Protests have been held in Mexico over the slaying of an award-winning journalist on May 15—the latest in a long line of reporters killed for daring to cover the country's ongoing nightmarish narco-violence. Javier Valdez was founder and editor of weekly newspaper Ríodoce in Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa state and principal stronghold of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel. Ríodoce staff pledged to carry on his work in spite of threats. Valdez was the sixth Mexican journalist killed so far this year.
Just one day earlier, a group of journalists from national daily La Jornada and other outlets were stopped on a highway in Guerrero state by a group of some 100 gunmen, and relieved of their cameras and other equipment. Amazingly, none of the reporters were harmed. They had been on their way to cover the conflict in San Miguel Totolapan town, where the army has been sent in following months of factional violence between narco gangs and local self-defense militias.
And on May 12, a prominent activist who had organized survivors of the "disappeared" to search for their loved ones in violence-torn Tamaulipas state was herself assassinated. Miriam Rodríguez of the Citizen Community in Search of the Disappeared was hit multiple times by unknown gunmen in her hometown of San Fernando.
Apparently as a hideous joke, the day she was slain is Mother's Day in Mexico, and Rodríguez—hailed by locals as "Mother Courage"—had launched her crusade after her own daughter disappeared in 2012. Her efforts finally led to her daughter's body being found in an unmarked grave two years later, and several arrests in the case. Some of the men arrested in her daughters's death have recently escaped from prison.
These horrific events follow a new study indicating that thanks to a decade and counting of militarized drug war, Mexico is now the most dangerous country on Earth after war-torn Syria. The UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) found that drug-related violence claimed 23,000 lives in Mexico last year—higher than the civilian toll in Afghanistan.
"The death toll in Mexico’s conflict surpasses those for Afghanistan and Somalia. This is all the more surprising, considering that the conflict deaths are nearly all attributable to small arms. Mexico is a conflict marked by the absence of artillery, tanks or combat aviation," said IISS director John Chipman.
The study was widely reported—a news story about it was even tweeted by Donald Trump. However, the reaction was harsh in Mexico. The Exterior Secretariat and Governance Secretariat responded quickly in a joint statement.
"Mexico is far from being one of the most violent countries in the world," the statement read, pointing out that by UN figures, the country's homicide rate of 16.4 murders per 100,000 residents last year was significantly lower than several other Latin American countries, including Brazil (25.2 murders per 100,000 residents), Venezuela (53.7 murders per 100,000 residents) and Honduras (90.4 murders per 100,000 residents).
Whether the IISS claim is correct, the toll in Mexico's drug war has certainly been ghastly, with estimates of up to 200,000 killed since the previous president, Felipe Calderón, mobilized the army to fight the cartels over a decade ago.
Even the military wants out of this fight now. Gen. Alejandro Ramos Flores, head of the Defense Secretariat's legal department, told Reuters that a bill currently before Mexico's congress, the Law of Internal Security, would oblige civilian authorities to resume control of fighting organized crime. The Defense Secretariat has thrown its support behind the bill.
"We're not going to resolve the problem. It's a problem with more social and economic aspects. Everything has to converge to resolve the problem and return it to the authorities responsible for taking charge of this situation," Ramos said.
It sure took a high cost for this lesson to begin to sink in. Hope the bill passes.