Editor's note: This article is part of "Underworld: a global crime blotter," a semi-regular series covering crime and punishment around the world.
MEXICO CITY, Mexico — For all its mass graves, mutilations and massacres, Mexico has long claimed that it is much safer than Brazil and other Latin American counties.
But new homicide numbers suggest that might not be the case this year.
A report handed quietly to the nation’s Congress earlier this month found that in the first five months of 2011, a staggering 18,468 homicides had been reported.
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It was the bloodiest period in Mexico’s recent history, with more killings than any five months since the government began compiling national homicide numbers in 1997.
As recently as 2009, President Felipe Calderon had pointed out that despite the notorious drug war, Mexico was still less murderous than Brazil with its reputation for thong-filled beaches and samba nights.
The media attention on Mexico's violence in contrast to Brazil's economic growth has given a skewed picture to investors, the president argued.
But many victims of crimes now say that the killings here need more rather than less attention.
“There is no security for any citizen here,” said Javier Sicilia, an anti-crime activist, whose son was murdered in March. “We have to pressure for every one of these murders to be solved. This can’t go on.”
However, the statistics — compiled from police stations around the country — also show how far authorities are from even beginning to solve the Russian mountain of homicide case sheets.
In the lead up to a meeting with Congress members, Sicilia has alleged that only 2 percent of homicides are resolved, or one in 50. Other anti-crime lobbies have reported similarly dismal clear-up rates.
About a third of the 18,000 homicides this year are considered unintentional, lowering the priority to find the killers. However, with rampant gun warfare these can include thugs spraying Kalashnikov rifles and accidentally shooting a bystander.
Of the remaining homicides, about two-thirds are officially classed as being part of the drug war, which has transformed into a fight between paramilitary death squads.
But with so few successful investigations, the real reasons behind most of these killings are murky.
Gangsters don’t kill rivals over just drug loads any more. They also murder over extortion payments, botched kidnappings, theft of crude oil, product piracy and a host of other heinous crimes.
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In the case of a mass grave discovered with almost 200 corpses in Tamaulipas state in April, police have failed to even offer a motive for the attack.
Calderon’s security chiefs retort that despite such terrifying discoveries, things aren’t quite as bad they seem.
The death toll may sound high, but at least a democratic government is being open with the numbers, federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire told a recent news conference.
“We are showing a transparency without a precedent in Mexico and like few other countries in the world,” Poire said as he gave out a detailed database on drug-related killings.
During 71 years of one-party rule, Mexico’s governments gave out few hard numbers on homicides so no one really knew how many there were.
With the change to multiparty democracy in 2000, aggressive newspaper reporters began tallying up corpses in “execution meters” and Calderon has matched the media by regularly handing out government numbers.
Poire also points out that while drug war killings have shot up, so-called “common” killings — including crimes of passion and bar brawls — have actually gone down.
Analysts point to emigration away from feud-ridden villages and increased education to explain the fall.
However, Jose Reveles, one of the country’s most prominent investigative journalists, says any notion that Mexico has got safer is madness.
“Tragically, Mexico is a very dangerous place now,” Reveles said. “There are many parts of the country, where criminals are operating false check points so they can kidnap and kill on a terrifying scale.”
Reveles says the official numbers may be underestimating the death toll by failing to report on the so-called “disappeared” — people who have been picked up by armed groups and not seen since.
Human rights groups estimate that between 2,000 and 10,000 people have disappeared since Calderon took power in December 2006 and launched a war on drug gangs.
In some cases, the victims have vanished in ones or twos but sometimes groups of up to 50 people have been swept up in mass kidnappings.
In several cases, witnesses have reported men in military uniforms taking the victims — although many criminals, as well as soldiers, dress in khaki fatigues.
Reveles says the huge number of disappeared will pose a problem for years to come.
“Thousands of families are searching for their loved ones while at the same time the government cannot even identify many of the corpses it finds. It is a double tragedy,” Reveles said. “The number of disappeared is worse than in many civil wars.”