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Old and New Governmental-Criminal Relationships In Mexico: A Historical Analysis of the Illicit Political Economy and Effects On State Sovereignty

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Old and New Governmental-Criminal Relationships In Mexico:

A Historical Analysis of the Illicit Political Economy and Effects On State Sovereignty

Khirin A. Bunker

Introduction and Methods

In Mexico, drug trafficking has perennially existed as a component of the informal economy. Under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), or Institutional Revolutionary Party, which governed the country for 71 years, criminal groups were permitted to operate as long as they remained within the boundaries of PRI control. However, in the 21st century, criminal violence spawned from drug trafficking organizations and other criminal groups in Mexico has begun to pose an existential threat to the Mexican state. The contrast between the two eras, separated by the onset of democratization, offers insight into the current state of affairs. Through a historical analysis of its illicit political economy, this thesis will make apparent the growing security issues associated with the transformation of the governmental-criminal relationship in Mexico.

The work is structured as follows: Section I traces the origins of Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations from the early 20th century through the arrival of democratization. Section II introduces the concept of old model and new model relationships between criminal organizations and the Mexican state, highlighting changes in the political and economic landscape. Section III delves further into the economic landscape, examining the expansion of illicit economic practices associated with new model criminal organizations in Mexico. Section IV surveys the effects of the new model expansion of criminal enterprise on Mexican state sovereignty through an analysis of direct and indirect threats spawned by growing criminal influence over time.

The work concludes with a consideration of state failures and offers up alternatives to contemporary policy recommendations. The goal of this work is ultimately to demonstrate the institutional failures associated with the relationship between the new model expansion of criminal enterprise and weakening state capacity in the face of criminal violence and corruption in Mexico.

How Did We Get Here? A Century of Drug Trafficking in Mexico

Drug trafficking in Mexico is by no means a recent phenomenon. Smuggling across the nearly 2,000 mile United States-Mexico border has historical roots in the late nineteenth century as migrant Chinese railroad workers created the foundation of a market for the illegal opium trade. Through operations established on both sides of the border by Chinese smugglers, the cultivation and transportation of opium and heroin quickly became lucrative, even at its infantile stages. Despite early U.S. anti-drug legislation, beginning with the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, no significant crackdown occurred and, by 1920, the attention of the U.S. political arena was lost to the implementation and enforcement of Prohibition. The federal ban on alcohol precipitated a rapid expansion of Mexican-run bootlegging networks along the border which operated for over a decade. However, after Prohibition was lifted in 1933, existing smugglers were left to devise alternatives forms of profiteering.

While the political sphere in the United States occupied itself with Prohibition, Mexico was experiencing a distinct transition in government marked by the birth of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) under General Plutarco Elías Calles in 1929. Masked in a shroud of progress, the new single-party system sought to fundamentally institutionalize the pre-existing method of authoritarian rule. Through the establishment of single term six-year presidencies, the PRI solidified its power-base by ensuring that political control remained with the party rather than an individual party-elect. To maintain federal authority, the new government worked with existing regional chiefs (or caciques) that held significant political influence over their respective territories to construct a system of order.[1] The result was a structure built around corruption which kept all levels in check through economic kickbacks and benefits up and down the social ladder.

As Mexican bootleggers scrambled for new markets, a rapid and hostile takeover of the Chinese opium and heroin trade was carried out. The resulting revenues from the acquired drug trade were subsequently absorbed by the sphere of corruption—which was viewed at the time as petty and small-scale. However, the market continued to grow and, by the late 1940s, the Mexican opium and heroin trade had increased substantially. Yet, due in part to major political events (Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the Second World War) as well as the relatively small size of the operations, Mexican drug smuggling remained largely external to the political radar of the United States for the first half of the 20th century.[2]

Throughout the 1960s, the prospects for the drug trade increased as marijuana began to be used on a wider scale recreationally in the United States. This new market brought forth an increased wave of cultivation and trafficking from Mexico. In 1973, the phenomenon of mounting drug use finally prompted President Richard Nixon’s exercise of executive order to form the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as “a single unified command to combat an all-out global war on the drug menace.”[3] Working with the PRI, the DEA managed to orchestrate the largest joint-operation of the 20th century against the source of illegal drugs, christened Operation Condor. The operation employed aerial and ground forces to target and destroy opium and marijuana crops in the Golden Triangle (a region comprised of the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua). Beginning in 1976, the effort took a legitimate toll on Mexican drug networks over the course of two years—but the collaboration and its effects proved short-lived. Having outlasted the DEA-led offensive, the drug machine rebounded with Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, aka “El Padrino,” emerging at the head of the Sinaloa drug business by the end of the decade.

While Mexican opium and marijuana traffickers, or narcotraficantes/narcos as they were termed by locals, had proven their resilience, the Colombian drug networks continued to dominate the cocaine and heroin trade leading in to the 1980s. At the head of the business were the Medellín and Cali cartels which had supplied the majority of drug shipments to the United States. For the Medellín cartel in particular, this involved delivering cocaine directly into southern Florida through Caribbean smuggling routes. With President Ronald Reagan’s creation of the South Florida Task Force in 1982, the environment changed significantly. The Task Force incorporated the army, navy, and FBI into the fight, marking the first instance in which the U.S. armed services had been directly involved in drug interdiction.[4] The resulting consequences were crippling for the Medellín group and leaders hastily sought out alternative transportation routes. With already existing smuggling routes and an experienced network, Mexico was the obvious answer.

The Medellín Cartel propositioned the existing Mexican organizations to basically act as cocaine drug mules, receiving the product south of the border in Mexico and delivering it north of the border to Colombian contacts in the United States. Maintaining oversight and control, the Medellín Cartel used El Padrino as the point of contact in their Mexican courier operations, making him a kingpin in all cocaine affairs. Serving to immediately benefit the Medellín, the geographic shift in operations would have a much more protracted impact in fundamentally transforming the nature of Mexican drug smuggling operations and ultimately prompt a new trajectory at the turn of the 21st century. Put simply, “once billions of cocaine dollars poured into Mexico, its drug trafficking would become bigger and bloodier than anyone imagined.”[5]

The new arrangement proved effective in circumventing the suppression in Florida, but soon caught the attention of DEA agents. After several particularly successful busts in 1984 by cooperating DEA and Mexican authorities, the chief Mexican players (El Padrino, Matta Ballesteros, and Rafael Caro Quintero) decided to get even. In a brazen act of revenge, the kingpins ordered a hit on DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in February 1985. Having played a high-profile role in locating a massive cannabis plantation known as Rancho Búfalo, which was sequentially destroyed by Mexican authorities the year prior, Camarena was easily identified. His body was recovered a month later with signs of repeated beatings and sexual assault. The brutal torture and death of the agent sparked outrage and put the kingpins directly in the crosshairs of the DEA which fingered them as the primary suspects in orchestrating the kidnapping.

Although named as a wanted man by U.S. authorities, El Padrino still maintained PRI political protection and relocated to Guadalajara in 1987 to devise a strategy to deal with the DEA heat.  Having assembled a group of trusted high-level narcos who had not been implicated in the Kiki Camarena Incident, El Padrino laid out a plan to divide up parts of the Mexican drug trade based on control of the plazas. These plazas, which came to represent distinct territories segregated by military jurisdictions, would be parceled out to controlling families/individuals operating in the regions. In diversifying control of the drug trade, El Padrino aimed to expand the network and make it more difficult for the U.S. and Mexican authorities to target specific persons or operations. The plaza system drafted by El Padrino would allow each group to maintain control of their own trade while working cohesively. The outcome of the initial arrangement devised by El Padrino was roughly as follows:

PLAZA: Tijuana Route, Ciudad Juárez, Sonora, Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa

Table 1 Overview of “El Padrino” Plaza System[6]

The result was to be a tightening of operations and a simplification of the system of corruption—each group would tax and bribe within their separate domains. El Padrino intended to continue his position as the primary contact for the incoming Colombian drugs but had relinquished individual control of the business. The Mexican drug trade had been essentially privatized. In 1989, however, El Padrino was captured and the plaza arrangement was left without its chief backer.

On the Colombian side, the Medellín cartel was losing its power base in North America. The end of the Cold War meant more U.S. personnel and resources could be allocated towards combatting their operations. By 1990, the U.S. had virtually complete control over the Floridian smuggling corridor and the Colombians had no choice but to relinquish the majority of shipments to the Mexican network. The Mexican narcos now controlled the flow of cocaine into the United States. With the successful killing of Pablo Escobar in December 1993, as well as new legislation and precedents for extradition in place, the Colombian bosses were eager to safeguard themselves against U.S. reach.[7] Their solution was to allow the Mexicans to both transport and distribute in an effort to lower risk and remove the growing complications of dealing with the United States. The Colombian cocaine market in North America was subsequently fixed to the Mexican distributors, giving them unprecedented control and, in turn, profits.

El Padrino’s imprisonment and the new market for cocaine distribution had resulted in a mounting power struggle; a scenario far from resembling the narcotopia that he had hoped to establish. The decentralization of the trafficking operations and the lack of a central figurehead had prompted the organizations emerging from the plaza system to seek expansion. But expansion meant encroaching on one another’s territories or potential markets, which meant violence. In the early 1990s, this was especially the case between the Arellano Félix Brothers (AFO), who operated out of Tijuana, and Joaqín “Chapo” Guzmán, based in Sinaloa, who were both vying for market control of areas in California.

Despite the violence spawned by the burgeoning new generation of drug kingpins, the Mexican PRI still appeared to have the power to keep the narcos in line when it was necessary to save political face; although the corruption within the PRI structure continued to run deep. As described by Riding in 1987, “corruption enables the system to function, providing the ‘oil’ that makes the wheels of the bureaucratic machine turn and the ‘glue’ that seals political alliances.”[8] In May 1993, the balance of power between the narcos and the government within the system was shaken by the assassination of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo. The official statement released was that the slaying had occurred as a casualty of a gun battle between members of the opposing organizations of the AFO and Guzmán. Whatever the case, the capability of the organizations to end the life of a high-ranking member of the Catholic Church in broad daylight was a blatant affront to the facade of control put forth by the PRI government. Although—with the help of Guatemala—the PRI would go on to arrest Guzmán within two weeks of the murder, the game in Mexico was evidently changing but it was unclear what the outcome would be. In 1994, the implementation of NAFTA added another component to the transformation, creating immense economic opportunities both inside and outside of the law.

The plaza system had yielded four major groups who contended for the biggest share of the perpetually growing drug business throughout the 1990s; they would go on to be widely referred to as the Tijuana Cartel/AFO, the Gulf Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, and the Sinaloa Federation. With territorial lines drawn from the initial plaza agreement under El Padrino, the family mafias were transforming into full-fledged cartels in the view of authorities both north and south of the border. Sitting at the top of the Gulf Cartel, Juan García Ábrego was seen as the most powerful of the kingpins and the number one priority target. In 1996, Ábrego was arrested by Mexican authorities and extradited to the United States as a dual-citizen. However, instead of crippling the Gulf Cartel, his downfall ushered in a new era of organized violence.

Hastily replacing Ábrego at the head of the cartel, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén aka “Mata Amigos” (Friend Killer) had earned himself a reputation for brutality. Fearing being outmatched by his rival cartels, Cárdenas Guillén worked to assemble a team of enforcers. While others were utilizing the muscle of local and foreign gangs, Cárdenas Guillén instead turned to the military—more specifically, a cell of the Mexican special forces known as Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE). In 1997, Cárdenas Guillén managed to accumulate around 30 former GAFE members who, under the leadership of Arturo Guzmán Decena (“Z-1”), would form a paramilitary death squad known as Los Zetas. With military grade training and weapons, the Gulf Cartel had effectively taken the contest for power to a new level at the turn of the century.

At the same time, the political situation in Mexico was undergoing significant changes leading up to the 2000 election. Under President Ernesto Zedillo, the PRI’s longstanding control of Mexico’s government had been intentionally weakened to allow for multi-party elections. With the introduction of complete autonomy for the Federal Electoral Institute in 1996 and the loss of Congressional majority the year after, the PRI were vulnerable to political opposition in the presidential race. Having operated under the PRI for over 70 years, the stability of the system of elaborate corruption cultivated by state employees and drug syndicates alike was legitimately threatened. A multi-party democratic system did not bode well for the preservation of the unspoken agreement for the PRI or the narcos. The viability of the old model backed by PRI hegemony was waning.

The election of Vincente Fox from the National Action Party (PAN) in 2000 was consequently viewed as a revolutionary upset. Though the change in political authority had concerned the narcos, it quickly proved to be of major benefit. The new existence of political opposition, while seen by international champions of democracy (including the United States) as a step in the right direction, had significant impacts on Mexican state capacity. With the presence of political partisanship came legislative gridlock. Additionally, the historical dominance of the PRI made members highly reluctant to cooperate with the political newcomers. This divide meant, at a minimum, that the government was crippled to enact policies against the cartels and, at worst, rendered the government non-functioning as evidenced by the fact that party disputes even “led to armed standoffs—not with drug dealers but between federal, state, and local police forces, such as the one that occurred in Tijuana in 2005.”[9] With this partisan discord in effect, the narcos had a window of opportunity. Soon “drug-trafficking organizations took advantage of the political opening to gain autonomy, ending their subordination to the government.”[10]

The 9/11 attacks in 2001 added to this restructuring as border security and points of entry became a priority issue in the United States, significantly decreasing the ability of traffickers to use formerly successful plaza routes. The outcome of this change was two-fold: First, the loss of routes meant an immediate loss of profits. To subsidize these losses, narcos turned to a domestic market. As remarked in a 2009 article for The Wall Street Journal, “tighter border security prompted some gangs to sell cocaine in Mexico instead, breaking an unspoken agreement with the government that gangs would be tolerated as long as they didn’t sell the drugs in Mexico but passed them on instead to the gringos.”[11] Second, the surviving plaza routes became heavily contested territories with violence enveloping associated border cities—eventually leading to a full-blown turf war starting around 2004.[12]

By the conclusion of Fox’s presidency in 2006, the old system of unwritten rules between the PRI and drug traffickers had collapsed. As a result, the power balance between the cartels and Mexican government had subsequently tipped. Having been dismantled via the change in leadership, the control once maintained by the PRI had deteriorated. The development of a Mexican cocaine market and unprecedented levels of violence were symptomatic of this corrosion, and served to exemplify the mounting failures in government containment and control. The game had fundamentally changed and president-elect Felipe Calderón (Fox’s PAN successor) would inherit the emergent conflict at the end of the year.

Throughout the 20th century, the structure and scope of the drug organizations can be seen to grow and evolve in reaction to critical historical junctures. The roots of the criminal enterprises can be traced to the early markets spawned from Chinese immigration and opium demand. Initially a minor smuggling trade, the developments of the 20th century in the United States introduced new opportunities for criminality through political agendas and social revolution. Moreover, it is fair to assess that policies and politics on both sides of the border often served to facilitate expansion. The product of this expansion was a steady transformation from low-tier traffickers and smuggling rings to complex associations of state actors, gangs, kingpins, and cartels leading into the 21st century. 

In the following section, I will further expound on the dynamic shift that continued directly prior to and during President Calderón’s six year term as well as briefly examine the developments of the major drug syndicates (stemming from the initial plaza system established under El Padrino). Following this examination, I will begin discussion of the concepts of old model and new model classifications of Mexican drug organizations, citing the evolution and eventual devolution of the cartel model and delving in to the parallel phenomenon of diversification of criminal activities and illicit markets.

The Transformation of Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations

When Felipe Calderón took Presidential office in December of 2006, the nature of the relationship between the government and drug trafficking organizations was already drastically different from that of the previous century. In the case of the PRI regime, corruption throughout all levels of government had sustained a party-wide system of control over drug trafficking organizations via an institutionalized structure of tacit rules. As explained in Section I, this system allowed for the PRI to control and contain, to an extent, the operational capacity of individuals and/or organizations in the illicit economy. Towards the end of the century, however, this control was crippled through radical governmental transformation starting in the mid-90s under Zedillo. The changing political landscape that had begun with Zedillo’s reforms and created conditions for the presidency of Vincente Fox thus formed a paradox: more political freedom ultimately resulted in weakened state capacity. Under Fox, new efforts targeting governmental corruption—which can be seen through reforms such as the immediate creation of the Comisión Intersecretarial para la Transparencia y el Combate a la Corrupción (CITCC)—further destabilized informal governmental regulatory practices. A democratization of government and increasing public acknowledgement of corruption under Fox, while seemingly progressive towards democratic ideals, was detrimental to governmental hegemony. It has been said that “the growth of drug organizations in concert with the weakening of the state had significantly enhanced the ability of the former to capture state agencies and personnel through massive payoffs.”[13]

With narcos attempting to maintain political footholds in the midst of rapid governmental overhaul, the relationships between federal, state, and municipal government were further complicated. The vertical integration of the illicit economy and profiteering under the PRI’s autocratic rule had given way to a fragmentation of political power along vertical and horizontal lines; and, at the same time, inter-agency conflict due to party rivalry was exacerbated by divisions created through corruption among personnel at all levels. To borrow from John Bailey, the complex political discordance during this period of democratization can be attributed to “competitive state-making” practices involving “the struggle by state and civil society actors attempting to foster formal legality against de facto powers acting to avoid or bend the law to their interests.”[14] Acting as a de facto power, the more powerful drug trafficking organizations—which will be discussed later—worked to shape emergent democracy in their favor as much as other politically influential organizations.

The transition from an old model of collaboration to a new model of competition between government and drug trafficking organizations was therefore indicated by the shift in protocol under the Fox administration. In these formative years, the epochal transition was evidenced in both wide-spread governmental instability and an increase in cartel violence. The six years of Fox’s regime can, in this way, be viewed as a period of transition characterized by strategic repositioning on both sides of the law. However, the declaration of war on the cartels by President Calderón in 2006 can be seen as the critical moment in rapidly transforming the political modus operandi. In 2005, Fox had begun the escalation of federal intervention by directing 1,500 army soldiers and federal police into Nuevo Laredo.[15] In contrast, Calderón deployed more than 27,000 federal police and army personnel to eight states within the first three months of his administration.[16] Calderón’s implementation of the “kingpin strategy” further contributed to this dynamic shift.

Conceived in the 1990s by the DEA and employed against Colombian traffickers, the kingpin strategy was designed to cripple and take apart the largest drug trafficking organizations. Through organized targeting of vulnerabilities, such as finances, communications, transportation, and leadership structure, the DEA aimed to systematically attack and destroy organizations such as the Medellín.[17] The replication of the strategy by Calderón’s administration led to numerous arrests of high-ranking members of the major cartels. By 2012, the administration stated that it had taken out two-thirds of Mexico’s 37 most wanted criminals employing kingpin tactics.[18] Despite these statistics, Calderón’s six-year militarization of governmental operations against the cartels had major repercussions. One such consequence was a massive spike in the level of violence linked to the narcos due to increased pressure and instability. Between 2007 and 2012, the rate of killings increased steadily “averaging 56 people per day” which was “double the daily average during the previous term of Vicente Fox.”[19] By the end of six and a half years, “at least 130,000 Mexicans [had] been murdered and another 27,000 [had] officially disappeared”.[20]

When Enrique Peña Nieto came to office in December 2012, he had maintained a platform that proposed an alternative to the warlike approach of Calderón. His security strategy was constructed around the premise of forming a gendarmerie (proposed paramilitary force). Theoretically, this group would be composed of around 40,000 former soldiers with the objective of removing the military from policing operations by creating a competent alternative force. However, the actuality of its operationalization in recent years has proven to be underwhelming. Less than a year after Peña Nieto’s inauguration, the number of proposed forces shrunk drastically from 40,000 to 5,000 and their promised autonomy was replaced with the planned incorporation of the force under the federal police.[21] The force did not operationalize until September of last year.[22]

In what seems to be an effort to circumvent security headlines, the Peña Nieto administration has appeared reticent to bring issues pertaining to corruption or the drug trafficking organizations into national/international rhetoric. As expressed in an Economist article last November, “on paper, Mr. Peña has a grand crime-prevention strategy [however] his real efforts have been focused on the economy.”[23] While some have cited gradually dropping murder rates as a sign of improvement, the fact remains that the Peña Nieto administration has seen an increase in both kidnappings and extortion.[24] Although the current government has been largely successful in muting the security problems in the media realm, the kidnapping and murder of 43 student teachers in Iguala last year is but one indication of the reality of the present situation.[25]

In examining these realities and the fundamental changes accompanying them, the new model of Mexican drug trafficking organizations decentralization and diversification can begin to be understood. When Calderón took office in December 2006, the four major drug trafficking organizations in Mexico considered to be the most powerful were the Tijuana/Arellano Felix organization (AFO), the Sinaloa cartel, the Juárez/Vicente Carillo Fuentes organization (CFO), and the Gulf cartel.[26] At the time, these drug trafficking organizations appeared to have established secure footholds in their respective regions, having endured the initial phases and messy progression towards democratization. Through the pressures spawned by Calderón’s new wave of reforms, and subsequent struggles for power amongst the principal cartels, the dominance of these organizations was short-lived. Within several years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began to recognize that there were then seven primary organizations: including Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Tijuana/AFO, Juárez/CFO, Beltrán Leyva, Gulf, and La Familia Michoacana.[27]

By the end of Calderón’s administration, the involvement of federal forces and increase in violence among drug trafficking organizations had contributed to a continued fracturing of these organizations and an increase in diversification of criminal enterprises (which will be visited in the next section). At the time, the number of drug trafficking organizations had become indeterminate. Following the end of the Calderón’s administration in December 2012, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam estimated that there were “between 60 and 80 [groups]” operating throughout Mexico, including smaller and medium tier gangs.[28] While this number was arguably higher than most estimates at the time, it serves a purpose in illustrating the mounting complexity of the situation.

Though the PRI reclaimed the presidency in December 2012, the revolution of the political landscape in Mexico had completely eliminated any chance at a return to the old system. In the first few years of Peña Nieto’s presidency, this trend towards militarization and fragmentation has continued. It would appear that the political glossing-over of the ongoing violence and corruption is symptomatic of a larger problem—the changing nature of the Mexican cartel model. The proliferation of competing drug trafficking organizations marks a new era of militarization and further break down of government control. As demonstrated in the following figure, the impact of Calderón’s war and the shifting conduct of drug trafficking organizations have resulted in further decentralization continuing into the Peña Nieto administration:

Figure 1 Cartel Fragmentation over Time[29]

As is made clear in the figure, the splintering of previously stable organizations has resulted in an accrual of competing groups. While hegemons remain among the groups—most prominently the Sinaloa and Zeta organizations—the transformation from an old model to a new model era is evident. In assessing the distinct differences in the structural and operational variables which have characterized Mexican state and criminal organizations before and after democratization, the contrast between the two models becomes clear. These stark differences between the old and new model variables are illustrated below:

Table 2 Old Model vs. New Model Comparison[30]

As indicated in the table, during the previous century a level of cooperation between criminal organizations and the state had been maintained under the PRI. Through national profit-taking, the illicit economy was contained. Homogeneity allowed the state to enforce policies and coordinate action effectively throughout federal, state, and municipal agencies. With coercive power in the hands of the state, the economic value of drug trafficking was held in check and drugs were kept largely exterior to domestic markets. In this sense, criminal elements were subordinate to the state. Though violence existed, it was historically tolerated to the extent that it remained confined and out of the headlines. The stability brought about by state-backing in this arrangement was largely responsible for a low level of militarization despite high levels of corruption.

At the turn of the last century, the Mexican state lost this foothold. The change in political leadership and end to the PRI regime eliminated any prospect for further national profit-taking. With the advent of rapid democratization, stemming from the new multi-party system, an entirely new model was spawned. The loss of the security provided by the PRI regime resulted in a loss of stability for criminal organizations and militarization was consequently increased. Following the onset of multi-party politics, intrastate rivalries and bureaucratic destabilization crippled the state’s ability to contain the violence and, ultimately, the reach of the illicit economy. As a result of this political shift, the expansion of criminal economic enterprises has given rise to violent acts perpetuated against Mexican citizenry and questions of sovereignty in cartel-occupied territories. The following section will provide an overview of this increase in illicit economic practices in the new model, in contrast to that of the older model.

Section III - Criminal Expansion and the Growth of the Mexican Illicit Economy

As explained in Section II, the transition from old model to new model structures of Mexican drug trafficking organizations was apparent by 2006 and was solidified with the declaration of war by President Calderón. To understand the distinction that I have made between the two models, it is important to recognize the defining modus operandi which separates them. These differing models of organization can be seen primarily in the operational structures and criminal economic practices which have characterized the two eras. Having discussed the political practices of the cartels under both models in Section II, I will now examine the associated illicit economic enterprises of each model to illustrate the evolution and subsequent diversification of markets over time.

The Mexican drug market, which has been covered in Section I, grew and expanded over time. Like all markets, this expansion into new drugs was driven by opportunities created via supply and demand; which, as illustrated in Section I, were repeatedly generated through political and social changes both internal and external to the Mexican state. These changes fueled the growth of the old model up through the end of the 20th century, as control of the cocaine market eventually propelled the drug trafficking organizations to an unprecedented status in the American hemisphere.

This status, as demonstrated in Section II, tipped the balance of power in favor of the criminal enterprises following the revolutionary political overhaul that occurred at the end of the century and signaled the beginning of the end for the old model. Without the old system of political checks on the drug trade, the ability of the government to maintain a general hold on the illicit economy deteriorated. In this way, state capacity was diminished while the capacity of drug trafficking organizations was on the rise. While the old model of criminality had relied almost exclusively on drugs for income, the new model criminal organizations have massively expanded the illicit economy far beyond that of the drug trade.

In the 21st century, the status of drugs as a primary source of income for many of the major cartels/criminal organizations in Mexico has largely persisted. While it is difficult to determine exactly how much money is being made in the drug trade, the government has released multiple estimated figures in recent years. A study conducted in 2014 by the RAND Corporation for the U.S. government calculated that drug users in the United States alone spent around $100 billion annually on cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines between 2000 and 2010.[31] In 2009, the annual National Drug Threat Assessment Summary projected that Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations were managing to “generate, remove, and launder between $18 billion and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually.”[32] Using these projected numbers, it is fair to expect, at the minimum, that the organizations have continued to reap multi-billion dollar profits in drug money each year north of the border.

Yet, despite the fact that drug trafficking and cultivation continues to generate large amounts of income for drug trafficking organizations, the expansion of the illicit economy through a diverse set of criminal practices is what distinguishes the new model from that of practices pre-2000. The new model expansion of criminal economic practices is evident in many areas of the Mexican regulated, informal, and illicit economy. To demonstrate this diversification in the economic operations of new model drug trafficking organizations, I have compiled a brief overview of some of these evolving practices. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it examines many of the major areas which have been significantly documented as being infiltrated by Mexican criminal elements.

A. Oil

Mexico’s state owned oil company Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos) has maintained a monopoly on the oil and gas sector in the country since 1958. Starting in 2000, complaints regarding increased instances of fuel theft began to be formally lodged by Pemex. From 2000 to the present day, these instances of theft increased significantly and have become a cause for major concern. The act of clandestine siphoning, or “milking,” the gas pipelines which are spread throughout the entire country has come to result in Pemex losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year.[33] This loss signifies a major hit to both the company as well as the state which yields nearly 1/3 of its annual tax budget from revenue generated through the oil company.[34]

The oil thefts, though initially credited solely to small elements of the Zeta cartel, had been reported to have occurred against pipelines in all 31 Mexican states by 2009.[35] The areas hardest hit by the theft have consistently been those with high cartel presence; examples of which include: Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Sinaloa, Mexico (state), and Jalisco.[36] Although the Zeta and Gulf Cartels appear to be the primary perpetrators, operations have also become common in areas owned by the Sinaloa organization. Despite efforts to quell the growing rates of theft, the documented instances of theft have continued to rise to record highs in recent years. This rise has been attributed to difficulties for the drug trade as well as mounting corruption within Pemex itself. Over the last decade, there have been over 97 Pemex employees and 10 contractors officially linked to the clandestine siphoning of oil.[37] This widespread corruption, coupled with a progressive increase in occurrences of theft, has prompted the state to provide military transport for Pemex workers on both targeted and routine maintenance procedures. In a recent effort to combat thefts, Pemex has made the decision in February 2015 to halt all transportation of refined oil through the pipelines in the hope that the unprocessed resource will be less valuable to criminals—how this tactic will affect the rates of thievery remains to be seen.[38]

B. Mining

In 2010, the state of Michoacán began experiencing illegal extractions from its iron ore mines. The extractions, conducted by the Knights Templar (a descendant organization of La Familia Michoacana), have continually been exported to China through the key port of Lázaro Cárdenas.[39] As the organization continued to involve itself in iron ore, it reportedly enveloped the entire chain: extraction, transportation, and exportation. The most significant indicator of this escalation in control came about between 2012 and 2013 when ore exports to China radically increased from an estimated 1-1.5 million tons in the previous year to over 4 million tons by October of the following.[40] By 2014, this rapid increase in control had forced the Federal government to send in military troops to occupy Lázaro Cárdenas in an effort to suppress the cartel’s export capacity which has since noticeably diminished in response to the military blockade.

Though the Knights Templar were originally formed out of a drug trafficking organization, the Mexican federal government has supported the belief that drug trafficking does not even rank among the cartel’s top sources of income—with iron ore topping out that list at its peak.[41] The case of the Knights Templar appears to be the first of its kind with regards to cartel infiltration of the mining industry in Mexico. It is important to note, however, that the Sinaloa organization has been suspected to be involved in illegal mining enterprises external to the Mexican state for several years.[42]

C. Bulk Theft

In recent years, the rate of cargo hijacking of trucks and trains has increased significantly throughout Mexico. Between 2008 and 2011, it was reported that assaults on cargo trucks alone had produced a loss of $5 billion pesos (approximately $380 million), with many of the incidents credited to associates of the Zeta and La Familia cartels.[43] Unsurprisingly, the hijackings have been shown to occur most frequently in areas with high cartel presence (i.e. regions in Central Mexico, the Gulf coast, and the northeast).[44] The cargo targeted by the thieves has been shown to vary regionally, with electronic thefts occurring at a higher rate in metropolitan areas in the center of the country while metal-related shipments are targeted more generally in the north; although high-value items and food have been targeted universally due to the ease at which they can be resold.[45] Concerns regarding internal corruption are also prevalent. The Mexican magazine Proceso publicized that 15% of investigated reported robberies had revealed some level of collusion between cargo truck operators/employees and thieves.[46] Due to the unsafe conditions for drivers and sustained annual losses suffered in recent years, many companies have curtailed their operational routes while others have closed their businesses altogether.

D. Clone Goods

The market for pirated goods in Mexico has long existed as a component of the informal economy. Known as “Los Ambulantes” or “Vagoneros,” vendors of counterfeit goods were historically afforded protection from the PRI through a system of bribery (similar to that enjoyed by drug smugglers).[47] In the 21st century, however, this operational autonomy has begun to dissolve with the encroachment of the drug trafficking organizations into the market of counterfeit goods. With early reports indicating a street taxation of vendors within cartel-dominated areas (a form of extortion that will be visited later in this section), many of the drug trafficking organizations have moved to the production as well as taxation and sale of items. The three cartels most notably associated with the expansion into counterfeit goods in recent years have been La Familia Michoacana, Sinaloa, and Los Zetas. In 2009, the Mexican Attorney General estimated that the revenues from La Familia’s sophisticated network for distributing counterfeit movies, music, and software was potentially yielding more than $2 million a day.[48] The lucrative nature of the business has seemingly spurred the increase in cartel exploitation of the market, with groups going so far as to brand their own pirated merchandise.[49]

E. Human Trafficking

In the late 1990s, cartels had visibly begun to move into the human smuggling sector through the taxation of ‘coyotajes.’[50] After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the tightening of U.S. border security made human smuggling more difficult and drug trafficking organizations began to be more extensively involved—using existing drug routes to transport human cargo. Today, the presence of cartels in human trafficking is wide-ranging. As indicated in a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, Los Zetas and other drug trafficking organizations have had an increasing role.[51] According to an assessment released by the Texas Department of Public Safety last year, “Mexican cartels facilitate, control, or benefit from nearly all human smuggling activity along the Texas-Mexico border.”[52] This level of involvement has also grown to involve sex trafficking as well. In 2013, the regional head for the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women and Girls in Latin America claimed that 70% of the sex trafficking cases seen by the group each year had been linked to drug trafficking organizations.[53] This expansion into sex trafficking is not the only outgrowth of the human trafficking model. It is important to recognize that in many cases human smuggling not only involves the transportation of illegal migrants but can involve extortion, forced labor (i.e. using expertise, sexual practices, drug muling), and ransoming of individuals. Moreover, there has also been speculation that cartels have expanded into organ trafficking but there is no definitive evidence available outside of a single isolated incident relating to La Familia Michoacana.[54]

F. Kidnapping

The nature of kidnappings in Mexico has been completely transformed in recent years. While in the past kidnappings generally involved the relative of an extremely wealthy individual for seven-digit ransoms, the kidnappings occurring now have shown that members of middle and lower socioeconomic status are becoming high frequency targets. In 2013, there were 1,583 kidnappings officially reported to Mexican police in the first 11 months—having quadrupled since 2007.[55] Although these statistics themselves appear to be significant, many have disputed the numbers released to the public due to the low level of reporting and exclusion of “virtual” and “express” kidnapping from these numbers, arguing that the amounts could be up to 10 to 15 times higher.[56] Express kidnapping, which involves kidnapping a target and then giving a 24-hour window for a usually smaller ransom, has become a modus operandi in many areas.[57] Additionally, virtual kidnappings, which involve calling a victim and claiming that a family member is being held and demanding ransom without actually having a hostage, have also been reported more frequently.[58]

As shown in a 2011 Mexican congressional report, more than a fifth of all kidnappings have to some extent involved corrupt police or soldiers which adds to the underreporting. With low levels of reporting, it is difficult to ascertain how many real kidnappings have occurred each year as well as who perpetrates them, although the regions with the highest kidnapping rates are somewhat telling (with a high concentration of reports coming out of cartel-dominated regions). It is also important to note that the kidnappings have not been limited to Mexican citizenry. At the end of 2014, the FBI had received 200 reported kidnappings of U.S. citizens in Mexico, contributing to sustained travel advisory warnings.[59]

G. Extortion and Street Taxation

Around 2008, extortion rates in Mexico began to increase sharply. The National Citizen’s Observatory in Mexico quoted a 180% increase in extortion reports in the decade leading up to 2012.[60] The primary methods of extortion by drug trafficking organizations have been classified as virtual, direct, and indirect:

Table 3 Extortion Typology[61]

While reported statistics do not generally typify, the increase in overall occurrences is apparent, as in 2013 when 8,042 cases of extortion were reported.[62] It is essential to keep in mind that most are not reported, with a 2012 study estimating that 97.8% of all extortions were never conveyed to authorities.[63] The extent of extortion has reached extremes, with many of the largest remaining drug organizations having been implicated. In Michoacán, the Knights Templar organization was estimated to be making around 2 billion pesos ($152 million) in 2013 alone off of its extortion practices which had dominated local agriculture.[64]

In sum, the impact of the expansion of the illicit economy under the new model structure on legitimate businesses has been enormous. In 2014, the leader of the Mexican employers association Coparmex claimed that “37 percent of Mexican companies had been victims of crimes including extortion, corruption, robbery of merchandise or kidnapping.”[65] While this number cannot be easily corroborated, especially with rampant underreporting of crimes, the trend towards growing cartel control and influence is undisputable. In observing this trend, it is important to consider the connection between the growing illicit economy and levels of state control which operate inversely against one another. Put simply, if the illicit economy is expanding, state capacity is likely diminishing.

Section IV - A Question of Sovereignty

As illustrated in Section II and III, there has been a definitive shift in the operational capacities of Mexican gangs and cartels following the onset of democratization (which I have characterized under the old model/new model typology). This shift has altered the role of these organizations in Mexico’s political and economic spheres which has fundamentally changed in favor of expanding criminal influence. With such large-scale operations in place, the controls imposed by cartels in major regions have prompted numerous claims that the diminished state capacity is indicative of a failed state in Mexico. While I do not believe that the current situation in Mexico warrants the label of a full-fledged failed state, the growing influence of the criminal syndicates poses a legitimate threat to Mexican state sovereignty.

The expansion of political influence and the illicit economy in the new model era is indicative of a substantial shift in power in favor of criminal enterprise. What could once be classified as a virtually symbiotic relationship between the PRI government and criminal entities has now become parasitic in nature. Unlike the old model structure of cooperation and state control, the new model structure is corrosive, with corruption permeating into the very institutions which once held it in check. This section will examine the impact of the growing cartel influence on state capacity through an analysis of indirect and direct criminal capture of state functionalities; concluding with an overview of state failures in the democratization process.

Economic Expansion and State Capture

As explained in Section III, the diversification of the illicit economy under the new model has resulted in increases and expansions into numerous criminal activities. These developments have been shown to include the clandestine extraction of state resources, bulk theft, production of clone goods, human and sex trafficking, kidnapping in various forms, and widespread extortion through varying methods. The diffusion of the cartels into these illicit markets is concerning in that several of the growing operations are fundamentally state functionalities—especially in the areas of extraction/control of state resources and street taxation/extortion. In assuming control of state resources and operations such as the mining and oil industry, the cartels have essentially taken over previously state-owned markets. This expansion has spawned both direct and indirect threats to state sovereignty—displacing state functionalities through criminal enterprise as well as elevating the need for involvement in local politics.

The link between criminal market takeover and state capture has been recognized by government officials. In 2009, Mexican federal lawmaker Eduardo Mendoza Arellano, who headed a national energy committee, remarked that “the Zetas are a parallel government … they practically own vast stretches of the pipelines from the highway to the very door of the oil companies.”[66] The claim that criminal organizations are working as parallel governments is a serious one, but the current situation does not rebut this notion. While the change in cartel operational structure has yielded serious economic impacts, the impacts on state sovereignty appear much more detrimental. With increases in extortion rates, the expanding prevalence of narco street taxation has gone so far as to directly infringe upon the government’s capability to administer legitimate taxation. The reported 818 percent increase in extortions in Mexico between 1997 and 2013 makes the case for governmental control a hard sell.[67] In 2011, security analysts from Mexico City claimed that “criminal groups [were] more effective at collecting ‘taxes’ than Tamaulipas’ own government.”[68] In the face of criminal extortion, individuals and businesses have altogether refused or not even bothered to continue to pay a federal tax on top of payments made to criminal organizations.[69]

In this way, the narcos have, in some regions, supplanted state taxation altogether. This phenomenon has serious implications. By paying taxes to criminal organizations in lieu of the federal government, the violence threatened by criminal elements has effectively been legitimized over the violence controlled by the Mexican state. In applying the oft-recited Weberian classification of a state, which holds that a state is defined by the “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” complications surrounding the idea of complete sovereignty in Mexico become immediately apparent.[70] Though this theoretical conception of state sovereignty does not necessarily dictate the status of Mexico’s authority, the fact that the Mexican federal government lacks the capability to enforce the law in a multitude of regions throughout its sovereign space poses a direct threat to state legitimacy.

Having lost control of the means to coercion in these areas, the economic expansion of criminal organizations under the new model has inhibited—and in some cases replaced—the role of the government. By doing so, the diversification of the illicit economy has become tantamount to state capture in certain regions. The extremity of this situation can be prominently seen in states with deep-seated criminal hegemons. For example, in the state of Michoacán, a 2010 study found that eighty-five per cent of legitimate businesses in Michoacán were involved in some way with the La Familia organization.[71] More recently, however, the fluctuating control of larger criminal organizations has given further rise to varied forms of criminality (like those addressed in Section III).

With the increasing fragmentation of criminal organizations, decentralization has spawned a continually larger threat to municipal government. While traditional cartels have splintered into smaller groups, the collapse of regional cartel footholds has created provincial networks of uncoordinated/competing organizations. What were once larger networks under powerful hegemons such as the Gulf Cartel and Sinaloa Federation are now becoming more dispersed as newer groups have been created throughout previously dominated territories. Although powerful criminal hegemons do still exist and operate throughout key states, the complexity of the situation is growing. As represented below in an outline prepared by STRATFOR, regional control is becoming more complex as the number of smaller organizations has increased:

Figure 2 Areas of Cartel Influence 2015[72]

Due to the fact that the narcos have diversified their economic operations in the new model era, the need for control over local institutions has come to be progressively more important in maintaining new revenue streams. As a result, Mexico’s institutions have been permeated by criminal organizations as “drug cartels are taking over chunks of government apparatus, from local police forces to city and state governments.”[73] In the pursuit of alternative sources of income, this need for control has created a need for direct influence on local politics which has precipitated both corruption and violence at a municipal level. A study headed by prominent scholar Edgardo Buscaglia in 2012 found that approximately 71.5% of government municipalities were influenced in some way by criminal organizations—a number which was revised to 77% late last year.[74] This level of corruption in local government is extremely problematic in that Mexico has around 2,500 municipalities which serve as primary enforcers of the law in their respective localities.[75]

With the first layer of law enforcement compromised in many areas, the federal government has been left to attempt to regulate widespread corruption with the limited resources at its disposal. In the event that criminal incidents do manage to warrant federal/state intervention, police forces are regularly detained or suspended as part of an investigation due to such high levels of corruption. A recent example can be found in January of this year when the entirety of the Medellín de Bravo police department in the state of Veracruz was questioned in the disappearance of journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo.[76] Thus, the increased targeting of municipal governments by criminal organizations has added to the fracturing between federal, state, and local agencies in spawning dissonance among levels of government.

Failures in the Democratic Process

Unchecked violence against municipal political leaders and law enforcement is a further indicator of this breakdown in governmental authority and direct criminal involvement in the electoral process. From 2006 to 2011, 25 mayors were assassinated by criminal organizations nationally.[77] In the 18 months between the start of 2013 and July of 2014, 16 mayors were murdered with the highest instances coming from the states of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas.[78] In most cases, these killings of public officials have yielded few consequences for the perpetrators who have enjoyed relative impunity. This is unsurprising considering Mexico’s abhorrently low conviction rate which was cited at 2% per crime committed by the Justice in Mexico organization in 2012.[79] Though federal and state officials have also been targeted by criminal violence, as seen in the death of Congressman Gabriel Gomez late last year, these rates are exceedingly lower than that of attacks on municipal leaders.[80] The prolific assassination rates of elected officials are a serious affront to the authority of the government and to the democratic process as a whole.

When elected representatives are bribed or deposed by criminal groups, the entire system suffers. In many cases, the threat of violence alone has been enough to deter politicians who lack cartel favor from entering municipal elections in several states. During the 2012 elections, for example, Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) candidates refused to contest the municipalities of Villaldama, Anáhuac, Vallecillo, Parás, Lampazos, Ocampo, China and Hualahuises in Nuevo León due to threats of violence from criminal organizations.[81] In the 2013 elections, this issue was repeated with the PRD unable to field candidates in the municipalities of Canelas, Tamazula, San Pedro del Gallo, Hidalgo, Otáez, and San Bernardo in Durango.[82] Similarly, the PAN could not find candidates willing to register in San Bernardo or Indé.[83]

The expansion of the illicit economic practices of criminal organizations under the new model structure has thus had both a direct and indirect impact on Mexican state sovereignty. Diversification has led to incursions into state functionalities, through such practices as extortion and clandestine resource extraction, which have had an indirect impact on state efficacy. Additionally, the growth of domestic criminal operations has prompted unprecedented measures of direct criminal involvement in local government by means of corruption and violence. The consequence of these impacts can be seen in the frustrations of Mexican citizens. In a 2011 survey, a quarter of respondents declared that they would be willing to “vote for candidates related to drug trafficking in order to establish peace and security.”[84] In December of last year, Peña Nieto’s approval rating had reportedly declined to 39 percent—the lowest of any Mexican President since the economic crisis of the mid-1990s.[85] These numbers should not be taken lightly.

The implications of a populace willing to embrace corruption in light of perceived governmental failures are tremendously unnerving. Criminal organizations operating with impunity have caused alternatives to government enforcement to be sought out by Mexican citizenry. A proliferation of Mexican vigilante groups occurring in recent years has added another factor into the equation of violence. In August of 2013, vigilante groups had sprung up in at least 13 different states and over 68 municipalities.[86] This number had swelled by 2014 with groups claiming an estimated 20,000 members.[87] Met with the difficult dilemma in assessing how to deal with legal implications surrounding these militia groups, the Peña Nieto administration has attempted to regulate the groups through incorporation. Early in 2014, vigilante defense forces (fuerzas autodefensas) in Michoacán were officially co-opted into the Rural Defense Corps; a pre-existing sub-section of the military which had historically been constructed to allow ‘rurales’ (armed volunteers) to supplement policing in isolated rural municipalities.[88]

The official recognition of these groups by the government further exemplifies the deterioration of sovereignty at the municipal level. Since their inception, the extralegal status of many of the paramilitary groups has caused concerns over authority. Moreover, intergroup violence has often occurred—usually following allegations of criminal penetration/control of one group by another. A clash between rival defense groups in Michoacán last December left eleven vigilantes dead.[89] Abuses committed against Mexican citizens and police forces by vigilante groups have also been frequently reported. The funding of the vigilante groups through the collection of ‘protection fees’ from Mexican citizens is also concerning in that the line between extortion and security payments appears thin—with the vigilante system resembling that of the criminal model.[90]

The addition of the vigilantes to the equation in Mexico further complicates the problem faced by the state in controlling violence. With the consideration of the role of vigilante groups, the violence occurring throughout the state has been conceptualized by Irina Chindea into five separate relationships: [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; and [5] violence among the general population.[91] In municipalities hardest hit by this violence, the absence of governmental control appears to have produced an environment of almost Hobbesian character creating a war of ‘all against all.’[92] With respect to state sovereignty, the loss of governmental control over criminal violence has therefore led to something between a functioning state and state failure in regions throughout Mexico.

Conclusion

As demonstrated in this work, the cause for contemporary failures in Mexican state control can be traced to a legacy of autocratic governance and embedded corruption. At the turn of the century, the loss of federal autonomy broke the institutional hold of the PRI government over criminal entities. The result has been a transition from an old to new model structure in the operations of Mexico’s criminal organizations characterized by the expansion of illicit economic practices and criminal political influence. In this new model expansion, criminal organizations have evolved far beyond the scope of traditional drug trafficking operations and now pose an increasingly serious threat to Mexican state sovereignty. A shift from a primarily international focus to an incorporation of varied illicit domestic markets has brought about a new era of regional destabilization.

This weakening equates to a general loss of Mexican state capacity and a failure to perform basic governmental functions—of which some have been replaced by criminal elements. To borrow from Charles Tilly, a state’s primary functions can be broken down into four principal parts:

“1. War making: Eliminating or neutralizing their own rivals outside the territories in which they have clear and continuous priority as wielders of force 2. State making: Eliminating or neutralizing their rivals inside those territories 3. Protection: Eliminating or neutralizing the enemies of their clients 4. Extraction: Acquiring the means of carrying out the first three activities – war making, state making, and protection.”[93]

In assessing these functions, the parallels between the role of the state and the operations of criminal organizations under the new model structure become readily apparent. When considering each of the four roles listed above, it is clear from this work that all have been carried out to some degree by criminal organizations in Mexico—and, in some cases, carried out more successfully than by the Mexican government.

The multiplicity of challenges posed to the Mexican state is daunting. Though it is clear that the political apparatus in Mexico is greatly flawed, the question of what can be done to address the problems faced by the state is extremely complex. An abundance of scholarly policy recommendations has so far done little to aid the state in significantly curbing new model expansion and criminal state capture or reclaiming a monopoly on violence at a regional level. The reality of the situation is that, irrespective of the passage of constructive legislation, Mexico currently lacks the institutional capacity to effectuate comprehensive reform. Therein lies the crux of the problem.

To combat the corrosive nature of criminal organizations in the new model era, a strengthening of institutions and governmental accord is critical. A legacy of top-down governmental control in Mexico has contributed to a vertical fracturing between federal/state and local government, leaving municipalities vulnerable. The absence of cohesion between branches and levels of government, impunity, and interagency distrust is symptomatic of the greater problem faced by the Mexican state: democratization has not been fully realized. Institutional permeability at the local level has allowed corruption to dominate despite significant federal attempts to cleanse corruption. As such, the top-down approach is no longer viable. Efforts to contribute to the strengthening of state capacity are therefore an extremely viable and necessary first step in working to regain governmental sovereignty. Current projects initiated by organizations working to assess and fortify institutional capacity are on the right track however there is much more work which needs to be done throughout all levels of government.[94] Without major institutional reform, the prospects for an end to criminal violence and regional control are grim. Mexico’s future currently hangs in the balance between governmental legitimacy and regional state failure; the longer that new model trends are allowed to persist, the more difficult it will be to tip back the scale.

End Notes

Excerpts from this work were originally published in the University of California, Riverside Undergraduate Research Journal (2015) in an article entitled “Old and New Governmental-Criminal Relationships in Mexico.”

[1] Ioan Grillo, El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, 2011, p. 35.

[2] Many historians have noted that the United States government more than likely played a key role in the rapid expansion of the Mexican opium trade during the 1940s as Asian/Turkish opium supplies for military-grade morphine were cut off by the Germans and Japanese during WWII and alternative sources were sought out. However, there has been no definitive evidence to date and U.S. officials largely deny the existence of such an agreement.

[3] Richard Nixon, Executive Order 11727—Drug Law Enforcement, July 6, 1973.

[4] See the official U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration “History in Depth 1980-1985” at http://www.dea.gov/about/history/1980-1985.pdf.

[5] Ioan Grillo, El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, 2011, p. 64.

[6] The information used to construct this table was taken from Malcolm Beith’s The Last Narco, 2010, p. 47 and George W. Grayson, The Cartels, 2014, p. 67.

[7] For more on the death of Pablo Escobar, see Mark Bowden’s Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, 2001.

[8] Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, 1987 (Reissued 1989), p. 114.

[9] Shannon K. O’Neil, “The Real War in Mexico,” Foreign Affairs Journal, July/August 2009, p. 65.

[10] Ibid.

[11] David Luhnow and Jose de Cordoba, “The Perilous State of Mexico,” The Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2009.

[12] The specific start date of the cartel turf war is generally unknown and has been presented by historians with conflicting dates ranging between 2003-2006. I have chosen to begin my narrative with the outbreak of violence in Nuevo Laredo in 2004.

[13] Stephen D. Morris, Political Corruption in Mexico, 2009, p. 74.

[14] John Bailey, The Politics of Crime in Mexico, 2014, p. 146.

[15] “Mexico: Fox’s Uphill Battle to Win the Drug War,” STRATFOR Global Intelligence Center, June 29, 2005.

[16] John Bailey, The Politics of Crime in Mexico, 2014, p. 145.

[17] For more on the kingpin strategy, see the official U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration “History in Depth 1990-1994” at http://www.dea.gov/about/history/1990-1994.pdf

[18] Richard Fausset, “Peña Nieto team decries past drug cartel strategy — and keeps it,” Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2012.

[19] Molly Molloy, “The Mexican Undead: Toward a New History of the ‘Drug War’ Killing Fields,” Small Wars Journal, August 21, 2013. These numbers are viewed as more accurate than the statistics released by the Mexican government in recent years which have been widely criticized as being construed to politically favor the current administration. For more on the inaccuracy of official government statistics, see “Más sobre los datos de Gobernación,” Animal Politico, April 23, 2013. An English translation can be viewed at: http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/mexico-violent-crime-numbers-add-up

[20] Ibid.

[21] Patrick Corcoran, “Mexico Security Under Enrique Peña Nieto, 1 Year Review,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, December 1, 2013.

[22] Sandra Dibble, “New gendarmerie in Baja California,” U-T San Diego, September 5, 2014.

[23] “Reforms and democracy, but no rule of law,” The Economist, November 15, 2014.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Nick Miroff, “Mass kidnapping of students in Iguala, Mexico, brings outrage and protests,” The Washington Post, October 11, 2014.

[26] June S. Beittel, “Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Violence,” Congressional Research Service, April 15, 2013, p. 9.

[27] Ibid, p. 10.

[28] Patrick Corcoran, “Mexico Has 80 Drug Cartels: Attorney General,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, December 20, 2012.

[29] Figure Source: Víctor Manuel Sánchez Valdés, “¿Organizaciones criminales más pequeñas = a menos violencia?,” Animal Politico,  October 28, 2014.

[30] Author’s elaboration.

[31] B. Kilmer et al., “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs: 2000-2010,” RAND Corporation, February 2014, p.103.

[32] “National Drug Threat Assessment 2009,” National Drug Intelligence Center U.S. Department of Justice, December 2008, p. 49.

[33] Clare Ribando Seelke et al., “Mexico’s Oil and Gas Sector: Background, Reform Efforts, and Implications for the United States,” Congressional Research Service, October 23, 2014, p. 3.

[34] Patrick Corcoran, “Oil Theft is Big Business for Mexican Gangs,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, March 20, 2012.

[35] Steve Fainaru and William Booth, “Widespread oil theft by drug traffickers deals major blow to Mexico’s government,” The Washington Post, December 13, 2009.

[36] James Bargent, “Oil and Gas Theft in Mexico Doubled in 2013,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, May 10, 2013.

[37] Kathryn Haahr, “Addressing the Concerns of the Oil Industry: Security Challenges in Northeastern Mexico and Government Responses,” Wilson Center Mexico Institute, January 2015, p. 11.

[38] “Amid wave of thefts, Mexico won’t ship gasoline in pipelines,” The Washington Post, February 2015.

[39] Kimberly Heinle et al., “Citizen Security in Michoacán,” Wilson Center Mexico Institute, January 2015, p.20.

[40] Dave Graham, “Chinese iron ore trade fuels port clash with Mexican drug cartel,” Reuters, January 1, 2014.

[41] E. Eduardo Castillo, “Mexico drug cartel makes more dealing iron ore,” U-T San Diego, March 16, 2014.

[42] The Colombian chief of police has made public allegations that the Sinaloa Cartel has been working with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to illegally exploit coltan. Coltan is an extremely valuable mineral which is produced in Colombia and used widely in the electronics industry. For more on this topic, see “Sinaloa Cartel Expands Influence in Colombia,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, March 2, 2011.

[43] Claire O’Neill McCleskey, “Cargo Hijacking Leads to Major Losses in Latin America,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, July 5, 2013.

[44] Mike Burke et al., “Cargo Loss Control in Mexico,” AIMU Cargo Loss Control Committee – Mexican Subcommittee, October 1, 2010.

[45] “2013 Global Cargo Theft Threat Assessment,” FreightWatch International Supply Chain Intelligence Center, p. 24.

[46] Patricia Dávila, “Transporte de carga: saqueo criminal sobre ruedas Proceso,” Proceso, November 17, 2012.

[47] Gregory F. Treverton et al., “Film Piracy, Organized Crime, and Terrorism,” RAND Corporation, 2009.

[48] Kamala D. Harris et al., “California and the Fight Against Transnational Organized Crime,” Office of the California Attorney General, March 2014, p. 52.

[49] For more on cartel branding see: Patrick Manning, “Drug Cartels Take Over Mexican Black Market,” Fox News Latino, August 22, 2012 and Ashlee Vance, “Chasing Pirates: Inside Microsoft’s War Room,” The New York Times, November 6, 2010.

[50] Coyotaje is a Mexican-spanish colloquial term used interchangeably with the term “pollero” to describe an individual who conducts human smuggling.

[51] June S. Beittel, “Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Violence,” Congressional Research Service, April 15, 2013, p. 7.

[52] “Assessing the Threat of Human Trafficking in Texas,” Texas Department of Public Safety, April 2014, p. 4.

[53] Charles Parkinson, “Drug Cartel Control Feeding Mexico Sex Trafficking,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, September 23, 2013.

[54] Michael Lohmuller, “Have the Knights Templar Diversified into Organ Trafficking?,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, March 18, 2014.

[55] Ioan Grillo, “Mexico’s Drug War Leads to Kidnappings, Vigilante Violence,” TIME Magazine, January 17, 2014.

[56] Marguerite Cawley, “Mexico Kidnappings Highest in 16 Years,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, September 16, 2013.

[57] Charles Regini, “Security Implications for Multinational Corporations Operating in Mexico,” CTC Sentinel, November 2012.

[58] “Secuestros virtuales aumentan en diciembre,” Azteca Noticias, December 18, 2012.

[59] Aaron Nelsen, “FBI warns travelers to Mexico of kidnapping risk,” San Antonio Express News, December 23, 2014.

[60] Tracy Wilkinson, “In Mexico, extortion is a booming offshoot of drug war,” Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2012.

[61] Typology constructed with ideas from Benjamin Locks, “Extortion in Mexico: Why Mexico’s Pain Won’t End with the War on Drugs,” Yale Journal of International Affairs, October 6, 2014.

[62] Mimi Yagoub, “Boom in Mexico Extortion Reflects Failing Govt Measures: Report,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, March 2, 2014.

[63] Ibid.

[64]David Iaconangelo, “Knights Templar, Mexican Drug Cartel, Makes $152M Per Year Extorting Michoacan Avocado Industry,” Reuters, January 14, 2014.

[65] Kyra Gurney, “Crime Costing Mexico Companies $5.8 Bn a Year,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, June 3, 2014.

[66] Steve Fainaru and William Booth, “Widespread oil theft by drug traffickers deals major blow to Mexico’s government,” The Washington Post, December 13, 2009.

[67] “Análisis de la extorsión en México 1997-2013 Retos y oportunidades,” Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano de Seguridad, February 2014.

[68] Julian Miglierini, “Tamaulipas: ‘Failed state’ in Mexico’s war on drugs,” BBC News, April 13, 2011.

[69] Alfredo Corchado, “Drug cartels taking over government roles in parts of Mexico,” The Dallas Morning News, April 30, 2011.

[70] Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, 1919 (Translated and republished 1958), p. 78.

[71] William Finnegan, “Silver or Lead,” The New Yorker, May 31, 2010.

[72] Figure taken from “In Mexico, the Delineation of Cartel Power Becomes More Complex,” STRATFOR Global Intelligence Center, January 22, 2015. 

[73] Ioan Grillo, “Mexico’s Deadly Narco-Politics,” The New York Times, October 9, 2014.

[74] See Doris Gómora, “Narco controla 71.5% de municipios del país,” El Universal, January 2, 2012 and  “Urge limpieza de policías y clase política: Buscaglia,” El Universal, October 10, 2014.

[75] Dave Graham, “Mexican police play havoc with president’s security pledge,” Reuters, November 14, 2014.

[76] “Mexican town’s entire police force detained over journalist disappearance,” The Guardian, January 6, 2015.

[77] Mark Stevenson, “Mexico: Drug Cartels Have Growing Stake In Mexican Politics,” The World Post, November 12, 2011.

[78] Patrick Corcoran, “Killing of Mexico Mayors Shows Political Aims of Organized Crime,” InSight Organized Crime in the Americas, July 9, 2014.

[79] “U.S. Anti-Drug Policy Transitions Away From Military Funding, Toward Justice Reform,” Justice in Mexico, September 19, 2012.

[80] “Kidnapped Mexican Congressman Gabriel Gomez killed,” BBC News, September 25, 2014.

[81] “Por miedo al crimen, PRD-NL sin candidatos a alcaldías,” La Razón, February 29, 2012.

[82] Sandra Ley, “Violence and Citizen Participation in Mexico: From the Polls to the Streets,” Wilson Center Mexico Institute, January 2015, p. 10.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Andreas Schedler, “The Criminal Subversion of Mexican Democracy,” Journal of Democracy, January 2014, p. 14.

[85] Jo Tuckman, “Mexican president’s ratings slump as outrage grows over missing student teachers,” The Guardian, December 2, 2014.

[86] Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph H. Espach, “The Rise of Mexico’s Self-Defense Forces,” Foreign Affairs Journal, July/August 2013.

[87] Randal C. Archibold and Paulina Villegas, “Vigilantes, Once Welcome, Frighten Many in Mexico,” The New York Times, February 24, 2014.

[88] Richard Fausset, “Mexico to bring Michoacan’s ‘self-defense’ groups into existing force,” Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2014.

[89] “Mexico vigilantes in deadly shoot-out in Michoacan,” BBC News, December 14, 2014.

[90] Nathan P. Jones, “Managing the self-defense forces in Michoacán,” James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, February 19, 2014.

[91] Taken from Irina Alexandra Chindea, “Man, The State and War Against Drug Cartels: A Typology of Drug-Related Violence in Mexico,” Small Wars Journal, March 18, 2014.

[92] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651 (Republished 2007), p.76.

[93] Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Peter Evans et al., Bringing the State Back In, 1985, p. 181.

[94] For example, the Justice in Mexico Project has undertaken a research initiative entitled “Justiciabarómetro” to analyze failures in the Mexican judicial system. For more on this project, see https://justiceinmexico.org/justiciabarometro-data/

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Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Khirin A. Bunker holds a Political Science B.A with honors from the University of California Riverside and an International Baccalaureate (IB) degree.  He has interned at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, SWJ El Centro, and a law firm and has studied abroad at the University of Cambridge, England.