ACLED Brings Coverage to Mexico Violence: A New Tool for Mexico Scholars and Analysts
Nathan P. Jones
SWJ–El Centro Fellow Nathan P. Jones reviews the new Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) Mexico and Central America Dataset.
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) has brought its dataset coverage to Mexico (and Central America) with 2019 data and the promise of continued up to the week coverage. The intent of this article is to introduce Small Wars Journal readers and analysts to ACLED, its methods, and what its coverage means for those following violence in Mexico.
I also have it on authority from an ACLED representative that they are collecting Mexico data from 2018 so that they will have coverage starting at 2018 by the end of 2020. This dataset will be a boon to researchers with an interest in Mexico, Latin America, and drug violence whether they be from academia, the government, or private sector. SWJ-El Centro readers should take note.
ACLED is a well-established dataset founded by Professor Clionadh Raleigh of the University of Sussex, originally with a focus on Africa coverage stretching back to 1997. Since, ACLED has become an NGO with funding from the US State Department, Dutch Foreign Ministry, and German Foreign Ministry with a much broader geographic expansion beyond solely Africa.
One of the impressive things about the ACLED dataset is that it takes local knowledge into account. While some may argue this makes the data less systematic, ACLED takes the position that it makes the data more systematic because the data is collected and interpreted in a more reliable fashion. I have to agree, though I may be biased, as I am one of the scholars they contacted on data issues for Mexico.
In addition to the ability to download the data in spreadsheet format or through their API (application programming interface), the ACLED dataset also allows researchers to visualize armed group violence in maps on their “Dashboard” section of the website, and also has a tutorial video on how to visualize the downloaded data with Tableau Public. Given the structure of the data, ACLED allows researchers to look at specific events for deeper analysis or as a research and analysis jumping off point.
ACLED’s Methodology for Mexico
The ACLED dataset is kept up to date up weekly. It prioritizes subnational sources as it has found that more macro-level sources have “a number of known biases which create a less accurate picture when taken as the only source type” (for more on ACLED’s sourcing strategy, see their FAQs addressing this). ACLED also looks at the work of investigative journalists and reports such as those from the International Crisis Group. Methodologically, ACLED has chosen to make some useful distinctions for Mexico such as between community police, which are largely defined as indigenous and self-defense forces, which are responding to state weakness and have limited indigenous legal system backing. This is spelled out in their methodology document, linked above.
Impressive Data Collection
As of 13 May 2020, ACLED had more than 4,500 events coded for 2020 in Mexico alone (nearly 13,000 across all of Latin America, and over 60,000 across its entire dataset). These events had very useful details for researchers, including a 1 to 2 sentence description of the event, geo-location, fatalities, group responsible if known, group type, sourcing, etc. Both violent events are coded, as well as demonstrations — and furthermore, strategic events (such as narcofosas). The possibilities for analysis are limitless.
Figure 1. Organized Political Violence in Mexico. Source: Reproduced with permission from: Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED); https://www.acleddata.com.”
Figure 1 above demonstrates how widespread and encompassing the ACLED data is and just some of the ways users can visualize the data.
I decided to give their Tableau Public Tutorial after watching their main introduction to the methodology video. Both are well worth the short 20 minutes they each run. Researchers can be visualizing the data in a couple of hours. I decided to try something manageable and looked at Explosions/Remote Violence in Mexico for 2020. The results are visualized in Figure 2 from Tableau Public below:
Figure 2. Explosions/Remote Violence in Mexico for 2020. Source: Author’s Elaboration based on “Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED); https://www.acleddata.com.” Visualized in Tableau Public.
As we can see from the visualization above, there were five Explosions/Remote violence events in Mexico in 2020. Four were located in Guanajuato (two of them in the same location: Celaya) where the Cártel de Santa Rosa de Lima (CSRL) and the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) battle for control over oil theft. The last is in Puebla, also known for oil theft or huachicol. I chose to color code the events based on fatalities above demonstrating only one led to a death and size on the number of events. Thus, we see these explosions may have “symbolic” value rather than an emphasis on lethality, in line with the work of Angélica Durán-Martínez’s variable on visibility of violence. Second, these bombings betray a technical sophistication which Sullivan and myself have discussed as a common feature of the CSRL The CSRL may also be forcing their adversary, the CJNG, to escalate their technical sophistication and use of these technologies.
ACLED has astutely recognized these criminal groups’ tendencies to engage in “territorial” control, which dovetails into political aims given the raison d’être of the modern sovereign state. This means the ACLED data will contribute to a fascinating ongoing debate familiar to Small Wars Journal El Centro readers on the political nature of organized crime found in the 3rd GEN gang literature and numerous SWJ–El Centro Anthologies. In sum, ACLED will quickly become a wonderful resource for scholars and analysts working on violence in Mexico.
 Clionadh Raleigh, et al., “Introducing ACLED: An Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset: Special Data Feature,” Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 47, No. 5. 2010. pp. 651–60.
 Angélica Durán-Martínez, The Politics of Drug Violence: Criminals, Cops and Politicians in Colombia and Mexico. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
 Nathan P. Jones and John P. Sullivan, “Huachicoleros: Criminal Cartels, Fuel Theft, and Violence in Mexico,” Journal of Strategic Security. Vol. 12, no. 4 2019). p.1, https://doi.org/10.5038/1944-04184.108.40.2062.
 Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994; “ACLED Expands Coverage to Latin America and the Caribbean.” ACLED. 27 February 2020, https://acleddata.com/2020/02/27/press-release-acled-expandscoverage-to-latin-america-and-the-caribbean/; In Spanish “COMUNICADO DE PRENSA: ACLED expande su cobertura a América Latina y al Caribe,” ACLED, 27 February 2020, https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/ACLED_LATAM_PR-Spanish_.pdf.
 Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Cartel Evolution Revisited: Third Phase Cartel Potentials and Alternative Futures in Mexico,” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 21, No. 1, 12 March 2010. pp. 30–54; Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Integrating Feral Cities and Third Phase Cartels/Third Generation Gangs Research: The Rise of Criminal (Narco) City Networks and BlackFor,” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 22, No. 5, 2011. pp. 764–86; John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Rethinking Insurgency: Criminality, Spirituality, and Societal Warfare in the Americas,” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 22, No. 5, 2011. pp. 742–63; Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Eds., Crime Wars and Narco Terrorism in the Americas, A Small Wars Journal–El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2014; Robert J. Bunker, Mexican Cartel Essays and Notes: Strategic, Operational, and Tactical, A Small Wars Journal–El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2013; John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Eds., Strategic Notes on Third Generation Gangs, A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: Xlibris, 2020.