There has been a dominant narrative in the study of Mexican drug trafficking which argues that violence goes down when one dominant trafficking organization monopolizes a locale. This has been used to explain the reductions in violence in Tijuana and now Ciudad Juarez. There is just one problem with the explanation, it isn’t empirically valid. In both cities the deeply entrenched local “cartels” continue to operate, though in a more low-profile fashion, while the Sinaloa cartel has entered both cities and has been proclaimed by government officials in the US and Mexico as dominant. The dominance of the Sinaloa cartel has been credited with the relative drops in violence. There is another explanation that better fits reality.
In violent conflicts with the state and rival drug traffickers, the most violent cells of larger networks (those that focus on kidnapping and extortion) are more likely to be killed or captured because they draw state and rival trafficker attention. As they are wiped out, the remaining cells focus on trafficking, money laundering and maintaining a “low profile.” Key to maintaining a low profile is reducing violence with other organizations to avoid state attention. This requires some level of negotiation with rivals or a tacit “live and let live” policy. While we have little direct evidence of these negotiations save for statements from arrested traffickers, we have the low levels of violence and the continued presence of multiple trafficking groups in shared territories as circumstantial evidence that the monopoly of violence explanation does not explain these relative peace periods.
Recent articles, including one in Proceso by Victor Clark, have demonstrated the continued presence and operation of the Arellano Felix Organization in Tijuana. Clark points out that the AFO operates in a very different fashion following its internecine conflict with El Teo a violent lieutenant who splintered from the AFO in 2008. Following his arrest and the arrest of his top cell leaders in early 2010, violence in the city has declined, particularly as measured by kidnap rates. This is despite the fact that the Sinaloa cartel established an important presence in Tijuana by annexing cells from the AFO in the same period. Many argued the Sinaloa cartel was dominant by 2010 and that the AFO was either “a shadow of its former self” or even that it was on the verge of collapse. Yet its leadership was never captured (Fernando Sanchez Arellano AKA El Ingeniero) and cell leaders such as El Ruedas continued to be arrested, all of which stated that the AFO had regenerated and is far stronger than observers thought. What has changed for the AFO has been the business model and procedures. Former enforcer cell leaders have transitioned to low profile trafficking. In the words of Clark they are now more “entrepreneurial.”
A similar story is playing out in Juarez where U.S. federal agents have called Sinaloa dominant since 2010. Yet, Vicente Carillo Fuentes AKA El Viceroy, the head of the Carillo Fuentes Organization (CFO) has not been captured and reports indicate the presence of his organization not just in Juarez, but in other areas of Sinaloa. Given the personal animosities and violent tendencies of the Viceroy and his battles with Chapo Guzman of the Sinaloa Cartel, a truce seems unlikely. But it appears that the combined conflict with the Sinaloa cartel and an emboldened police force under the leadership of Julian Leyzaola, have reduced violence in the city despite the continued presence of the CFO. While the CFO continues to operate, its armed wing La Linea has suffered major arrests and appears to be a less relevant force. This is similar to the events in Tijuana, where the armed wing of the AFO led by El Teo was eliminated leaving a more pacific drug trafficking-focused AFO behind. The key difference in Juarez appears to be that La Linea continues to support the CFO and is not in direct conflict with it as Teo was in conflict with the AFO. Another key difference between Juarez and Tijuana is that the CFO has allied itself to the larger Zetas and Beltran-Leyva alliance. This makes negotiated settlements with the Sinaloa cartel more difficult despite the evolutionary processes impacting the CFO because it locks the CFO into a much larger scale nation-wide conflict on the side of the Zetas which have the strongest reputation for violence and extortion based activities in the Mexican underworld.
It is possible that the CFO and Sinaloa cartel continue to operate as traffickers through the same territory, with reduced violence, as violent cells on both sides are killed or arrested by the military, police and each other. The remaining traffickers are more business oriented and can view drug trafficking as a positive sum rather than a zero-sum game. This might better explain recent drops in violence in Juarez than the conventional explanation of monopoly of violence or the notion that “they are running out of people to kill.”
Recent academic journal articles have empirically demonstrated the ability of traffickers to “share” territory. Using sophisticated large-scale data gathering of open source media (this is truly ground-breaking work by the way), Rios and Coscia have shown that rather than monopolizing territories, traffickers often share them. However, I would hypothesize within this framework, that a more fine grain analysis will show that the organizations and the cells of those organizations that can share territory are more likely to be trafficking focused as opposed to extortion or kidnapping focused. Trafficking drugs through a given territory allows all to gain, but forcing licit business owners to pay extortion tax requires the ability to protect them from other traffickers. There is no incentive to pay a protection tax if the group being paid cannot credibly guarantee the safety of the payer; thus extortion based organizations find it hard to share. On the other hand various traffickers can plausibly use the same highway to ship drugs without coming into conflict with each other.
This process suggests that there may be multiple processes at play, which will create a less violent equilibrium in Mexican trafficking. First, state institutional security capacity is increasing and is likely to continue its increase in Mexico with increased spending, democratic/rule of law norms, and training from the United States via the “new Merida Initiative” which now emphasizes capacity building over military equipment. Second, trafficking networks are experiencing changes in their internal composition. Territorial and extortion based-cells are being removed by state and rival traffickers while trafficking cells survive. Local state actors such as former Tijuana Police Chief Leyzaola (current chief of Juarez) are also targeting the most violent actors in these networks, as was the case with the El Teo faction in Tijuana. These are not rational decisions made by monolithic actors, but structurally determined strategies from illicit networks whose capabilities, skills and predispositions change based on which members and cells in their illicit networks are arrested or killed. Thus, the illicit network evolutionary process favors traffickers over extorters; which in turn allows for peaceful coexistence in cities like Tijuana.