number of disappeared people at 24,000 between 2000 and mid-2012.
"The truth of the matter is, everybody has sort of known and assumed that there is some unknown quantity of disappeared (people), bodies that are buried or destroyed, thrown into a mass grave," said Olson of the Mexico Institute. "Nobody's tried until very recently to quantify it."
Among the disappeared are more than 6,000 open cases reported to the human-rights commission of people apparently taken by government forces or their agents, Contralínea newspaper reported. Raúl Plascencia Villanueva, president of the commission, told the Mexico City weekly that among those possibly responsible for those cases are government agents, criminals, or criminals acting with the consent of government agents.
The root of the problem, Plascencia told Contralínea, was "the decision to involve the armed forces in public-safety work, without preparing them, without constitutional authority, without having an adequate legal framework."
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"Just because someone was shot with an AK-47 doesn't mean it was a drug-related homicide. It doesn't matter if they're drug related or not. They're all part of Mexico's social disintegration."
Molly Molloy, a researcher at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces
By the numbers
Here are some numbers Mexican President Felipe Calderón won't be touting as he leaves office this week.
estimated number of murders in Mexico since Calderón took office in December 2006
People reported as disappeared at the hands of soldiers, police and other authorities
Murder victims who have been buried, unidentified, in paupers' graves
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or email@example.com