The drug wars south of the U.S. border have become so brutal and so far-ranging that the sheer number of deaths is having a real, demonstrable effect on life expectancy. A paper in the January issue of the journal Health Affairs reports that the average life expectancy for men in Mexico (ages 15-50) in the period between 2005 and 2010 dropped from 33.8 years to 33.5. And the rate of life expectancy gains among women slowed appreciably in that same period.
Mexico has made many gains in living standards and health care, improvements that steadily boosted life expectancy in the country for more than six decades, according to the paper's authors. But from 2005-10, that trend not only was stopped but reversed in some populations.
"Our results indicate that homicides can have a large impact on the average years of life of a population," says Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez, an assistant professor of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and a lead author in the study, in a press release.
The numbers of homicides in Mexico had been declining through the mid-2000s, reaching a recent low in 2007, according to a report from the University of San Diego's Justice in Mexico Project. But the numbers jumped to new heights in 2008 and rose through 2011, when they spiked at 23.5 homicides per 100,000 people. (For the sake of comparison, the U.S. had a rate of 5 homicides per 100,000 people that same year, according to World Bank data.)
Then the numbers dipped again in 2012, '13 and '14, leading to hopes that the worst of the drug wars was behind the Mexican people.
"These data really help to underscore that we're talking about a sea change in violence," David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico Project, told USA Today last year. "You still have elevated levels of crime, so we still have a long way to go. But there is improvement."
The improvement is relative, of course. The violence from previous years is just now being reflected in the lower life expectancy rates. So it may be a while until we see those rates tick up again. (The 2015 numbers still are being crunched.)
And the raw numbers, overall, are still shocking. At the height of the Mexican drug wars, in 2011, 27,000 civilians were killed throughout the country, according to Justice in Mexico. That's more civilians, according to a PBS report, than were killed during all of the Afghanistan war.
It's hard to figure how many of those killed in Mexico could be directly attributed to the drug wars. And many murders go unreported.
"Tallies compiled independently by media organizations in Mexico suggest that at least a third and as many as half of all intentional homicides in 2014 bore characteristics typical of organized-crime related killings, including the use of high-caliber automatic weapons, torture, dismemberment, and explicit messages involving organized-crime groups," the Justice in Mexico report says.
Clearly, homicides due to organized crime are still a problem, and it's worse in some parts of Mexico than others. In the northern states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango, where the drug trade between Mexico and the U.S. is the most active, life expectancy among men fell by up to three years, according to the study in Health Affairs.
The fallout continues into 2016. On Jan. 1, Gisela Mota was sworn in as the new mayor of Temixco, a city of 100,000 in the state of Morales, south of Mexico City. She ran on a platform to accept state police control in her city as a way to combat the corruption of local police by the area's drug cartels.
Early on the morning of Jan. 2, the 33-year-old former federal congresswoman was gunned down in her home. Nearly 100 mayors have been killed in the past 10 years in the drug wars, according to Justice in Mexico.