Publication: Armed Conflict Survey 2017
09 May 2017
Fatalities in the world’s conflicts declined for a second successive year in 2016, to 157,000, from 167,000 in 2015 and 180,000 in 2014. The war in Syria remained the world’s most lethal, with a further 50,000 deaths there bringing the total since 2011 to around 290,000 – more than twice the number recorded in Bosnia’s four-year fratricidal conflict in the 1990s. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan claimed 17,000 and 16,000 lives respectively in 2016, although in lethality they were surpassed by conflicts in Mexico and Central America, which have received much less attention from the media and the international community. Mexico had the world’s second-most-lethal conflict in 2016, with 23,000 fatalities. The number of homicides rose in 22 of Mexico’s 32 states. The spike was linked to several factors. It is noteworthy that the largest rises in fatalities were registered in states that were 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. Amid growing security and governance vacuums, clashes among the cartels and between the cartels and state security forces became increasingly fierce and aggressive. Violence and repeated attacks resulting from such clashes and security voids greatly contributed to destabilisation across the country. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission highlighted the impact of crime on the population in the past decade, reporting in May 2016 that 35,433 people had been forcibly displaced nationwide since 2007. Around 90% of these people had fled their homes because of violence.
The combined total for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala was almost 16,000 – with El Salvador experiencing its second-most-violent year since 1999 – despite these countries establishing new agencies and approaches to reduce criminal groups’ influence. The high number of fatalities reflected the significant presence, firepower and organisational capacity of rival gangs Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. Collectively, these gangs, alongside smaller ones, had between 54,000 and 85,000 members spread across urban areas in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, according to estimates made by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the US State Department in 2012. Regional cooperation was belatedly strengthened with the launch in November 2016 of a Tri-National Force against transnational organised crime, comprising around 1,500 personnel from the police and militaries, as well as the border and customs agencies, of the three countries. Yet it is unclear whether the force will be able to cope with patrolling 600 kilometres of shared land borders, especially given the long list of criminal activities they are tasked with suppressing: extortion, kidnapping, money laundering, gang violence and smuggling.