Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 21

Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 21: Quantifying Conflict in Mexico - Armed Conflict, Hyper-Violent Criminality or Both?

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker 

In its recent Armed Conflict Survey 2017, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London said Mexico’s criminal insecurity has reached the level of armed conflict. The Mexican government rejected that characterization.[1]  

Key Information:  Andrew V. Pestano, “Mexico’s homicide rate now at level of armed conflict: Report.” UPI. 09 May 2017, http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/05/09/Mexicos-homicide-rate-now-at-level-of-armed-conflict-Report/8461494349033/:

The International Institute for Strategic Studies said Mexico has become the world’s second-most deadly conflict zone following Syria due to the ongoing drug war in which 23,000 people were killed in 2016.

In its annual Armed Conflict Survey, the IISS said violence caused by organized crime reached levels of a traditional armed conflict. Regionally, 39,000 people were killed in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

For comparison, there were 17,000 intentional homicides in 2015 and 15,000 in 2014 in Mexico.

The IISS said it is rare for criminal violence to reach levels similar to armed conflict and that organized crime in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador threaten the fundamental components of those countries.

Key Information:  Antônio Sampaio, “Mexico’s spiralling murder rate.” IISS Voices. 09 May 2017, https://www.iiss.org/en/iiss%20voices/blogsections/iiss-voices-2017-adeb/may-8636/mexico-murder-rate-9f41:

This year’s IISS Armed Conflict Survey sheds light on one of Latin America’s crucial policy issues: violence sparked by organised-crime groups reaching the levels of an armed conflict. This assessment of violence in the region is based on more than numbers, although the 39,000 people killed in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in 2016 indicate a security crisis much more complex and serious than most other countries in the region. Mexico’s 2016 intentional homicide total, 23,000, is second only to Syria.

It is very rare for criminal violence to reach a level akin to armed conflict. But this has happened in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) and, especially, Mexico. In all four countries, armed forces have been deployed for many years specifically to fight criminal gangs and, in the case of Mexico, transnational drug-trafficking cartels, with military-grade weapons and vast financial resources. In all four countries, criminal groups have ambitious territorial claims: they fight amongst themselves and use arms to challenge the state directly for local control. Unlike traditional political conflicts, these criminal conflicts are fought to establish autonomous territories, not to pursue national politico-ideological goals.

All four countries have suffered the impact of violent criminal groups for many years. This is not a one-off wave of banditry but a truly strategic challenge, threatening the fundamental components of the state: business activity, socio-economic development, the functioning of institutions and the rule of law.

Key Information: Anastasia Voronkova, “Is Mexico really in a state of conflict?” IISS Voices. 12 May 2017, https://www.iiss.org/en/iiss%20voices/blogsections/iiss-voices-2017-adeb/may-8636/is-mexico-really-in-a-state-of-conflict-42f3:

Since the publication of the Armed Conflict Survey 2017 there has been a lot of discussion of our finding that Mexico is the second-most lethal conflict worldwide. Should the violence in Mexico even be considered a conflict or is it simply organised criminality, albeit on a large scale?

During our work monitoring the world’s armed conflicts, we look at a number of criteria to discern whether a country is in conflict, rather than suffering from high levels of violent criminality. Firstly, we consider the duration and tempo. Those in which the violence is sustained over many years and with consistent intensity tend to qualify; those that experience periodic spikes in violence do not. Secondly, is the violence a threat to the state, as well as the citizen? For instance, is the government’s territorial control in question? And finally, has the state recognised the threat in these terms and responded with force? Sadly, Mexico meets all these criteria. Other Latin American countries, such as Brazil, may be in the grip of high levels of criminal violence, but their governments have greater territorial control, and violence ebbs and flows.

The IISS Armed Conflict Database has been monitoring Mexico for ten years. It classifies Mexico as an armed conflict because the national government has characterised criminal cartels as an existential threat. When in 2006 then-president Felipe Calderón ordered the deployment of 6,500 troops to battle the cartels in Michoacán, to be followed shortly by the dispatch of another 35,000 to other regions, he did so on the basis that organised crime had become a threat to national security. He reiterated that characterisation in 2010. Undoubtedly, the state has succeeded in fragmenting the largest cartels.

Key Information: Bill Chappell, “Mexico Is World’s Second Most Violent Country, Report Says.” The Two Way, NPR. 10 May 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/10/527794495/mexico-is-called-worlds-second-most-violent-country:

In a joint statement, Mexico’s secretaries of governance and foreign relations said the report irresponsibly points to the existence of an armed conflict within the country.

“This is incorrect,” the statement continues. “The existence of criminal groups is not a sufficient criterion to speak of a non-international armed conflict. Neither is the use of the Armed Forces to maintain order in the country's interior.”

The Mexican agencies also questioned the accuracy of the report’s figures and methods, saying the country’s homicide rate per capita is far below those of other Latin American countries such as Honduras and Venezuela.

“Its conclusions have no basis in the case of Mexico,” the agencies said of the report.

The government said violence from organized crime extends well beyond Mexico, into its neighbors the U.S., Guatemala and Belize. And it said the armed conflict report had attributed all of Mexico’s killings last year to drug cartel violence.

Analysis

Mexico’s drug wars have led to endemic insecurity that has, in turn, triggered high casualties, disappearances, mass graves, barbarization, and atrocity. This situation challenges both state legitimacy and capacity.[2] The recognition of the intensity of violence in Mexico and Latin America along with the concept of  “criminal insurgency” and “crime wars” is not new, despite the current political controversy.[3] Nevertheless, defining violence related to drug wars is complicated due to lack of uniform definitions and conflicting and ambiguous data.[4] Indeed, the Justice in Mexico project observes that conceptual and methodological issues complicate quantifying Mexico’s criminal and narco landscape, yet maintain that “Despite all of these conceptual and methodological issues, it is also difficult to ignore the extraordinary characteristics of the violence that Mexico has recently experienced, or the role that DTOs [drug trafficking organizations]and OCGs [organized crime groups] have played in it. Such groups use specific types of weapons, specific tactics (e.g., targeted assassinations, street gun battles, etc.), extreme forms of violence (e.g., torture, dismemberment, and decapitation), explicit messages to authorities and each other (e.g., notes, signs, and banners), and public displays of violence intended to spread fear (e.g., bodies hanging from bridges).”[5]

The intense violence—which includes targeting non-combatants, attacks on journalists and mayors, blockades (narcobloqueos), and a high rate of impunity resembles conflict in many ways. The cartels (and associated gangs) mark their vehicles and wear distinctive clothing, conduct information operations [both suppressing reports through murder and violence and posting videos of their threats and attacks online combined with posting banners (narcomantas)] and utilize sophisticated weapons (including improvised armored cars, automatic weapons, grenades, and other military-type small arms).  In addition, the cartels and gangs seek territorial control and are involved in resource extraction (including petroleum theft).  These attributes support the criminal insurgency/crime wars view of parts of this irregular conflict. That is, parts of the conflict entail  “a set of interlocking, networked criminal insurgencies” while others involve both routine and “high-intensity” crime.[6]

The IISS assertions about non-state irregular conflict in Mexico aren’t as contentious as suggested in recent criticism.[7] Rather, their nuanced view is uncomfortable for state actors facing criticism in face of insecurity, corruption, and impunity that culminate in actual or perceived challenges to capacity and legitimacy. This “state reconfiguration” involves both direct confrontation with and co-option of the state and state actors through the development of illicit networks.[8] 

The impact of crime wars or criminal insurgencies on states goes beyond just a rise in murders and scale.  While crime statistics are visible indicators of conflict, they are just that.  While crime has been dramatically rising in Mexico (and indeed elsewhere in Latin America), homicides rose at unprecedented rates during the Calderón sexenio, declined in 2012-2014 under Peña Nieto, but then climbed again 20% in 2016 (with dramatic increases in 24 states). “Notably, the largest increases were registered in Colima with a 600% increase from 2015 to 2016, Nayarit (500% increase), and Zacatecas (405% increase)” where control of plazas and the drug trade is contested yet other factors like targeting mayors and journalists influence the character of the conflict.[9] 

As Sampaio notes in his analysis, “It is very rare for criminal violence to reach a level akin to armed conflict. But this has happened in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) and, especially, Mexico. In all four countries, armed forces have been deployed for many years specifically to fight criminal gangs and, in the case of Mexico, transnational drug-trafficking cartels, with military-grade weapons and vast financial resources. In all four countries, criminal groups have ambitious territorial claims: they fight amongst themselves and use arms to challenge the state directly for local control. Unlike traditional political conflicts, these criminal conflicts are fought to establish autonomous territories, not to pursue national politico-ideological goals.”[10] 

The qualitative dimension of irregular conflict—involving violent non-stat actors (VNSA) battling among themselves and confronting the state raises significant issues related to the nature of conflict and legitimacy. For example, issues of internal non-state conflict that could bring the crime wars under the purview of international humanitarian law (IHL) have recently been brought to light in both Brazil (in Rio de Janeiro)[11] and Mexico, where petroleum thieves (huachicoleros) apparently used non-combatant women and children as human shields in a confrontation with states forces (SEDENA).[12]  In the aftermath of that conflict, it was alleged that Mexican soldiers were caught on video carrying out an extrajudicial killing.[13] 

This problem goes beyond Mexico, extending throughout much of Latin America with extreme violence in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Brazil.  Just this week, Guatemala declared a state of emergency along the Mexican border due to cartel gun battles.[14] The problem also goes beyond street crime, banditry and brigandage to challenge state institutions, “hollow out” state control of territory to form criminal enclaves, and ultimately to reconfigure states.

Derived from the strategic insights provided by Fourth Epoch Transition research, our contention is that the modern state system is undergoing a shift into a neo-Westphalian paradigm in which social and political organizational challengers to that form have arisen. These entities—including the cartels (e.g., Los Zetas, Sinaloa, LFM, CJNG) and criminal gangs (MS-13, 18th Street, PCC, Urabeños) in Latin America, as well as the Islamic State in the Middle East—defy modernist labels and definitions of criminality and warmaking.

This has resulted in status quo grounded scholars promoting outmoded modernist views of warfare as being authorative and infallible in the face of the realities of blood soaked streets in Mexico and other nations facing full blown criminal insurgencies.[15] Hence, during an era of state institutional breakdown and reconfiguration, the ground truth that new crime making and state making entities are emerging that are undermining Latin American sovereign rights and prerogatives is being ignored by elites in those countries as well as within the United States. It is far more comforting to simply rationalize away such societal conflict potentials as elements of street crime and traditional mafia-like behaviors than to see them for what they may truly represent—an emergent and evolving form of 21st century warfare being waged by violent non-state actors against sovereign states. 

The fact that these entities are initially non-politicized in a Maoist or traditional insurgent sense is irrelevant; rather, it is the outcome of their striving for impunity of action that results in their de facto politicization as bandit chieftains and localized warlords.  It is in this way that governmental control is usurped and becomes vested in powerful and violent criminal organizations. Such half-criminal and half-militarized entities have been multiplying in Latin America for some time now.[16] They cannot be wished away or ignored—no matter how much elite and status quo interests persist in their self delusional constructs—and represent what may very well be the defining national security dilemma for the Western Hemisphere into the next decade if not beyond.[17]  

End Notes

[1] See Armed Conflict Survey 2017, (Especially Chapter 8: Latin America), London: International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), 09 May 2017 for the arguments for classifying Mexico’s insecurity as armed conflict and the corresponding Mexican rebuttal “El reporte ‘Armed Conflict Survey 2017’ (ACS), publicado por el International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Secretaría de Gobernación, 10 May 2017, http://www.gob.mx/segob/prensa/el-reporte-armed-conflict-survey-2017-acs-publicado-por-el-international-institute-for-strategic-studies-iiss.

[2] See John P. Sullivan, “From Drug Wars to Criminal Insurgency: Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Criminal Insurgency in Mexico and Central America. Implications for Global Security.” Working Paper, Paris: Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme, MSH-WP-2012-09, 2011, https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/FMSH-WP/halshs-00694083.

[3] See, for example, Bob Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal, “Crime Wars: Gangs, cartels and U.S. National Security.” Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, September 2010, http://www.cwagweb.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/CNAS_CrimeWars_KillebrewBernal_2.pdf.  

[4] See Molly Molloy,  “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 19: +233,143 Homicides (& Disappearances) in Mexico 2007-2016.” Small Wars Journal, 26 January 2017, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/mexican-cartel-strategic-note-no-19-233143-homicides-disappearances-in-mexico-2007-2016 and “The Mexican Undead: Toward a New History of the ‘Drug War’ Killing Fields.” Small Wars Journal. 21 August 2013, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-mexican-undead-toward-a-new-history-of-the-“drug-war”-killing-fields and John P. Sullivan, “Measuring mayhem: The challenge of assessing violence and insecurity in Mexico.” Baker Institute Blog at Chron. 23 October 2013, http://blog.chron.com/bakerblog/2013/10/measuring-mayhem-the-challenge-of-assessing-violence-and-insecurity-in-mexico/.

[5] Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk, Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016, San Diego: Justice in Mexico, University of San Diego, March 2017, p. 48.  In addition, see the detailed discussion of methodological concerns faced when analyzing Mexican crime data at pp. 47-52, https://justiceinmexico.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/2017_DrugViolenceinMexico.pdf.

[6] See John P. Sullivan, “Outside View: Mexico's criminal insurgency.” UPI. 18 December 2008, http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2008/12/18/Outside-View-Mexicos-criminal-insurgency/34061229613633/; Robert J. Bunker, “Introduction: the Mexican cartels—organized crime vs. criminal insurgency.” Trends in Organized Crime. Vol. 176, Issue 2, June 2013, pp. 129-137, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12117-013-9194-4.

[7] An example of this criticism is found in David Agren, “Is Mexico really the second-deadliest country in the world?” The Guardian. 11 May 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/11/mexico-deadly-violence-international-institute-strategic-studies.

[8] See Luis Jorge Garay-Salamanca and Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Drug Trafficking, Corruption and States: How Illicit Networks Shaped Institutions in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, (A Small Wars Journal-El Centro and Vortex Foundation Book) Bloomington: iUniverse, 2015, https://www.amazon.com/Drug-Trafficking-Corruption-States-Institutions/dp/1491759178?ie=UTF8&keywords=drug%20trafficking%2C%20corruption%20and%20states&qid=1432700374&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1.

[9] Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk, Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016, p. 2.

[10] Antônio Sampaio, “Mexico’s spiralling murder rate.” IISS Voices. 09 May 2017, https://www.iiss.org/en/iiss%20voices/blogsections/iiss-voices-2017-adeb/may-8636/mexico-murder-rate-9f41.

[11] Robert Muggah, “Rio de Janeiro:  A War by Any Other Name.” Small Wars Journal. 25 April 2017, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/rio-de-janeiro-a-war-by-any-other-name.

[12] Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #33: Terrorist TTP Firebreak Crossed—Criminal Group Utilizes Women and Children as Human Shields in Palmarito, Puebla.” Small Wars Journal. 11 May 2017, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/mexican-cartel-tactical-note-33-terrorist-ttp-firebreak-crossed-criminal-group-utilizes-wom.

[13] See Kaye Linthicum, “As Mexico combats fears about rising crime, a soldier is caught on tape carrying out an execution.” Los Angeles Times. 10 May 2017, http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-mexico-execution-20170510-story.html and Arturo Rueda and Héctor Hugo Cruz, “VIDEO: militares ejecutan con tiro de gracia en Palmarito.” Diario Cambio. 10 May 2017, http://www.diariocambio.com.mx/2017/secciones/codigo-rojo/item/9928-video-militares-ejecutan-con-tiro-de-gracia-en-palmarito#ixzz4h1IQy3O7.

[14] “Guatemala Declares Emergency in Border Areas to Fight Drug Trafficking.” The Wire (Reuters). 13 May 2017, https://thewire.in/135277/guatemala-declares-emergency-border-fight-drug-trafficking/.

[15] See, for instance, “Many or most conflict scholars do not believe Mexico or the Central American countries above are immersed in civil conflict or civil war.” Brian J. Phillips, “Is Mexico the second-deadliest ‘conflict zone’ in the world? Probably not.” The Washington Post. 18 May 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/05/18/is-mexico-the-second-deadliest-conflict-zone-in-the-world-probably-not/?utm_term=.ffcd7cdd2814.

[16] For case studies related to these entities and their leaders, see Ioan Grillo, Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

[17] The requirement for deeper U.S. involvement in support and advisory roles to allied Latin American states besieged by violent non-state actors has been made for some years now. See, for instance, Robert J. Bunker, Op-Ed: The Need For A “Half-Pivot to the Americas.” Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 10 January 2013, http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/index.cfm/articles/The-Need-For-A-Half-Pivot-to-the-Americas/2013/01/07.

Additional Reading

Armed Conflict Survey 2017, (Especially Chapter 8: Latin America), London: International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), 09 May 2017.

Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk, Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016. San Diego: Justice in Mexico, University of San Diego, March 2017.

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency: A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2012.

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