Mexico has become the world’s second deadly conflict zone, only next to Syria, a new report released Tuesday revealed.
The expanding drug war in Mexico claimed 23,000 lives during 2016, according to the annual Armed Conflict Survey by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, IISS. The drug war began in late 2006 when former President Felipe Calderon unleashed the military on the country's drug cartels — a move immediately backed by a US$1.8 billion military aid package by former U.S. President George W. Bush. Washington provided further annual drug war aid to Mexico through the Merida Initiative since.
In comparison, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan claimed 17,000 and 16,000 lives respectively in 2016.
"This is all the more surprising, considering that the conflict deaths are nearly all attributable to small arms," said John Chipman, chief executive and director-general of the IISS. “Mexico is a conflict marked by the absence of artillery, tanks or combat aviation.”
The civil war in Syria claimed the world’s most lethal conflict for the fifth year in a row, where 50,000 people died in 2016. It brings the total number of deaths during conflict since 2011 to around 290,000.
In 2016, the number of homicides rose in 22 of Mexico’s 32 states. The largest fatalities are seen in those states that have become “key battlegrounds for control between competing, increasingly fragmented cartels.”
“The violence grew worse as the cartels expanded the territorial reach of their campaigns, seeking to ‘cleanse’ areas of rivals in their efforts to secure a monopoly on drug-trafficking routes and other criminal assets,” the report said.
But unlike the conflicts in the Middle East, Mexico received much less attention from the media and the international community.
Jacob Parakilas, assistant head of the U.S. and the Americas Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, told CNN that he thinks it’s because the conflict in Mexico is not a war “in the political sense of the word.”
“The participants largely don't have a political objective. They're not trying to create a breakaway state. It doesn't come with the same visuals. There are no airstrikes,” Parakilas said.
"Also this has been going on since the beginning of the modern drug trade in the Americas. It's not news in that sense. And Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. They are intentionally targeted in Mexico, which puts a dampener on the ability to report on this," he added.
Overall, the number of people killed in armed conflicts around the world dropped last year, from 167,000 to 157,000. But compared with the previous decade and taking into account the rising number of civilians displaced by war, the figure remains high.
“Between January and August, 900,000 people were internally displaced in Syria alone," Anastasia Voronkova, the editor of the survey, told CNN.