Mexico's President Enrique Pea Nieto speaks during a lecture at United… (Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — The new government of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has sought to downplay the deadly violence that has long haunted much of Mexico and that he repeatedly pledged to reduce.
But the country's killers aren't cooperating.
Newly released statistics indicate the number of homicides related to drug trafficking and other organized crime are only marginally changed from the same period last year, a blow to the government's attempts to recast Mexico's image.
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said 1,101 people were killed in March. That brings the official total under the Peña Nieto administration, which began in December, to 4,249, or roughly 35 a day, and close to the rate during the last year of the administration of President Felipe Calderon.
Osorio Chong compared the December to March period of this government to the same period of Calderon's government last year to argue that killings were down by about 17%.
"It is very early to take on triumphal attitudes," he said. "We have asked the media ... to change the narrative with respect to numbers and figures ... and with the participation of everyone we can achieve everyone's objective, a Mexico in peace."
Because governments have been reluctant to release homicide statistics — Calderon's administration deliberately concealed them — the Mexican public has relied largely on counts by national newspapers.
The Reforma newspaper, a leading daily, calculated that the homicide rate for the first 100 days of Peña Nieto's reign actually exceeded the last 100 days of Calderon's.
For Mexicans, the numbers are important because many feel they are paying the human price in blood for a drug war that is fueled largely by U.S. demand for marijuana, heroin and cocaine, and its steady supply of weapons. The death toll — estimated at 65,000 for the six-year Calderon administration — has led to widespread anger with government policies and a demand for course-reversal that helped elect Peña Nieto.
The new government claimed the homicide rate in February was the lowest single monthly toll in 40 months. However, the number, 914, was about 5% lower than newspaper estimates and did not take into account the month's fewer days in calculating the comparison.
Peña Nieto and his officials have deliberately sought to refocus attention on Mexico's still sluggish economy and issues other than violence in hopes of burnishing the government's image and attracting investment that would in turn finance ambitious domestic programs.
In many ways, the government propaganda campaign has succeeded. From Washington think tanks to local Mexican newspapers, many of which have been attacked or threatened by criminal gangs, a rhetoric has emerged that ignores facts and promotes discussion of the economy over violence.
Since Peña Nieto took office Dec. 1, Mexico has seen one of its largest single massacres, when 17 musicians were kidnapped, slaughtered and dumped in an abandoned well in Nuevo Leon state in January. About 100 people were killed during just-finished spring break, including several shot in bars in Mexico's second-largest city, Guadalajara. An American was among the victims.
On March 31, at least nine dismembered bodies were found in a truck near Ciudad Victoria, capital city of the border Tamaulipas state. Migrants continue to vanish on their way to the U.S., and bodies appear strung up on highway overpasses, most recently near the relatively peaceful capital, Mexico City.
Yet, a survey by a Mexican organization that monitors the press found that coverage of drug-war violence had dropped off by half under the first three months of the Peña Nieto government.
The Observatory of Coverage of Violence found that the appearance of the words "homicide," "organized crime" and "drug-trafficking" on the front pages of newspapers in Mexico City diminished by 50 to 55%. On television, which has been overwhelmingly favorable to Peña Nieto, a 70% decline in the words "organized crime" was recorded.
"In addition," the organization said, "the fight against drug-trafficking has disappeared from the presidential discourse, in contrast to the previous administration."
Calderon had made the drug war a cornerstone of his government after it became clear powerful cartels were seizing control of parts of the country.
Peña Nieto has taken a different tack, publicly paying far less attention to what is arguably the greatest threat to Mexico's stability, leading some to question his commitment to fighting traffickers.
"All actions have this characteristic of transforming perceptions," columnist Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez wrote this year. "The decision of the government is not to do, it is to show; not to change, it is to appear different."
Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Atlanta and news assistant Sanchez from Mexico City. News assistant Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City contributed to this report.