Man, The State and War Against Drug Cartels: A Typology of Drug-Related Violence in Mexico

Man, The State and War Against Drug Cartels: A Typology of Drug-Related Violence in Mexico

Irina Alexandra Chindea

This essay is the first in a series exploring the issue of drug-related violence in Mexico. This series brings to the fore a number of alternative analytical frameworks through which to conceptualize the variation in levels of violence inside the state and related to organized criminal activities, in general, and drug trafficking, in particular.

Although the essays will draw mainly on episodes of violence taking place under Felipe Calderón’s administration (December 2006 – December 2012), the analysis covers several decades back in which the drug trade, alongside a plethora of other illicit activities, has flourished in Mexico. The analytical frameworks proposed in this series are based on the author’s research on drug-related violence in Mexico, but they could be equally applied when studying other cases of organized crime violence. Additionally, the value of the frameworks resides in their generalizability to other cases of internal conflict fueled by issues other than drug trafficking, and in which violent non-state actors are one of the parties to the conflict.

Introduction

The analysis of the violence that has plagued Mexico over the past years yields a template for conceptualizing the degree of violence across various levels of analysis. This framework goes beyond the existing theorizations of internal violence present in scholarly and policy debates, and adds to the discussion another, less acknowledged, layer – the violence taking place between one arm of the government against another, - with the aim of bringing more clarity to the complex issue of the internal conflict taking place in Mexico. Consequently, this essay will focus on the various levels of analysis at which violence takes place, while the coming essays will address in more detail the reasons behind the violence.

Internal violence is not a new phenomenon to Mexico and many Latin American countries.[1] As the chart below shows, homicide rates above 10 per 100,000 inhabitants are not new to the country, and they do not represent an outlandish increase from previously recorded rates, especially during the second half of 1990’s. Hence, under these circumstances, it is essential to understand what else - besides the increase in homicide rates - stands behind the criticism waged against the security measures that the Calderón administration advanced.[2] Moreover, as the evaluations of Enrique Pena Nieto’s first year in office reveal, no major departures from Calderon’s security policy against the drug cartels have de facto taken place,[3] and not only that violence has not subsided[4] significantly, [5] but Mexico has witnessed an increase in the level of kidnappings,[6] forced disappearances[7] and extortion rates.[8]

Source: UNODC, Intentional Homicide Rates per 100,000 inhabitants for 1995-2011; INEGI data on homicides and corresponding rate per 100,000 inhabitants for 2012.  

What has made the difference though with the intentional murder levels occurred during previous administrations, it is the gruesomeness of the violence,[9] the random and indiscriminate targeting, and abuse by drug traffickers and state officials alike of innocent civilians and state security agents suspected of criminal ties.[10] The ghastliness and arbitrariness of the drug related violence led to a widespread perception at national – and international - level that the Mexican government was losing the battle for domestic sovereignty, and that “sovereignty vacuums” [11] or “zones of impunity”[12] were created, where both state and non-state actors engaged in the exercise of violence with almost full immunity from prosecution.[13]

By the time Felipe Calderón became President of the Mexican Federation, the states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Michoacán, Guerrero and Sinaloa were registering some of the highest homicide rates in the country. [14] Additionally, for most of Calderón’s sexenio,[15] the violence was mainly concentrated in the northern states bordering the United States,[16] and started to disperse to the rest of the country only towards the end of his mandate, a trend that only has accentuated during the current Pena Nieto administration.[17]

Table 1: Yearly Homicide Rate per 100,000 Inhabitants

Source: INEGI 2012 Preliminary Report; UNODC Data on Intentional Homicides in Mexico.

In this context, in addition to previous typologies of violence in Mexico proposed by other scholars[18] and policy analysts, the present essay recognizes a wider category of actors who have been caught into violent interactions in the context of Felipe Calderón’s war on the drug cartels. The violence perpetrated is not as black and white, - narcos against each other and the state, and the state against the narcos, - as presented by most accounts. The violence witnessed can be broken down into five main analytical categories:

  1. Violence resulting from inter- and intra-cartel fighting
  2. Violence resulting from state-cartel fighting
  3. Violence resulting from confrontation among state security institutions
  4. Violence resulting from the confrontation between the cartels and civilian            population
  5. Violence among the general population

The Ecosystem of Violence in Mexico:  Five Main Analytical Categories

1. Violence resulting from inter- and intra-cartel fighting.

This is the widest recognized category of the violence that has taken place in Mexico. The violence drug trafficking organizations wage against one another or against breakaway factions fits into this category. This type of violence dates back to the 1970’s when the Mexican cartels started gaining organizational coherence. The victims of violence were relatively few, and consisted predominantly of individuals directly involved in drug trafficking with little innocent casualties among the non-drug-related-population. Consequently, the general population and the state usually tolerated this type of violence perceived as a phenomenon largely confined to the “underworld” and with no significant spillovers into the everyday life.

Unfortunately, in recent years, this type of inter- and intra-cartel violence has had spillover effects into the general population, and it has resulted in increasing violence against civilians not directly involved in cartel activities. Most often the victims were either family or friends of cartel members, or were suspected of having ties with a rival organization.

2. Violence resulting from state-cartel fighting

This is also a widely accepted and recognized type of violence taking place among those charged to eradicate the Mexican cartels and their activities, and the cartels themselves.[19] This violence also dates back to the early days of cartel formation. Even if for most of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) time in power the state colluded with the cartels and exploited their drug-trafficking activities,[20] the state had to engage in violence and enforcing activities against the traffickers at times to keep them in line and eradicate those who would not accept the play-book imposed by the state and would pose potential problems to the accommodation system the upper-world and the underworld had reached.[21]

Starting with the year 2000, with the new PAN (Partido Accion Nacional) administration of Vicente Fox Quesada, the accommodation between various elements of the state and narco-traffickers started to breakdown[22] and led to a reconfiguration of the relationships among the narco-traffickers as well as between the state and narcos with the state waging a more direct type of kinetic action against the cartels.[23] This sort of direct confrontation between the state and the narcos peaked under Felipe Calderón’s administration, and has generated two undesired sub-effects: violence emanating either from the drug cartels or the state against the civilians suspected of ties with the opposite side.

The first sub-set of violence resulting as a by-product of the confrontation between the cartels and the state is the violence the narcos wage against civilians suspected of potentially aiding the state in the fight against narco-trafficking. Moreover, in this context of extreme violence, all previous unwritten laws of engagement or codes of conduct governing the interactions among underworld figures or between the underworld and the upper-world, have broken down. Family members and friends of law enforcement or security forces personnel fighting drug-trafficking have been increasingly targeted in recent years[24] in an effort by the cartels to instill fear in both the general population and the security forces.

The second subset of the violence resulting from the fight between the state and the narco-traffickers, is a by-product of the state’s activities and involves the targeting of civilians suspected of connections to narco-traffickers. Beyond targeting well-known drug lords, the mission of the security forces was extended to target as well lower level traffickers and street-corner dealers/sellers, narco-menudistas, [25] who might have had leads on the higher-ups or same level traffickers.

This approach was part of the state’s attempt to map the broader network of narco-traffickers and their associates, but the use in certain situations of less-orthodox interrogation methods might have led to forced confessions[26] that further resulted in arbitrary detentions of individuals barely connected to narco-trafficking or other illicit activities. At this point, the state’s actions against the narco-traffickers started to produce unwanted victims among the general population. As it will be discussed in the next section on violence against police officers with presumed ties to organized crime, the number of deaths resulting from torture of civilians by the state is unknown, and it will, most likely, remain so.

Felipe Calderón’s war against drug trafficking unfortunately matched many of the criteria of what Gen. Rupert Smith calls “war amongst the people,”[27] and in this sort of conflict it is difficult to draw the line between civilians and “combatants” of the other side who – in this context - do not wear uniforms or other visible insignia to demarcate them from non-combatants. [28] The situation in Mexico brings to the fore the shortfalls of a dysfunctional justice system, the dark consequences of the weak or non-application of due process,[29] and the use of forceful interrogation techniques to extract confessions.[30]

3. Violence resulting from confrontation among state security institutions

This type of violence comprises those instances in which one state security agency engages in violence against a different branch or agency in charge with providing security. This sort of violence can happen across institutional and jurisdictional lines (e.g., the army engaging in violence against the municipal police; federal police shooting out at state or municipal police)[31], and on behalf of different actors, generally the state itself and the cartels. This category of violence has been documented since at least the 1970s, but for most of the time, it involved shoot-outs between one branch of the police operating on behalf of one cartel while a different branch of police would be on the payroll of a rival cartel. Or, open shoot-outs would take place between a legitimate police force acting in its capacity of state security provider, and another state security force on the payroll of one drug cartel or another. [32]

In the latter years though, in the context of highly corrupt municipal police forces,[33] a more nuanced phenomenon has become prevalent. Besides the mistaken shoot-outs rooted in a lack of coordination between federal and municipal security forces with both parties acting on behalf of the state and in good faith, the deployment of the army and other federal forces in the areas plagued by narco-violence has led to instances of violence conducted by those belonging to an institution of a higher rank against those belonging to an institution ranking lower in the overall state security hierarchy.[34]

Also, the use of former army generals as police chiefs in certain areas of the country where high levels of violence prevailed, had led to accounts of the army torturing municipal police to extract confessions of connections to organized crime. In the context of the state’s actions against narco-traffickers and their corrupt associates infiltrating the local security apparatus, federal forces ended up targeting state workers/officials with assumed links to drug trafficking organizations. This kind of violence is the least talked about and accepted in official circles.

A series of human rights organizations at both national and state level have produced reports of abuses against civilians and local police officers conducted by the army and other federal forces deployed in various states across the country, but it is very difficult to come by the number of deaths resulting from extensive torture and other abuses committed against those with presumed links to organized crime. But this lack of precise numbers to quantify this type of violence should not impede us from acknowledging its existence. At the moment, most reports available are based on the accounts of civilians and police officers who were the victims of human rights abuses – mostly - by federal forces in their attempt to extract confessions of connections to organized crime.

4. Violence resulting from the confrontation between the cartels and civilian population

The forth type of violence taking place in Mexico is that between the drug cartels and the civilian population. Initially this confrontation was one sided and mainly emanated from the cartels as a means of coercion in the context of extortion activities that the cartels engaged in against private individuals and businesses. With time though, the unfortunate extent of the abuses in which the cartels have engaged against civilians has led to a pushback and generated an organized response in the form of self-defense forces or vigilantes groups. [35]

At the same time, the role played by these vigilantes units is not a very clear-cut one, and has become increasingly controversial due to the methods they used and the activities in which they have engaged against the same population that they were supposed to protect from the threat of narco-violence. Moreover, accounts of these militia forces being in the service of one cartel or the other, or acting with the initially tacit and later explicit approval of the state,[36] have only added to the confusion present in an already too complex ecosystem of violence.

5. Violence among the general population

This category of violence is not directly connected to narco-trafficking, but closely tied to it and results from a state of anomie and impunity[37] that has plagued the overall society, especially in border areas like Ciudad Juarez or “failed states within the state” as it is currently the case in Michoacán.[38]

The “state of impunity” and the anomie created in the country are connected to the atomization of the underworld, but also to a temporary degree of atomization of state institutions in charge of security. The cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez under leadership of municipal police of Julian Leyzaola provide such examples of how the fight against drug trafficking led to the creation of a negative feedback loop, and to an almost Hobbesian “state of war of all against all.” In such an environment, individual citizens are less constrained from engaging in non-drug-related violence against other citizens because they are aware that their criminal actions will most likely go unprosecuted[39] as the state apparatus is too overwhelmed with the violence emanating from the drug cartels, and very often, there is little ability to disentangle one type of violence from the other.

To conclude, recognizing the existence of the above categories of violence that took place in Mexico during Felipe Calderón’s sexenio and have continued under the current Pena Nieto administration allows for the development of a more nuanced explanatory framework of the fluctuations and differences in the levels of violence in Mexico, especially in those areas plagued by extreme violence such as the states of Michoacán, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, to name only a few.

References

Arias, E. D. and D. M. Goldstein (2010). Violent democracies in Latin America. Durham NC, Duke University Press.

Astorga Almanza, L. A. (2005). El siglo de las drogas : el narcotráfico, del Porfiriato al nuevo milenio. México, D.F., Plaza y Janés.

Corcoran, P. (2013). "Mexico’s shifting criminal landscape: changes in gang operation and structure during the past century." Trends in Organized Crime 16(3): 306-328.

Kan, P. R. (2012). Cartels at war : Mexico's drug-fueled violence and the threat to U.S. national security. Washington, D.C., Potomac Books.

Palacios, M. (2006). Between legitimacy and violence : a history of Colombia, 1875-2002. Durham, Duke University Press.

Smith, R. (2008). The utility of force : the art of war in the modern world. New York, Vintage Books.

End Notes

[1] Palacios, M. (2006). Between legitimacy and violence : a history of Colombia, 1875-2002. Durham, Duke University Press., Arias, E. D. and D. M. Goldstein (2010). Violent democracies in Latin America. Durham NC, Duke University Press.,

Corcoran, P. (2013). "Mexico’s shifting criminal landscape: changes in gang operation and structure during the past century." Trends in Organized Crime 16(3): 306-328.          

[2] Hope, Alejandro, “Peace now? Mexican security policy after Felipe Calderón”, Inter-American Dialogue Working Paper, January 2013, document available at http://www.thedialogue.org/PublicationFiles/Mexico_Security_Hope.pdf; link last accessed on March 12, 2014.

[3] Sylvia Longmire, “Disappointment is the Hallmark of EPN’s First Year in Office,” Small Wars Journal, January 13, 2014, document available at http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/disappointment-is-the-hallmark-of-epn%E2%80%99s-first-year-in-office; link last accessed on January 17, 2014.

[4] Molly Molloy, “Peña Nieto’s First Year: Iraq on Our Southern Border,” Small Wars Journal, January 7, 2014, document available at http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/pe%C3%B1a-nieto%E2%80%99s-first-year-iraq-on-our-southern-border, link last accessed on March 17, 2014.

[5] Molly Molloy, “Peña Nieto’s First Year: Iraq on Our Southern Border,” Small Wars Journal, January 7, 2014, document available at http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/pe%C3%B1a-nieto%E2%80%99s-first-year-iraq-on-our-southern-border, link last accessed on March 17, 2014.

[6] Paul Rexton Kan, “The Year of Living Dangerously: Peña Nieto’s Presidency of Shadows,” Small Wars Journal, January 6, 2014, document available at http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-year-of-living-dangerously-pe%C3%B1a-nieto%E2%80%99s-presidency-of-shadows, link last accessed on January 17, 2014.

[7] Ben Leather, “One year into Enrique Peña Nieto's Government: Where are all the disappeared people?” December 1, 2013; document available at https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/files/where_are_all_the_disappeared_-_by_ben_leather.pdf; link last accessed on March 15, 2014.

[8] Nathan Jones, “Peña Nieto’s Security Strategy: We Need to Talk ,” Small Wars Journal,” January 8, 2014; document available at http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/pe%C3%B1a-nieto%E2%80%99s-security-strategy-we-need-to-talk; link last accessed on January 17, 2014. 

[9] Harlow, John, “Corpses mount in Mexico as dealers fight to feed American veins,” The Australian, June 17, 2008.

[10] Sherwell, Philip, “Mexico's war on drugs is now a fight for the nation's survival,” The Daily Telegraph (London), January 14, 2009 Wednesday.

[11] John P. Sullivan, “Mexico: Crucible of State Change,” Small Wars Journal, January 13, 2014, document available at http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/mexico-crucible-of-state-change; link last accessed on January 17, 2014.

[12] John P. Sullivan, “Measuring mayhem: The challenge of assessing violence and insecurity in Mexico,” October 23, 2013, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, document available at http://blog.chron.com/bakerblog/2013/10/measuring-mayhem-the-challenge-of-assessing-violence-and-insecurity-in-mexico/; link last accessed on March 17, 2014     

[13] Robert J. Bunker, “Introduction: the Mexican Cartels—Organized Crime vs. Criminal Insurgency” in Trends in Organized Crime, March 2013, page 132.

[14]Violence-plagued Mexican city fires police chief,” EFE News Service, December 2, 2008

[15] This is the Spanish term for the six year Presidential mandate in Mexico.

[16] Cuevas, Mayra, “Nine bodies found in common grave near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico,” CNN.com, March 14, 2009.

[17] Corcoran, Patrick, “Mexico Security Under Enrique Peña Nieto, 1 Year Review,” Insight Crime, December 4, 2013; link available at http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/mexico-security-under-enrique-pena-nieto-one-year-in and last accessed on March 12, 2014.

[18] Kan, P. R. (2012). Cartels at war : Mexico's drug-fueled violence and the threat to U.S. national security. Washington, D.C., Potomac Books.    

[19] Grayson, George W., “The Impact of President Felipe Caldreon’s War on Drugs on the Armed Forces: the Prospects for Mexico’s ‘Militarization’ and Bilateral Relations,” Strategic Studies Institute, January 2013, document available at http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB1137.pdf, last accessed on March 12, 2014.

[20] Astorga Almanza, L. A. (2005). El siglo de las drogas : el narcotráfico, del Porfiriato al nuevo milenio. México, D.F., Plaza y Janés.          

[21] Stanley A. Pimentel, “Mexico’s Legacy of Corruption,” in Menace to Society: Political-Criminal Collaboration Around the World. Roy Godson. 2003.

[22] Snyder R, Duran-Martinez A (2009) “Does illegality breed violence? Drug trafficking and state-sponsored protection rackets.” Crime, Law, and Social Change 52:253–273

[23] According to Zeta Magazine reporting, during the administration of President Vicente Fox Quesada, the most succesful actions against narco-traffickers that culminated in arrests and weakening of the organizations, had been led and executed by the military. Zeta, no. 1682, June 2006, “Falta decision,” http://www.zetatijuana.com/html/EdcionesAnteriores/Edicion1682/ParaEmpezar.html

[24] Rory Carroll, “Mexican marine's family gunned down by drug cartel - Several members of national hero Melquisedet Angulo's family were killed in a reprisal attack this week, The Guardian, Wednesday 23 December 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/23/mexican-marines-family-gunned-down, link last accessed on March 17, 2014

[25]Tijuana Police Chief Battles Corruption,” transcript NPR “Morning Edition,” November 22, 2010.

[26] Pachico, Elyssa, “Can Tijuana's Top Cop Clean Up Juarez?”, Insight Crime, 11 March 2011, link available at http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/insight-can-tijuanas-top-cop-c....

[27] Smith, R. (2008). The utility of force : the art of war in the modern world. New York, Vintage Books.  

[28] Ibid. 

[29] Shirk, David “Justice Reform in Mexico: Change & Challenges in the Judicial Sector” in Olson E, Shirk D, Selee A (eds) Shared Responsibility: U.S.-Mexico policy options for confronting organized crime.” Mexico Institute, of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Trans-Border Institute (TBI), University of San Diego (USD), Washington, DC, San Diego, document available at http://www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/pubs/Shared%20Responsibility–Olson,%20Shirk,%20Selee.pdf.; link last accessed on March 12, 2014.

[30] Catherine Daly, Kimberly Heinle, and David A. Shirk, Armed with Impunity: Curbing Military Human Rights Abuses in Mexico, Trans-Border Institute, Special Report, July 2012.

[31] Cave, Damien, “Anchors in a time of turbulence. Women persevere to hold society steady in Mexican city torn by drug violence,” The International Herald Tribune, February 10, 2011

[32] Stanley A. Pimentel, “Mexico’s Legacy of Corruption,” in Menace to Society: Political-Criminal Collaboration Around the World. Roy Godson. 2003.

[33] Marosi, Richard, “Tijuana police abandon posts over drug move,” The Irish Times, January 6, 2007.

[34] Ignacio Alvarado Álvarez, “Leyzaola: La Manipulacion Policiaca en Tijuana,”  http://www.sinembargo.mx/04-06-2013/638633, June 4, 2013. Link last accessed on March 12, 2014.

[35] George W. Grayson, “Threat Posed by Mounting Vigilantism in Mexico,” Strategic Studies Institute, September 2011, document available at http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=1082 link last accessed on March 17, 2014          

[36] Nathan P. Jones, “Managing the self-defense forces in Michoacán,” February 19, 2014, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, http://blog.chron.com/bakerblog/2014/02/managing-the-self-defense-forces-in-michoacan/, link last accessed on March 17, 2014         

[37] Robert J. Bunker, “Perception and intent define the reality, but criminal violence in Mexico has metastasized,” October 22, 2013, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, http://blog.chron.com/bakerblog/2013/10/perception-and-intent-define-the-reality-but-criminal-violence-in-mexico-has-metastasized/, last accessed on March 17, 2014

[38] Nathan P. Jones, “Managing the self-defense forces in Michoacán,” February 19, 2014, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, http://blog.chron.com/bakerblog/2014/02/managing-the-self-defense-forces-in-michoacan/, link last accessed on March 17, 2014         

[39] Robert J. Bunker, “Perception and intent define the reality, but criminal violence in Mexico has metastasized,” October 22, 2013, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, http://blog.chron.com/bakerblog/2013/10/perception-and-intent-define-the-reality-but-criminal-violence-in-mexico-has-metastasized/, last accessed on March 17, 2014

 

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Comments

Have reread this article a number of times---like the type of research the author is conducting and wish more along these lines would be published by SWJ. Especially in the face of the latest autodefensa activities and the State of Mexico activities against them vs how little is being done against the cartels the ADs are facing.

Recently an AD leader was arrested and had 35 charges placed against him and the cartel involved also had someone arrested as well and he had only one charge placed against him---that of having a military rifle---does that sound like the rule of law and good governance?

Nice to see Tufts University getting deeper into this.

Interesting to see someone doing ecosystem research---while I did not like much of Dr. Kilcullen's COIN work the concept of ecosystems as applied to insurgents and now drug cartels IMO is a valid approach to understanding and creating a better situational awareness of what is occurring in Mexico and how the spillover will actually impact the US which is has been doing for the last five years.