Unravelling the Roots of the Upsurge of Criminal Violence in Mexico

The upsurge of violence in Mexico may have had nothign to do with Presidente Calderon’s crackdown on cartels

Illegal drug trafficking is not inherently violent. The horrific surge of violence that began in Mexico in 2006 thus requires some specific explanation.

The most common account is that when President Calderon turned the force of the state on to organized crime groups, the old arrangements were overturned and a cycle of violence began. The drug kingpins used violence against government officials and citizens in an attempt to intimidate the state into giving up on enforcement. Further, as gangs were de-capitated, they broke into smaller groups warring for supremacy with each other.

But this account may be entirely wrong or only partly correct. Evidence presented this week in Bogota at the conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy shows that there was another enormous shock to the criminal system concurrent with Calderon’s campaign.

Colombia shifted its cocaine suppression strategy from crop eradication to further down the production chain (e.g., laboratories and exporters), resulting in a more than doubling of cocaine seizures beginning in 2006. At this same time, the Mexican gangs became the dominant partner in their relationship with the Colombian gangs. Rather than simply receiving cocaine at the southern border of Mexico and carting it north, they moved into Central America and the edges of Colombia, giving them a larger role in transshipment and processing.

Cocaine is the biggest source of revenue of the Mexican gangs, meaning that these changes were highly disruptive to the old stasis. The cocaine flow shrank, but what was left became more valuable. This intensified competition among the Mexican gangs which may be the root of the burst of violence.

Whether this explanation is fully or partly correct is being investigated by Dr. Daniel Mejia Londoño and his colleagues at the Universidad de los Andes. He is one of a number of young Latin American scholars who are bringing new perspectives to drug policy research. Collectively, they will help policy analysts escape the trap of seeing drug policy only from the point of view of consumer countries (e.g., Europe and the USA). And in the long term, the “Calderon explanation” for Mexican violence may be only one of the received truths that this new generation of researchers overturns.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

7 thoughts on “Unravelling the Roots of the Upsurge of Criminal Violence in Mexico”

  1. There’s another factor that should be in the mix. Calderon’s was the second president in a row who was not a member of Mexico’s traditional party of graft, the PRI. The first time around, Vincente Fox opened the door to change, including in the complex relationship between the state and the traffickers. These changes, at first, played by the rules of the existing system. Calderon’s rule, whatever honest efforts it may have made, apparently pursued destabilization as a strategy at all costs, undoubtedly under heavy pressure from the Americans, who also saw their own losses rise.

    It is the illusion of the politically powerful that they can win the war by the gun, with figurative decapitation of the gangs by the state paralleling the horrendous actual decapitations in the streets. The last few years in Mexico have disproved that strategy’s potential effectiveness even with increasingly sophisticated assistance from the US intelligence agencies. Take out the boss of a complex organization and those who fall heir to it will fight among themselves. This escalates the level of violence at each stage. Is there a viable end game for Mexico in continuing to cave to pressure from the Americans and its own people shocked by the violence? That’s very unclear, even unlikely. Mexico will continue to see these atrocities so long as the traffickers can profit by violence, just as they profit from the drugs and the Great Black Market of the North.

  2. I want to preface, by saying that this situation is very, very complicated. No single explanation, is sufficient. The above, is no doubt, true.

    However, I’d like to give another, overlapping explanation. And that is that, of course, FHC’s regime faced a crisis of legitimacy. Conducting a war, on whatever terms, allowed it to distract from that crisis, and project another symbolic crisis.

    Equally, without doubt, this dirty war allowed FHC’s regime to target dissidents and other undesirables, just as it allowed a continuation of the relative impunity with respect to violence against, and trafficing in women, outside the D.F.

    As far as the comment above– yes, the PAN is different than the PRI, perhaps. All three parties are subject to co-option by the oligarchies, the syndicates, the monopolies and so forth, as they gain power. The patronage system which sits aside what is still largely a state-controlled economy, which has seen very little liberalization, also has much to do with this.

    I’ll move this far, dipping my toes into murky water. When the President’s brother is employed by the cartels, when men move from working for the Federales one day to working for the cartels the next, when much of the government and the Camera are bought off by the cartels– the cartels, which are themselves, at times, odd, anti-State, “narco-revolutionary” institutions,–

    differentiating between so-called “criminal” and State violence, here, is not so easy. Es muy, muy complicada.

    Kenneth Thomas

  3. Como dice Kenneth, la realidad es más complicada…
    Keith missed the chapo factor, he escape under Fox administration, just to Grow on power, both political and economic..
    .there was peace between cartels until one’s chapo proteges were killed by some enforcers from CAF organization on some bravado and stupid manover, retailation came by killing Vicente Carrillo’ s brother…
    until that the war where between the state forces and cartels…
    Chapo Guzmán came to broke some non writen agreements, that broke the “federation” (CAF-BLO-CS-Azul) and brougth war to all working cartels and organizations on Mx…
    Sure, any criminal enterprise like chapo’s needes all the government help that could get by infiltration and corruption, like in any other country where consumption is ver y largo on their population, that kind of succes can only be explaind by those elements…
    I like to remaind you that the last decade drug consumption not only not recedded but rise, and the price to, makeing more powerful all cartels…
    Armed confrontation were unsuccesful in all levels, and we all forgot about prevention and treatment, maybe that is where solution is, i hope so…

  4. I don’t know where Dr. Humphreys gets the impression that the Meija study could show the conventional explanation for the increase in Mexican violence to be “entirely wrong”.

    The effect size, as estimated by the authors, is a fraction of the total increase in the homicide rate.

    From a Feb 2013 version of the paper (PDF):

    In the section Introduction:
    . In 2007, there were 8,686 homicides, out of which 2,760 were estimated to be drug-related. On the other hand, in 2010 there were 25,329 homicides; according to ocial gures, 15,258 were drug-related. This means that drug-related homicides increased by 453% between 2007 and 2010, whereas non-drug-related homicides increased by 70% during the same period

    and from the section Conclusions
    We can also estimate the magnitude of the e ffect that the changes in Colombia have had in Mexico. The amount of cocaine seized in Colombia has risen from 19.6% to 41.5% of the total quantity produced. The rst-stage coecients mean that the success of interdiction activities in Colombia has increased the number of cartels in Mexican municipalities close to the U.S. border by about 0.46, and by about 0.23 in municipalities 1,000 km away from the U.S. border. The last two numbers, combined with the second-stage results, mean that, due to increased cocaine seizures in Colombia, the homicide rate has increased 37% in municipalities close to the U.S. border, and 17% in municipalities 1,000 km away from the border as a result of higher interdiction rates

    tl;dr Study authors attribute 37% peak municipality increase in homicide rate, at most, due to Colombia interdiction, out of the total 453% national increase in Mexican drug-related homicides in the few years post-Calderon initiative.

    1. Thanks for pointing out the details from the study– it is very appeciated, as I’d hoped to be able to skim, but (quite literally!) have a thousand other items before me. Thus I’d like to take a bow to the value of collegial conversation, as well as note that Dr. Humphreys offers this article as “unraveling the roots…”

      Some further thoughts, then:

      I’ve been following these issues in Mexico for close to a decade. I’ve talked to NGOs, who’ve attempted to get better death records and been stonewalled (not to mention, threatened). I thus doubt the official numbers. My conservative guess would be that the death toll is 2-3 times what has been officially reported. My worst fears, range 5-10. Certainly, if we look at official unemployment figures vs. actual unemployment, there is reason to worry. I suspect if one were to look at cemetery burials and use those as an indicator to project actual deaths, we’d be above 3x the official death figures.

      There’s also a hall of mirrors nature to this. A month ago, at an event at the Reforma Hilton, a PAN delegate related to me the taxistas’ dismay at the lost business due to the 2006 protests. I had to think about it, this resentment, which I understood and apologized for and said, perhaps was a tactical mistake on AMLO’s part.

      But of course– the reality was, inside AMLO’s fraught coalition, there were those who wanted to make this into a hot civil war, and who had the opportunity to do so. AMLO’s decication to pacifism, his worry and fear that a violent course would only hurt the nation, stood against that. The protests, were a concession to to the more radical elements in the coalition. Though they also occurred, in the hope, that something would change– that the Supreme Court, might uphold the electoral laws.

      With relatively controlled media, of course, the PAN delegate, like so many in Mexico, has no knowledge of that, no idea of what went on, internally. That the election challenge, the declaration of an alternative “legitimate” government, the protests– were not at all taken lightly, but discussed and discussed again, with gravity and consideration for their consequences.

      Having gone through 2012’s elections, seen the evidence again, the vote-buying, the intimidation, the gross violation of the electoral laws– and put this before the Supreme Court– the bottom line is that Mexico has laws against all of the previous, but no “rule of law” mechanisms to enforce the law. And the Supreme Court– did not act, though I might hope it would assert its power.

      Of course, that would be a risk, as well. Its members, might well not survive, such an assertion.

      All of this, lies behind the violence.


      Kenneth Thomas

      1. Kenneth,
        Interesting comments in a insightful thread. I don’t follow Mexico as much as in the past, having a primary interest in Central America, but there’s no real way to sort out these issues at this point in the Western hemisphere by country or even region. I gotta try better to keep up with the holistic picture, at least. We should see Mexico as a cautionary tale where despite the best efforts by the US to pour in various resources, the overall strategy of scorched earth absolutism in pursuit of the “drug war” has yielded scorched humanity and society. A bitter lesson that simply isn’t sinking in inside the Beltway. Not that the gringo has much in the way of answers here, just that we should at least quit making things worse.

        Could you adjust the Tags to include Mexico?

        1. Mike,

          Thanks for your reply, and reminder of the situation inside the beltway, as well. Brief comments:

          * I have not overarching, analytical model of what has occurred in Mexico, which some have characterized as a collapse of social and economic institutions. Outside the DF, that surely has occurred– cf. Damien Cave’s recent article on empty villages in the NYT. What I have seen, are the economic reports over the past decade– independent ones– which show collapse of widespread sectors, which is behind the empty-ing of villages, social disintegration, violence, etc.

          * To take that only to an artistic image: a kilometer or so from here, some of the 132s pasted “we are the generation of the crisis” on the side of a building. It’s hard to touch the nature of that crisis– but since I work in a Keynesian shop, I’ll point to the lack of economic liberalization, a legacy of the PRI.

          * I’ll file the US policies under McNamara’s “blundering into disaster,” more or less. US State is getting better, but the view of Mexico in the US is distorted and lacks nuances and historical understanding. “Mexico is a career,” I might say, and not many have taken it up. Again hedging with the fact that I don’t have hard data– I suspect the “drug war” has resulted in nothing, but cartels that have more money, power and arms.

          * And of course, as in Syria, there’s a bit of a proxy war going on here. I’m not sure many in the Beltway, outside some in the Pentagon, think much about that, but in the context of “border security,” it seems to me we need to think very hard about that.

          FWIW– have to get back to another project, quick comments.

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