We often hear about homicide rates in Mexico and how they are among the highest in the world. While that is true for some parts of Mexico, much of Mexico — where nearly 80 percent of the population lives — has much lower rates than what are often quoted in the media.
Most of the high-homicide areas in Mexico are found along the US border, and to a certain extent reflect the work of drug cartels working to keep drug trafficking channels open to the US.
And yet, right across the border in the US, homicide rates are remarkable low. In fact, homicide rates along the US side of the border are significantly below the US average.
Why is this?
Homicide Rates in Mexico, By State
First, to get a better understanding of these phenomena, let's look at homicide rates in Mexico by state.
The map [above] illustrates the striking disparity between homicide rates on each side of the border. In 2012 (the most recent year available for all locations), Mexican border municipalities experienced 34.5 murders for every 100,000 people. By contrast, the homicide rate in US border counties was only 1.4, far below the US national average (4.7), and a tiny fraction of that experienced by their Southern neighbors.
While almost half of the Mexican municipalities along the border experienced more than 40 murders per 100,000 people in 2012 (176 in Tamaulipas’ Ciudad Mier), the highest homicide rate in the US border counties was 12.9 (Yuma, AZ). The next most violent county experienced only 5.4 murders per 100,000 people. Notably, some of the safest locations in the United States are contiguous to many of the most dangerous places in Mexico. Most striking is the contrast between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, two large cities that constitute a binational metropolitan area. Once called “the murder capital of the world,” Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez is only 300 feet from El Paso, “America’s safest city.” In 2012, Ciudad Juárez had 58 homicides per 100,000 people, while El Paso experienced fewer than one (0.6).
Mexico can hardly be described as a heavily armed society. With around 2.5 million registered gun owners and at least 13 million more illegal arms in circulation, the country has a ratio of just 15 guns for every 100 people, well below the global average. Unlike in the U.S., civilian possession in Mexico is considered a privilege, not a right and is tightly regulated under federal law since the 1970s. Extensive background checks are required of all purchasers, and there are heavy penalties and even imprisonment for non-compliance. Astonishingly, there is just one legal gun shop in the country, compared to more than 54,000 federally licensed firearm dealers and thousands of pawnshops and gun shows scattered across the U.S.