A Mexican soldier stands near the bodies of two men found slain in Acapulco… (Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Mexico City — Six months before a presidential election that his party is widely expected to lose, President Felipe Calderon is on the defensive about the government's blood-soaked drug war, with new revelations that it sought to conceal death toll statistics from the public.
By unofficial count, at least 50,000 people are believed to have been killed since Calderon deployed the military in the first days of his presidency in December 2006.
A year ago, the government released an official death toll up to that point — 34,612 — and pledged to periodically update a database and make it public. But official documents show that the offices of both the president and the attorney general late last year refused formal requests for updated statistics filed under the Mexican equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act.
After the reports first surfaced on the Mexican news website Animal Politico, a Calderon administration official told The Times that the government wanted to verify the numbers before releasing them. "It is not a lack of transparency on our part," the official said.
Under pressure, the attorney general's office Wednesday released a partial death toll for 2011. As of Oct. 1, it reported, 12,903 people had been killed in incidents tied to "rivalry among criminal organizations."
Until now, without official data, the public had to rely on tallies kept by Mexican newspapers. The partial official numbers show a notably higher death toll than the newspapers had calculated and suggest that the overall count since Calderon came to office will easily surpass 50,000.
As the Calderon administration claims a measure of success in the drug war, a burgeoning peace movement, academics and opposition politicians keen to take power have all asserted that the military offensive was flawed from the start and has caused violence to soar.
Although the government maintains that its reluctance to divulge the numbers was simply a matter of verification, some Mexicans suspect other motives. For one, the government may have been loath to draw attention to the high death toll in the lead-up to an election that will choose Calderon's successor. His conservative National Action Party is expected to take a drubbing, in part over his handling of the violence.
The government also saw damage to its credibility in 2010 when different agencies released contradictory statistics.
"The lesson we got from releasing figures is that no one believed them," said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and did so on condition of anonymity.
The failure to disclose the statistics, meanwhile, had the effect of fueling greater doubt and suspicion.
"It can create the perception that the number of murdered is alarmingly higher than what is thought," said Ciro Gomez Leyva, a journalist and radio host. "And that instead of releasing solid and reliable reports, [the government] is opting to hide cadavers."
The majority of the dead are traffickers and their henchmen, but civilians, human rights defenders, migrants and children are increasingly being slain.
One such victim was the son of poet Javier Sicilia, who was killed in late March along with six other people who had been at a bar in the bougainvillea-filled town of Cuernavaca. That killing propelled the elder Sicilia into a crusade as arguably Mexico's most successful peace activist and one of the most outspoken critics of Calderon's drug war policies.
The government said the 2011 numbers showed that the pace of killing had slowed. The attorney general's statistics, though partial, indicate that killings were up by 11% in 2011, compared with a staggering 70% increase in 2010. Still, the aggregate numbers of dead, plus the brutality, have reached levels unthinkable just a few years ago.
The deadliest city, according to the new government figures, remains Ciudad Juarez, on the border across from El Paso, although its homicide rate has dropped. Juarez was followed by Acapulco, the tourist mecca hit by a surge of killing among gangs battling for market shares.
At the same time, violence spread to other parts of the country, such as the eastern coastal state of Veracruz, where the dumping of large numbers of bodies became a hallmark of gang warfare in the last half of the year.
Behind much of this mayhem is the intensifying struggle between the two dominant cartels, the vicious Zeta paramilitary force and the more businesslike, albeit ruthless, Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's largest.
The government's strategy of arresting leaders of drug-trafficking organizations has triggered a fragmentation of many of the bigger groups into smaller factions that have turned increasingly to other crimes, such as extortion, protection rackets, kidnapping and human smuggling.
Scores of clandestine mass graves have been discovered in the last year, yielding hundreds of victims, many of whom were poor immigrants from Central America, while others simply go unidentified, further complicating the amassing of accurate statistics.