By Gabriel Stargardter
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's murder tally rose last year to its highest level since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in December 2012, and with security budgets stretched by a weak economy and low oil prices, some fear more violence this year.
Law enforcement experts are torn on the cause of the increase in killings, but a Reuters analysis of Pena Nieto's federal security spending shows it has coincided with a dip in outlays.
Pena Nieto vowed to end a drug war that has killed well over 100,000 people since 2007. He lavished funds on security-focused ministries and murders fell in his first two years.
(Graphic - http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/MEXICO-VIOLENCE/010031LH3NQ/MEXICO-VIOLENCE-SPENDING.jpg)
But murders started rising in 2015, and jumped again in 2016 by 22 percent to 20,789 homicides in the country of about 123 million people.
And with Pena Nieto himself acknowledging this year's budget sets aside little for security spending, some believe the death toll will only rise in 2017.
While it remains unclear whether the murder rate increase was linked to the spending drop, law enforcement experts agreed that further funding cuts could be lethal.
"If the government doesn't have any money for security measures ... it's going to be terrible. (The number of murders) is probably going to get to the worst level it's ever been," said Leo Silva, who led the Drug Enforcement Administration office in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey until 2015.
Part of the problem, Silva said, was that a sharp peso depreciation following Donald Trump's U.S. election win meant the drug cartels, which deal in dollars, were getting richer, while the peso-based Mexican government was getting less bang for its buck.
"The criminal organizations are going to recognize that and they're going to take advantage of it," Silva said.
Security analyst Alejandro Hope, writing in El Universal newspaper, also said 2017 could end with a record murder tally.
"Hold on," he wrote, "because it's likely to be a horrible year."
An economy weakened by trade conflicts with a Trump-led United States could spur greater violence, some experts said.
Reuters reviewed federal spending data until October 2016, and found that expenditure at entities such as the federal police, the army, the navy, the national migration institute, the interior ministry and the attorney general's office, rose by about a quarter between 2013, Pena Nieto's first year in office, and 2015.
Since then, however, spending has slowed.
For example, total 2016 spending at the attorney general's office, which investigates felonies, is on track to be the lowest since before 2012.
The president's office declined to comment, directing enquiries to each ministry. Neither the army, the navy, nor the attorney general's office replied to requests for comment.
The Interior Ministry said the number of murders was nearly 10,000 lower in the first 47 months of Pena Nieto's term than in the last 47 months of his predecessor's, but did not answer further questions.
The rise in murders has dealt another blow to the unpopular Pena Nieto, who is already reeling from a struggling economy and a litany of scandals.
Crime and insecurity cost businesses 138.9 billion pesos in 2015, or 0.73 percent of gross domestic product, while households shouldered costs of 236.8 billion pesos a year, or 1.25 percent of GDP, according to the national statistics institute.
"We're not satisfied with what we've achieved," Pena Nieto said in late December.
Silva, who believed Mexico's weak economy was helping to drive up crime, criticized the decision to kill off more holistic crime-fighting schemes, such as a prevention program that lost its funding in the 2017 budget.
"If those programs are cut out, you've got all these at-risk youth, and they're just going to rot in the street," Silva said, adding that if Pena Nieto "doesn't put any money into security, and taking care of that issue, it's going to be bad, really bad."
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Christian Plumb and Grant McCool)