Small Wars Journal

Five Ps for a Violence Reduction Strategy in Mexico (Part I)

Mon, 03/05/2012 - 6:13am

Click here to skip to comments.

Editor's Note: In the first installment of a three part series that will be published Monday, Wednesday, and Friday this week Guillermo Vázquez del Mercado Almada lays out the basis for his "five Ps" strategy for reducing violence in Mexico.  The first installment gives us a basis of understanding of organized crime in Mexico before he moves on to theoretical underpinnings of his ideas on Wednesday.  

Drug related violence is not new for Mexicans, especially those who have lived in northern states like Sinaloa or Chihuahua. Citizens living there know that violence was used by drug traffickers to enforce agreements and protect territories in a more or less constrained fashion. Don’t mess with them and they won’t mess with you, people used to say to explain the tacit agreement that existed between citizens and narcos. The latter is not applicable any more.

In just a couple of years, Mexico’s role as a major player in the world’s drug illicit market has undergone an evolution. In the 1990s, it was a country that held a handful of large criminal organizations strategically using violence to protect the production and smuggling routes; in recent years, however, more than a dozen organizations of different scopes use violence not only to protect the whole chain of drug market distribution (production, transportation, smuggling and domestic retail), but also in brutal and indiscriminate ways.

Mexico is a palpable example of how more than a century after the first International Conference on Opium was held in Shanghai, the laws of supply and demand for illegal drugs continue to take a heavy toll, one that, so far, no strategy has been able to defeat. After five years of the Mexican federal government implementing the National Security Strategy[1], the country is going through a high intensity crime phenomenon and violence is an all-time high, both of which are deeply affecting Mexican society. For this reason, taking in account some of the strategies and tactics that the federal government has been using, this paper will suggest a violence reduction strategy that is anchored in five Ps:

P1: what it is plausible to achieve

P2: prioritize the main drivers of violence

P3: be proactive to violence, not reactive

P4: prevent violence and reduce risk factors

P5: politics to generate leadership and commitment to achieve sustainable results

Combating the supply side of the illegal drug market has not achieved the security environment that Mexican society desperately needs. For this reason, a shift is suggested to aim for what could be a plausible (P1) goal, reducing the levels of violence.

This serial of papers will outline concrete actions that would help achieve the former. To do so, this first part will provide an overview of the current situation of organized crime and violence in Mexico. In the second one, a theoretical framework to analyze violence will be offered. In the third part of this serial, and making use of the framework, actions will be suggested to apply the remaining four Ps in a manner that would help achieve a reduction in violence. Also, given the importance of evaluating whether the proposed violence reductions strategy is heading in the right direction, some expected initial outcomes will be outlined in the conclusion of the serial.

Overview of Organized Crime in Mexico

Over the last three decades, Mexico has undergone a transformation from drug producer and minor transit country, controlled by a few major drug traffickers like Felix Gallardo and Ernesto Fonseca, to a hybrid country deeply involved in cocaine transshipment but also in production of heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine. Cocaine from Colombia is smuggled into the United States, but is also sold in the Mexican domestic market. Moreover, the Mexican drug world has become much more fragmented, diverse, and with more than a dozen and a half criminal organizations engaging in a mix of cooperation and highly lethal competition for smuggling routes and the domestic criminal market. Some of these organizations (such as the Sinaloa organization) have a traditional commercial or even corporate identity and ethos, while others (like La Linea) are as involved in enforcement activities as they are in trafficking.  At the same time some gangs have become enforcers for established drug trafficking organizations, displaying a penchant and a flair for violence that are unprecedented (for example, the Artistic Assassins for Sinaloa or the Aztecs for Juarez). Complicating matters further, one or two groups resemble cults (Knights Templar and La Familia Michoacana), espousing a quasi-religious identity while displaying a ferocious lethality in their behavior. All this is accompanied by an unprecedented increase in violence, frequent shifts in alignment, and a loss of predictability. 

The transformation over the last decade is the result of several factors. First, the loss of the monopoly of power by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional-PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in Mexico removed political and social control mechanisms that allowed for elite exploitation of organized crime while keeping violence controlled. As Luis Astorga, one of the leading analysts on Mexican drug trafficking, has pointed out, in order to operate effectively, drug traffickers in Mexico required the permission of governors along with collusion of the military and the Federal Judicial Police.[2] The result was what Roy Godson termed a political-criminal nexus. This weakened during the 1990s, as the PRI began to lose power in the national arena, and finally crumbled in 2000. After 75 years of dominance, the PRI lost the Presidency to the Partido Acción Nacional-PAN (National Action Party).   

The second set of factors prompted changes in the Mexican drug market to which Mexican criminal organizations had to adapt. These include: (1) the increase in demand for synthetic drugs in the United States, which are cheap to produce and render good profits; (2) Colombian suppliers started paying Mexican contractors in cocaine, (which allowed the Mexican organizations to go into business for themselves in the U.S. and gradually replace the Colombians as the main suppliers). The Mexican organizations went from contractors to major players in their own right, purchasing cocaine shipments for wholesaling in the U.S.; and (3) the strengthening of United States-Mexico border controls after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that —along with growing local abuse— seems to have gradually made Mexican domestic drug markets more attractive.

The loss of influence over criminal organizations by the PRI, combined with these other factors, started a violent race between the four major criminal organizations in the country (the Arellano Felix, Sinaloa, Juarez and Gulf organizations) to gain control over strategic warehouses[3] and routes providing easy access to the United States. Furthermore, the competition was accompanied by internal fractures, defections and shifts of alignments that allowed the emergence of new organizations like La Familia Michoacana, the Beltran Leyva organization and Los Zetas.

To be competitive in the Mexican illegal drug market, this new generation of “narcos” —especially the Zetas and La Familia— abandoned the low profile scheme and developed a more violent approach to business. The Zetas diversified into other criminal activities (product piracy, extortion and kidnapping), while La Familia —using a mixture of extreme violence and economic paternalism— mobilized public support both to protect the organization and to facilitate operations within its territory. This public support network was complemented by corrupting state and local law enforcement officials to prevent actions against La Familia.

The next step for both groups was to expand territory and markets. To do so, two factors proved crucial: the increase in availability of high caliber weapons and brutal violence. Although Mexican criminal organizations have always been well armed, since 2004 there has been an increase in the supply of high caliber weapons. This in part is due to the elimination of the federal ban on the purchase of assault weapons in the United States. As Dubey, Dubez and Garcia-Ponce point out, U.S gun laws have catalyzed the supply of assault rifles in Mexico, which has contributed to the increase in violence south of the border.[4]

However, the brutal violence once used by the Arellano Felix organization (torture, homicides and body dismemberment) regained importance as a core mechanism to intimidate other organizations, law enforcement members and Mexican society.[5] To maximize the impact of their violent actions, Mexican criminal organizations began to disseminate their capabilities and the viciously violent methods of control and intimidation through banners —narco mantas— and the Internet (YouTube, e-mail and blogs), as well as by directly contacting domestic and American mass media.[6] By using violence, drug trafficking organizations were not only able to maintain or expand market share, but also diversify their criminal activities. They brought under their control local criminal activities like piracy sales (DVDs and CDs), alcohol sales to nightclubs and bars, human smuggling, extortion and even kidnapping of local businessmen and entrepreneurs.[7]

This has had an important and increasingly negative effect in violence as well as in the insecurity perception of citizens. Over a period of five years, the death rate in Mexico has been increasing exponentially, from an all-time low of ten murders for every one hundred thousand inhabitants in 2007, to over eighteen in 2010.[8] This increased rate might not seem too alarming, especially when compared to murder rates of similar countries in the region (Brazil 24/100 thousand, Colombia 37/100 thousand and El Salvador 47/100 thousand[9]), but a couple of factors help place Mexico’s violence problem in perspective, which are the average annual death rate and the expected growth of death. In the last five years, approximately 10,000 thousand people have been killed per year, 88 percent of these have occurred execution style (abducted, tortured, shot and/or dismembered); another 10 percent occurred during clashes with law enforcement agencies; and the remaining two percent are authorities that have lost their lives in the line of duty or civilians casualties of clashes.[10] Moreover, some estimates state that next year, after President Calderon finishes his term in office, the number of drug related deaths could reach 64,000.[11] This would certainly speak of a violence epidemic that would be much harder to control.

The number of deaths in itself does not fully explain the problem. The brutality under which most have been conducted has intimidated not only other criminal organizations, but law enforcement officials and citizens. Further, it has enabled these criminal organizations to expand to other illicit activities, which had a double effect. On one hand, it allowed the upsurge of what Paul Kan calls “high intensity crime with a hypercompetitive market,” in which violent entrepreneurs use brutal means to earn profit.[12] On the other, it has increased the insecurity perception of citizens in Mexico to a point in which, according to the 2010 National Insecurity Survey, 65 percent of citizens felt insecure in the states where they live and approximately 55 percent of people feel little to no confidence in local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.[13]

To counter this situation, President Calderon implemented the National Security Strategy, which, despite being comprehensive, has heavily centered on joint operatives and increasing the capabilities of law enforcement agencies. This has enabled the arrest of 16 criminal organization leaders and the killing of three more (which is more than the previous two administrations combined).[14] Additionally, this administration has seized more than 94,000 guns (pistols and assault rifles), over 13.1 million ammo[15] and 18,000 vehicles (automobiles, sea vessels and small aircraft).[16]

Although these are important results that show a decisive effort to decrease the size and power of criminal organizations, it has also created at least three negative externalities:

  1. Vacancy chains: As Kan and Williams argue,[17] Mexican law enforcement agencies have been targeting criminal organizations in a sequential manner, which has created what Richard Friman calls vacancy chains.[18] These vacancy chains generate new opportunities for other organizations to increase territories and create competing frenzies. As Eduardo Guerrero’s recent analysis on the effects of the arrest and killing of leaders of criminal organizations shows, most actions of the federal government have had the effect of escalating violence.[19]
  2. Human Right Violations: Even though Mexico counts on for what could be considered a sufficient police force[20] according to United Nations standards, most are poorly educated and trained, lack proper equipment, and are underpaid and corrupt. For this reason, the Federal Government has increasingly relied on the military, which has, according to Human Rights Watch, resulted in armed forces being involved in 170 cases of torture, abductions, and 24 extrajudicial killings.[21]
  3. Civilian casualties: Although these deaths account for only two percent[22] of the overall number of deaths, the lethality of operations in which military officials are involved is much higher. For example, 9.1 criminals dead per Army and 17.3 criminals dead per Navy operation, compared to those in which the federal police are involved (2.6 criminals dead per operation). Moreover, since 2006, when army involvement became more intensive 1,598 persons have been killed and 254 have been wounded.[23] The combination of both have created a paradoxical situation in which pressures for the military to return to the barracks escalate at a time when police forces are unable to contain, and most times face the violence that criminal organizations generate.

To better understand these externalities, as well as the violence that affects Mexico, the following part of the serial will be devoted to laying out the theoretical framework proposed by Dr. Phil Williams as well as some applicable examples.

Please click here to continue to Part II.

[1] The Strategy is based on five pillars: 1) Joint Operations to support local authorities and citizens, and to weaken and contain criminal organizations; 2) Increase technical and operative capabilities of State forces; 3) Reform the legal and institutional framework; 4) Active crime prevention policy; and 5) Strengthen international cooperation. Alejandro Poire, “First myth, there is no strategy, it is only use of force”, Office of the President Blog, May 30, 2011,

[2] Luis Astorga, “Drug Trafficking in Mexico: A first general assessment,” Management Social Transformation (MOST), Discussion Paper No. 36, n.d,

[3] Interview performed by Dr. Phil Williams with high-ranking Mexican police officials. Mexico City, June, 2008.

[4]Arindrajit Dubey, Oeindrila Dubez, and Omar García-Poncex, “Cross-border Spillover: U.S. Gun Laws and Violence in Mexico,” May 2011,

[5] According to the 6th National Insecurity Poll, 65% of Mexicans feel insecure in their home states. “Sexta Encuesta Nacional Sobre Inseguridad,” Instituto Ciudadano de Estudios Sobre Inseguridad (Citizens Institute for Insecurity Research), October 2009,

[6] Peter Reuter, “Systemic Violence in Drug Markets,” Crime, Law and Social Change, (2009) 52(3), 275-289

[7] Arzt, Sigrid and Vazquez del Mercado, Guillermo, “Violencia en Mexico: Realidades y Perspectivas,” ISTOR, (2010) No.42, p. 40,

[8] Citizens Institute for Insecurity Research, “Voluntary Manslaughter per 100 Thousand Inhabitants”, n.d,

[9] Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social de El Salvador, Sistema de Vigilancia de Lesiones de Causa Externa, March 2008; Germán De la Hoz Bojorquez, Homicidios Colombia 2007, Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal y Ciencias Forenses; and Ministerio de Salud de Brasil, Políticas Públicas para la Reducción de la Violencia en Brasil, March 2008.

[10] Guillermo Valdés, Former Director of the Center for National Security and Research (CISEN), “Nuestra Guerra, Una Conversación”(Our war, a conversation), Nexos en línea, November 1, 2011,

[11] Eduardo Guerrero-Gutierrez, “Security, Drugs and Violence in Mexico: A survey”, 7th North American Forum, Washington D.C, 2011, p. 45,

[12] Paul R. Kan, “Cartels at War”, (Dulles: Potomac Books, forthcoming)

[13] Citizens Institute for Insecurity Research, National Insecurity Survey 2010.

[14] Eduardo Guerrero- Gutierrez, Op Cit, P. 64

[15] “No se tolerará otro Rápido y Furioso: Holder” (Another Fast and Furious will not be tolerated: Holder), El Universal, November 8, 2011,

[16] Arzt, Sigrid and Vazquez del Mercado, Guillermo, op. cit., p.46

[17] Paul Rexton Kan and Phil Williams, “Criminal Violence in Mexico – a dissenting analysis”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 21, No.1, March 2010, p. 229

[18] Richard H Friman,  “Forging the vacancy chain: Law enforcement efforts and mobility in criminal economies,” Crime, Law and Social Change, Vol. 41 No. 1 February 2004, pp. 53-77

[19] Eduardo Guerrero-Gutierrez, op cit., p. 66

[20] According to the Executive Secretariat of the National System for Public Safety, 397,664 police officers of all corporations and levels of government create the police force in Mexico. “Police Force Statistics”, Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, (Executive Secretariat of the National System for Public Safety), n.d,

[21] Human Rights Watch, “Mexico: Widespread right abuses in war on drugs”, November 9, 2011,

[22] Guillermo Valdés, Former Director of the Center for National Security and Research (CISEN), op. cit.

[23] Catalina Pérez Correa, Carlos Silva Forné and Rodrigo Gutiérrez Rivas, “Índice letal: Los operativos y los muertos” (Lethality Index: joint operations and deaths), Nexos en línea, November 1, 2011,



About the Author(s)

Guillermo Vazquez del Mercado Almada has a Masters in Public Policy and Management with a specialization in security studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He has been advisor of Public Safety at the National Security Council at the Office of the President of Mexico.  Recently, at the Mathew Ridgway Center, he participated in a joint research project with the University of Maryland regarding the nexus between organized and transnational crime and smuggling.



Mon, 03/12/2012 - 3:24pm

Thank you Ironman for taking the time to read my article and for your comments.



Sun, 03/11/2012 - 6:36pm

Thank you sir for your time in producing this paper. You needn't worry about any contentions related to your choice of sourcing academic research over a Fox News report.


Thu, 03/08/2012 - 3:58pm

Thank you so much for your comment. We can debate about the number of guns that have been smuggled from US to Mexico. The fact is that since the elimination of the assault weapons ban, the number and caliber of weapons in Mexico has increased exponentially, which has lead to and increase in violence in Mexico. Also, I am citing sound academic research done on the subject and not just a TV show.



Tue, 03/06/2012 - 7:46pm

We are told - “ …. an increase in the supply of high caliber weapons. This in part is due to the elimination of the federal ban on the purchase of assault weapons in the United States. As Dubey, Dubez and Garcia-Ponce point out, U.S gun laws have catalyzed the supply of assault rifles in Mexico, which has contributed to the increase in violence south of the border.”

Sorry. That dog don’t hunt – and to repeat it makes one wonder how accurate anything else he’s saying is. The fact is, only 17 percent of guns found at Mexican crime scenes have been traced to the U.S. (at least before Holder's 'Fast and Furious' that is)…