Mexico death toll in drug war higher than previously reported

The death toll from the Mexican government’s three-year war on drug cartels is far higher than previously reported -- more than 22,000, according to news reports published Tuesday that cited confidential government figures.

The figure is significantly higher than tallies assembled by Mexican media. They estimate that more than 18,000 people have died since President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown against drug-trafficking groups after taking office in December 2006.

The unofficial media tallies have often been cited by foreign news outlets, including The Times.

The government has seldom released official counts of those killed in the skyrocketing violence, which stems largely from fighting between rival drug-trafficking groups.

The Interior Ministry said Tuesday that it was preparing to make its count public, but it had not issued its report by the evening.

The daily Reforma newspaper first published the toll number, which it said was contained in a confidential file that top security officials gave federal senators during a hearing Monday. The Associated Press, which said it had gained access to the report, said the total given was 22,700.

The figures present a starker picture than previously known of the violence that has buffeted the country, especially along the U.S. border and in drug-smuggling corridors.

Last year was the deadliest since the Calderon anti-crime offensive began, with 8,928people killed, according to Reforma. So far this year, 2,904people have died, the newspaper said. The AP said the report put the toll at 9,635 last year and 3,365 in January through March this year. It was unclear why there were discrepancies in the report’s figures.

Calderon has dispatched more than 48,000 soldiers and several thousand federal police officers along the U.S. border and in other drug-smuggling hot spots across the country.

The clampdown has brought down some leading drug figures, including suspected kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva, killed during a raid in the city of Cuernavaca in December. A succession struggle for control of his cartel has sparked violence recently in the central state of Morelos, where six bodies were found Tuesday under a highway overpass.

But critics say the army-led strategy has failed to reduce violence in cities such as Ciudad Juarez, the nation’s deadliest. Juarez is part of Chihuahua, the state with the most killings. Next on the list are the states of Sinaloa, Guerrero, Baja California and Michoacan, according to Reforma.