Mexico: Sharp fall in drug violence inspires new optimism

Along much of the 1,970-mile border between Mexico and the US, levels of violence that peaked in 2011 have fallen, and a national survey found optimism for Mexico's security situation is on the rise.

Gradually but notably, the mood of Mexicans has brightened about their personal security and the broader war on crime, a shift in this country’s state of mind that coincides with a sharp reduction in bloodshed in once violent regions.

Ciudad Juarez, the border city across from El Paso, Texas, that was once one of the most violent in the world, registered only 30 murders in October, the lowest monthly number in five years.

On 14 days last month, no one was murdered at all.

The better mood provides 11th-hour solace to President Felipe Calderon, whose legacy after he leaves office Dec. 1 likely will be tainted by the bloodshed that began to surge at the beginning of his term when he deployed some 50,000 soldiers and federal police to take on well-equipped narcotics cartels.

RELATED: How much do you know about Mexico? Take our quiz and find out!

“Mexico is emerging triumphant against these adversities,” President Calderon said this week as the clock wound down on his six-year term.

“Mexico saw already in 2011, the highest point, an inflection point (on violence), and probably, for example, the homicide rate in 2012 will be lower not only than that in 2011 but even probably lower than in 2010,” Calderon told Jewish leaders on Monday at Los Pinos, the presidential palace.

Along much of the 1,970-mile border between Mexico and the United States, levels of violence that peaked in 2011 have fallen steadily, even dramatically. The area from Ciudad Juarez west to Tijuana has seen homicides plummet, allowing cities to spring back to life.

Ciudad Juarez, once dubbed “Murder City,” tallied fewer homicides in October than Chicago, which chalked up 36 murders.

Mexico once kept an official count of cartel-related homicides.

In 2010, by official reckoning, the nation tallied 15,273 gang-related homicides. But in September 2011, when the count for the first nine months of the year stood at 12,903, the government abruptly said it no longer would release the figures.

Calderon told the Wall Street Journal in June that families of the victims complained that their loved ones were being portrayed as gangsters without a judicial conviction.

"We had complaints from human rights groups and analysts that we were prejudging cases and victims," Calderon told the Journal. "I have given orders to my government that we play by the book on this. Only after a judge issues a verdict can we include this in an official number.”

Media groups still maintain unofficial counts of the dead.

Grupo Reforma, a newspaper consortium, said that by its count, the pace of cartel-related murders this year has dropped 18 percent from last year. On Oct. 26, its tally stood at 8,326 murders. If the pace of killings does not change, this year will mark the first decline in annual totals since the tally began in 2006.

If Mexicans are sensing some success against crime groups, it may be a reflection of the spate of arrests and slayings of gangsters in the past two months.

Authorities have gone far in unraveling one of Mexico’s two major gangs, Los Zetas, and in removing the leadership of a once-powerful group, the Gulf Cartel.

On Oct. 7, a naval infantry unit gunned down Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the dreaded leader of Los Zetas who carried the nickname “The Executioner.” In prior weeks, the navy rolled up two of Lazcano’s top lieutenants and several other key Zetas commanders.

RELATED: How much do you know about Mexico? Take our quiz and find out!

Calderon says his law enforcement efforts have led to either the arrest or death of 25 of the top 37 most-wanted crime figures identified when he came to office.

While something as intangible as the public’s perception of the nation’s security is difficult to measure, surveyors from the National Institute of Statistics have been asking Mexicans for their views in recent years.

The questions include: How do you see your personal security as compared to a year ago? How do you see it next year? How about the security in the nation as a whole compared to a year ago? And what’s your level of confidence in walking alone near your home between 4 and 7 p.m.?

October’s public security index hit 104.4, the fourth straight month in which people voiced greater optimism than the baseline month of April 2009, before violence really spiraled upward in Mexico. The lowest month, according to the index, was November 2010, when the index stood at 92.

The heartened mood plays into the hands of President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, who easily won the July 1 vote on the back of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico as a one-party state for most of the 20th century.

Mr. Pena Nieto has pledged no radical difference in security policies for the nation other than a greater focus on reducing levels of violence.

He has pledged to halve the homicide rate in his first year in office, reducing it to 12 homicides per 100,000 residents. He’s also vowed to cut kidnappings in half, setting a goal of 1,668 abductions in the same period.

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