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Mexican Cartel Op-Ed No. 5:
Vandals or Complex Criminal Networks in Mexico?
Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran and Luis Jorge Garay
This series provides a retrospective look at the first year of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Sexenio with comments on the prospects for 2014. These Op-Eds, numbered 1-7, are written by various SWJ El Centro fellows. Of note is the dynamic that we are witnessing between the criminal insurgent aspects of the conflict now raging in Mexico and the PRI administration’s focus on promoting the interests of the Mexican ruling class over the security and safety needs of the majority of its citizenry. RJB
Today, technological tools available for social scientists allow zooming in and out on criminal networks, improving the understanding of global characteristics and details of these phenomena. Tools such as Social Network Analysis, predictive analysis, and various data mining procedures constantly improve and reveal an increasing level of complexity of criminal networks around the world. It would be, therefore, expected that the understanding and awareness of those criminal networks would also increase, especially in countries like Mexico. However, sometimes governments do not discuss openly problems such as the presence and operation of a variety of criminal organizations, expecting to thereby preserve the international image of their countries.
Currently in Mexico converge some of the most complex criminal networks that operate in the Western Hemisphere, Western Africa, and parts of Europe. Their impacts reach formal and informal institutions inside and outside Mexico. Through different analytic procedures it has been possible to verify how municipal and state officials support criminal networks such as “La Familia Michoacana” and “Los Zetas,” providing information and security. The corruption of security officials and their links with crime is an old story in Mexico; however, for the first time in recent years, it has been possible for people outside agencies of intelligence to actually see and understand—through models of Social Network Analysis—the complexity of criminal organization.
These analyses have also revealed a high level of resilience, meaning that several subnetworks operating in different regions and countries, usually with different command structures, articulate entire criminal networks such as “La Familia and Los Zetas”. In practical terms, those networks do not consist of compact and hierarchical organizations.
However, after one year of the Peña Nieto administration, the Attorney General’s Office and institutions of the State and Federal government have pointed out that the State of Michoacan, for instance, was completely pacified. In November 2013, after several shootings and attacks to the public energy infrastructure, the Attorney General pointed out the complete control of the State, referring to the attacks as actions by “vandals”, not complex criminal organizations. Indeed, “vandals” looks less organized and complex than “criminal organizations” or “criminal networks”.
The Colombian government adopted a similar strategy when the Self-defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) demobilized some of its units between 2003 and 2006. Since criminal actions and co-optation of public institutions continued in several provinces where the paramilitary group operated, the government began referring those actions as committed by “Criminal Bands” and not by a paramilitary group, which gives the false idea that those structures are less organized and articulated than “criminal organizations” or a “National Self-defense Force”. However, today those criminal networks control drug trafficking and reproduce a massive process of corruption and co-optation of officials and public servants. Despite their name, those “Criminal Bands” operate with an amazing level of complexity incorporating different types of criminals and public servants.
It is unrealistic to expect dismantling a complex network such as “La Familia Michoacana” or “Los Zetas” in a matter of one year. Capturing the most visible leaders of the network can be achieved, as happened with “El Chango Mendez” in 2011, but usually it only generates evolution and changes inside the network. Those criminal networks operate through political, public, and private institutions; it is therefore necessary to implement political and institutional reforms and to apply effective internal controls inside police bodies when confronting them. It is currently unknown whether such reforms and controls are applied in a variety of local institutions in Mexico.
Today, the Mexican government does not mention “a war on drugs” or the institutional threats imposed by drug traffickers. Other issues such as economic and energy reforms attract the attention of the mass media and high-ranking authorities. This, and the reference to “vandals”, supports the false idea that Criminal Networks are not highly relevant in Mexico presently, although the everyday life of Mexicans outside Mexico City, in several states, is strongly influenced by the convergence of cooptation and confrontation between criminal networks, lawful forces, and emerging paramilitary groups.
Additionally, those networks, defined a few years ago as “Drug Trafficking Organizations”, today reach States outside Mexico and criminal markets beyond illegal drugs, such as trafficking of humans, ferrous material and hydrocarbon condensate, an expensive form of crude oil. But these types of criminal actions do not appear in the current discourse of Mexican authorities, which imposes obstacles for researching and understanding those situations. When authorities do not address the convergence of complex criminal networks, it produces the false impression that crime is sporadic and that formal institutions remain clean. In the long run, this false perception distorts domestic and transnational efforts for confronting complex crime.