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Is Mexico the second-deadliest ‘conflict zone’ in the world? Probably not.

A masked protester confronts police at the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo in Mexico during demonstrations in 2014. (Associated Press)

This month, headlines have been screaming that “Mexico was second-deadliest country in 2016″ and “Mexico Now World’s Deadliest Conflict Zone After Syria: Survey,” based on a report recently released by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Even President Trump retweeted the story. The reports say that Syria had about 50,000 conflict deaths last year and that Mexico came in second with 23,000, followed by Afghanistan with 17,000.

But how accurate is the news that Mexico is the world’s second-deadliest country or conflict zone? Here are four questions whose answers suggest it’s not.

1. How many drug-violence deaths did Mexico really have?

The International Institute for Strategic Studies posts both its Armed Conflict Survey and information about its methodology online, and one of its experts kindly answered my questions.

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Perhaps the most disputable part of its characterization is the way that IISS counts Mexico’s conflict deaths for 2016: all homicides for the year.

That’s a problem. Many homicides have nothing to do with organized crime. For example, men kill their intimate partners terrifyingly often. Yet these family violence deaths — and many others — are included in IISS’s figure of 23,000 conflict deaths for Mexico.

So how do we know which homicides are connected to the drug-related violence in Mexico? We don’t. Ascertaining that is extremely difficult, as experts have noted. Some sources suggest between one-third and one-half of Mexican homicides are connected to organized crime. That would give Mexico about 10,000 “conflict deaths,” placing it substantially behind Afghanistan (17,000) and Iraq (16,000).

2. Can we really call Mexico a “conflict zone”?

In addition to looking at traditional conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, IISS classifies Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras as conflict zones because these countries’ criminal groups threaten state authority and control territory, and governments have moved against them with military responses. That IISS has developed a methodology for defining a conflict zone is admirable. But is it accurate?

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Many or most conflict scholars do not believe Mexico or the Central American countries above are immersed in civil conflict or civil war. For example, civil war expert Stathis Kalyvas argues that the “large-scale organized crime” in Mexico does not qualify as civil war because the violent groups do not have political goals. They want to be left alone to make money; they do not want to govern territory or the whole state. Other scholars have used similar logic to explain why they do not think the Mexican criminal groups are “terrorists,” as we traditionally understand the term.

So why does this distinction matter? Because it makes a difference when we consider what policies are needed to reduce or end violence. Civil conflicts usually end through either overwhelming military force or a negotiated political settlement. Neither seems likely for Mexico.

Furthermore, as my own research in the Journal of Politics shows, counterinsurgency tactics (such as removing a leader) do not work against criminal groups, because criminals and insurgent or terrorist groups differ fundamentally. What they offer their members, and their relationships with the broader community, are quite different.

When governments ignore differences between criminal and insurgent groups and use counterinsurgency tactics against criminal groups, the consequences are usually not what they expect. Targeting the leadership often reduces violence of insurgent or terrorist groups, but it tends to backfire against criminal groups, increasing violence.

Of course, Mexico’s situation is unusual. Levels of violence are high, and criminal groups use extreme tactics. As a result, we could debate how to categorize it. But it is probably not in the same category as the open warfare in Syria and Afghanistan.

3. Why is only some criminal violence “conflict”?

Other countries suffer from organized-crime violence that might meet IISS’s criteria for “conflict zones,” including Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. These countries have seen criminal groups fighting state or paramilitary forces and controlling at least urban territory.

If Brazil were included in the list — with its more than 50,000 violent deaths per year in recent years — it would rank higher than Syria. Venezuela had more than 29,000 homicides in 2016, which would put it ahead of Mexico.

The figure below considers cases such as Brazil and Venezuela, among others, to see how things look when we include the total violent deaths — in wars or homicides — of a variety of countries. For comparison, we include countries such as India and the United States.

If we measure other countries along the same lines, Brazil would appear to be the most violent country in the world. Mexico would rank much lower, and El Salvador and Honduras would look relatively safe in comparison. Yes, Mexico has a high number of violent deaths, but Mexico has a relatively large population of more than 120 million.

4. What if we scale by population?

Brazil and India have enormous populations, while El Salvador and Honduras are relatively tiny. For this reason, scholars usually use per capita figures — not raw totals — when comparing homicide rates across countries. This seems to have been overlooked in the viral articles about “deadliest” countries.

The figure below shows the violent death rates for each of the countries above. Either war deaths or homicides are divided by 100,000 residents, a metric commonly used by researchers.

When scaled by population, we can see that some countries with substantial organized-crime problems — such as Venezuela, El Salvador, South Africa and Brazil — have per capita homicide rates substantially higher than Mexico’s.

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So is Mexico one of the deadliest countries in the world?

That depends on how we measure conflict deaths and conflict zones and whether we consider not just total violent deaths but such deaths compared with the total population size.

Taking any of these into account, Mexico appears not to be as deadly as recent headlines suggest.

This isn’t intended to diminish what’s happening in Mexico, or to suggest that think tanks and the news media should go back to ignoring the violence in the United States’ southern neighbor. Organized crime groups, and sometimes government agents, have been wreaking havoc on the country’s people and institutions. IISS’s report should be commended for bringing much-needed attention.

But let’s be careful. We don’t want to stretch concepts too far, or use the wrong criteria for inclusion, or rely on misleading raw numbers rather than carefully examined statistics. Doing so could guide government actions in the wrong directions — worsening an already horrifying crisis.

Brian J. Phillips is a research professor (profesor investigador titular) at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_jphillips.