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Just how dangerous is Mexico?

By Allyson Benton

The drive-by murders of a U.S. consulate employee, her husband, and the Mexican husband of another employee in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez this weekend have pushed Mexico's drug violence back into the American media spotlight. Even before these shootings, a spike in deadly violence linked to the Mexican government's campaign against drug cartels has provoked charges that President Felipe Calderon has started a war his government can't win.

The problem is a serious one for Mexico's security, its politics, and its people. But it's important to put this violence in perspective.

Rates of violent crime are on the rise in Mexico, but they remain lower than in the not-so-distant past -- and lower than today's violence in other Latin American countries of comparable size and wealth.

First, Mexico's murder rate has fallen sharply from a decade ago. The National Public Security System reports that in 2008, the most recent year with available data, 12 people per 100,000 were the victims of murder. In 1997, the number was 17. In the late 1980s, the murder rate hovered near 20, according to the National Statistics and Geographic Institute.

Second, drug-related murders are focused almost entirely in the northern and western states where cartel activity is concentrated. Murder rates among citizens not involved in the drug trade continue to decline.

Finally, here's a bit of regional perspective. Mexico's 2008 murder rate of 12 per 100,000 is less than half the most recent (2006) reported rates for Brazil (25). Colombia's murder rate has fallen dramatically thanks to President Alvaro Uribe's investment in security, but in 2009 the rate was still at 35. In Venezuela in 2008, the murder rate reached 58, a number that appears to be rising. Only Argentina, with 5.3 murders per 100,000 people in 2007, suffers from less deadly violence among the wealthier Latin American countries. The FBI puts the US murder rate at 5.4.

Foreign investors and business people also fear the risk of kidnapping in Mexico. Here again, the numbers put the problem in context. Kidnappings in Mexico have fallen from 1.1 per 100,000 people in 1997 to 0.8 in 2008 -- though the number may be increasing again. As for the regional comparison, though reliable data is hard to come by given that some victims choose not to report it, kidnapping rates in Venezuela have increased dramatically in recent years to an estimated 2.4 per 100,000 people. Colombia's rate has declined dramatically in recent years, from a high of 8.9 in 2000 to just 0.5 in 2009.

Violent crime, particularly involving the drug trade, is a serious problem for Mexico and the country's people. But context is crucial for issues so easily sensationalized.

Allyson Benton is a Latin America analyst at Eurasia Group.

Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images

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