Small Wars Journal

Mexico: Crucible of State Change

Mon, 01/13/2014 - 5:47am

Mexican Cartel Op-Ed No. 7:

Mexico: Crucible of State Change

John P. Sullivan

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  

Mexico is in the midst of a series of storm fronts.  As Enrique Peña Nieto begins the second year of his Sexenio, it is clear several storms rage.  Cumulatively, these have created a vortex that demands adept government response.  The first storm is insecurity, which is driven by violence, corruption and impunity.  The second storm is found in the economic forces seeking to reshape Mexico to make it more competitive in the global market.  The third storm is the push for reforming corrupt institutions. The storms have been violent, characterized by confrontation and exploitation. They have challenged the legitimacy of the state and civil society.  They have also emboldened gangsters and challenged the solvency (legitimacy and capacity) of the state at multiple levels.  These three intersecting storms culminate in a crucible of state change.  Let’s now examine these storm fronts.

The First Storm: Insecurity

Insecurity is the most visible storm front challenging Mexico. Gangland murders, kidnappings, assassinations of journalists, police, and mayors have punctuated the conflict.  When Peña Nieto came to office, he shifted the public face from high-profile interdiction to a more nuanced counter-violence strategy. The results have been mixed. While public expectations and government communiqués claim a reduction in violence, tangible results remain elusive and many contest the inferred reduction.[1,2]  The result is a perception that ‘Fiefdoms of Narco Death’ remain a poignant reality for much of Mexico.[3]  Consider, for example that Zeta, the Tijuana weekly, reports that more gang murders (19,016) were committed in the first 11 months of Peña Nieto’s Sexenio than in the last 11 of Calderón’s (18,161). Zeta’s numbers contrast with those officially reported (17, 068) by the administration.[4]

Mass graves (narcofosas) remain a significant concern with at least 190 corpses found buried in 10 states over the past 10 months.  The perpetrators include Los Caballeros Templarios, Los Zetas, the Sinaloa, Arellano Félix, Beltrán Leyva cartels, as well as the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación.[5]  Kidnapping has risen 245% in the last ten years with 1,583 cases reported in 2013.[6]  In the case of Pemex, tomas clandestina (illegal tpipeline taps) nearly doubled in 2013 from 1,379 in 2012 to 2,492.[7]  This upsurge in resource extraction is closely related to the second storm of gathering economic forces.

The violence is widely believed to be concentrated on the US-Mexico border, but in fact is much more diffuse.  As battles calm in one region, they shift to new space.  Criminal conquest and battles for the plazas and supply lines are in continual flux.  The deciding factor appears to be more one of which capos won control than one of sustained governmental stability. Yet violence is only the leading edge of the puzzle.  Impunity (a lack of investigation and criminal prosecution) combined with endemic corruption hollow out state capacity and legitimacy.  Cartels and gangs fill the void; so do vigilantes (autodefensas/self defense forces): some legitimate, some arms of the cartels.  Gangsters in military kit conduct blockades and threaten journalists and public officials.  For example, in Late December 2013, armed commandos broke into the home of Anabel Hernández who fortunately was not home. I doubt they were going to ask her to autograph her book “Los Señores del Narco,” which chronicles collusive corruption among state officials and gangsters.[8]

Corruption remains a key concern in Mexico during its democratic transition. Indeed, Transparency International ranked Mexico (tied with Argentina) as the most corrupt nation in Latin America; ranking 106 out of 177 countries worldwide sampled with a score of 34 (the scale went from 0/highly corrupt to 100/clean).[9] 

Indeed, Forbes following up on this assessment has ranked the top 10 Mexican corrupt figures (all members of Mexico’s various elites).  These included: Elba Esther Gordilla, former head of the teacher’s union; Carlos Romero Deschamps, a Pemex union leader; Rául Salinas de Gortari, brother of a former president of the republic; former governor Humbierto Moreira of Coahuila; and governors Fidel Herrera of Veraruz, Andres Granier (Tabasco), and Tomás Yarrington of ‘failed’ Tamaulipas. Also on the list is Genaro Garcia Luna, the Secretary of Public Security for his alleged links to ‘El Chapo’ Guzman.[10]

As a consequence of this erosion of state solvency, Michoacán and Tamaulipas are virtual ‘failed states,’ and Guerrero, Jalisco, and Edomex (State of México), as well as the Distrito Federal (Federal District) are under the gun. A graphic case in point is the discovery of a decapitated and dismembered torso found in a suitcase on Mexico City’s Metro in late December.[11]

The Second Storm: Economic Forces

Economic forces present the second storm.  These include pressures to enhance Mexico’s stature among neo-liberal economies.  Manufacturing, information technology, and petro-energy lead these fronts.  Essentially the drive for reform of Pemex is a response to these forces.  Yet Pemex has been challenged by both crime and pervasive corruption, making reform a dicey proposition.[12]

The parallel force to neo-liberalism is deviant globalization.  Here we see global illicit flows fueling Mexico’s internal conflict cum criminal insurgencies.  One recent case involves the links between the Knights Templar (Cabelleros Templarios) and Chinese merchant interests.  The Knights have cornered and control all aspects of Michoacán’s iron mining interests and are moving iron ore to China through the port of Lazaro Cardenas.[13]  Other forms of global illicit trade (beyond narcotics) include human trafficking and trafficking in human organs.[14]   Here we see the potential for a forthcoming battle for resource extraction between warlord entrepreneurs and plutocratic elites. Expect the battle to be contentious and destabilizing.

The Third Storm: Reform

Reform—rightly so—is a key plank of Peña Nieto’s strategy for revitalizing Mexico and containing endemic cartel violence.  Among the projected reforms are an anti-corruption law (which should become a priority in 2014); increased autonomy for the PGR (Procuraduría General de la República) (essential!); and both economic reform (read privatization of Pemex) and justice reform (police, courts, and corrections). So important is justice reform—including standardizing criminal procedures—that Viridiana Rios has called it Mexico’s Petit Révolution—and she is right.[15]  Rule of Law/Security Sector Reform is essential to reverse incursion into the state’s legitimacy and hence solvency.  Peña Nieto should prioritize these efforts as he moves forward.

Conclusion: Crucible of State Change

Navigating the intersecting storms buffeting Mexico will remain a challenge for years to come.  The case of Michoacán is instructive.  The state is arguably a ‘failed state’ with rival cartels, the municipal and state government, and federal forces, not to mention autodefensas (self defense forces), engaged in a multi-party contest for who rules.[16]   Hyperviolence and barbarization reign rampant and the state’s monopoly on violence and territorial control are torn asunder.  Co-opted state reconfiguration is evident.[17] 

Key parts of Mexico have failed. Foremost among these are the states of Michoacán and Tamaulipas. Chihuahua, Durango, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Veracruz, and Nuevo León are not far behind. Indeed, a recent report warns that 10% of Mexico—2,437 municipos (cities) in total—are under the control of gangsters rather that the state.[18] 

This leaves Mexico at a crossroads. Many storms have passed and have wreaked great damage.  Others continue or promise to threaten stability.  The twin engines of social change: criminal insurgency (from below) and plutocratic insurgency (from above) have the potential to derail Mexico’s on-going democratic transition.  Essentially, narcocultura is in competition with the elites.  Peña Nieto’s first year has slowed the onslaught, now he needs to consolidate gains and accelerate reform.[19]  A good first step would be to complete the build out of the Gendarmería nacional.[20]


[1] Sierra Rayne, “The Battle Over Mexico's Crime Statistics,” The American Thinker, 17 November 2013 at

[2] Alejandro Hope, “Is Mexico Seeing Fewer Homicides Under Peña Nieto?,” InSight Crime, 19 December 2013 at; translated from “¿Menos homicidios?,” Animal Politico, 18 December 2013 at

[3} “Fiefdoms of Narco Death,” Frontera NorteSur, 9 December 2013 at

[4] “Peña peor que Calderón: 19 mil 016 ejecuciones en 11 meses .” Zeta, 9 December 2013 at

[5] Arturo Ángel, “Hallan más de 190 cuerpos en fosas, en apenas diez meses,” 24 Horas , 12 December 2013 at

[6] Oscar Lopez, “Mexican Crime: Kidnappings In Mexico Have Risen 245% In Ten Years,” Latin Times, 1 January 2014 at

[7] “Reporta Pemex que robo a ductos se incrementó al doble en 2013,” SDPnoticias, 16 December 2013 at

[8] Alejandro Martínez, “Armed group breaks into the home of Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández,” Journalism in The Americas, 3 January 2014 at

[9] Transparency International: Corruption Perceptions Index 2013 at

[10] Armando Tinoco, “Forbes Top 10 Most Corrupt Mexicans 2013 List Led By Elba Esther Gordillo And Raul Salinas De Gortari,” Latin Times, 16 December 2013 at

[11] David Iaconangelo, “Mexico Drug Cartel Violence: Body Of Decapitated Woman Discovered On Mexico City Metro Stuffed In Suitcase,” Latin Times, 24 December 2013 at

[12] W. Alejandro Sanchez, “A response to Forbes: Corruption in Mexico’s PEMEX,” VOXXI, 18 December 2013 at

[13]  Reuters, “Knights Templar drug gang corners Mexican iron ore trade with China,” South China Moring Post, 2 January 2014 at

[14] “En Oaxaca, tráfico de órganos de migrantes: Solalinde,” El Universal, 11 November 2013 at

[15] Viridiana Rios, “Mexico’s Petit Révolution: Justice and Security Implications of Approving a Fully New Code of Judicial Procedures,” Mexico Center, Wilson Institute,” 13 December 2013 at

[16] Mónica Villanueva e Itzel Reyes, “Michoacán, territorio en disputa,” 24 Horas, 29 November 2013 at

[17] Luis Jorge Garay and Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Narcotráfico, Corrupción y Estados: Cómo las redes ilícitas han reconfigurado las instituciones de Colombia, Guatemala y México, Mexico City: Grijalbo Mondadori, 2012 available at

[18] Itzel Reyes, “El 10% del país en “estado fallido,” 24 Horas, 10 December 2013 at

[19] Duncan Wood, “Mexico in 2014: Can Peña Nieto Consolidate Reform?,” CNN, 3 January 2014 at

[20] Doris Gomora, Gendarmería Nacional, en operación a partir de Julio de 2014, El Universal, 23 December 2013 at

Categories: Mexico - El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at


Outlaw 09

Sat, 01/18/2014 - 1:43pm

The question is starting to arise in actions undertaken by the current Mexican government against the self defense groups---are they really looking for a solution against the cartels or are they actually supporting the cartels as representatives of the Mexican government.

This is an interesting article today in borderlandbeat.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 01/15/2014 - 4:16pm

It now appears that the Federal Government is either confused in what it is doing with the self defense groups OR as the local population seems to think "actually" working with the cartels.

In the confusion yesterday of either disarming or then giving back to the SD their weapons four unarmed civilian adults and one child was killed by the Mexican Army,

This comment is telling as it comes from the effected population and reflects accurately I think what the SD groups feel about the Mexican government.

"The problem is the Caballeros Templarios of Michoacán. And the government is in collusion with organized crime," he said.

The comment is extremely interesting ---if one looks at the Mexican military and security apparatus and all of their actions against the cartels---one notices a trend of targeting the leadership but there never seems to be a single attempt by any Mexican security apparatus to totally drive any cartel out of any of the individual Mexican States.

Maybe the effected populations see what we are not seeing-namely in fact the Mexican elites are colluding with the cartels and targeting only the leadership makes it easy to tell the US they are doing something when in effect nothing is changing on the ground and it goes a long way in explaining why things are getting worse not better.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 01/14/2014 - 2:11pm

A second view of the pressure the self defense forces are applying to both the cartels, the Mexican Federal government, as well as the local Mexican State governments---taken from Insightcrime.

"The potent mix of the Knights Templar drug cartel, corrupt and inefficient security forces and state authorities, and increasingly powerful self-defense militias has been building towards the current crisis over the last year. What happens next could prove crucial in determining the state's near future.

With the refusal to disarm, the self-defense forces have challenged the state's authority in an unprecedented way, while launching a ferocious and sustained assault against the Knights Templar. The Knights will not hesitate to retaliate with extreme violence, but the state is now in a bind.

If the militias continue to refuse to back down, the only way to reassert control over the region will be with force. The vigilantes are no poorly equipped rabble -- they are now armed with high caliber weapons reserved for military use and have the capacity to put up fierce resistance. Such a battle would inevitably lead to more civilian casualties, damaging what remains of the state's credibility.

However, to leave the militias in place would essentially be an abdication of state authority, and an admission that the government is incapable of exercising power in one of Mexico's most troubled regions."

Outlaw 09

Tue, 01/14/2014 - 4:11am

It is interesting to see how the State is looking at the "self defense" movement which has on it's own and out of the local populations created a resistance to the cartels simply because the State cannot provide basic security in their communities.

Initially the State viewed the self defense groups to be a "threat" against the State and then they "saw" the benefits of them and now seems to view them to be insurgents against the Federal government although they are not saying that openly. what is interesting is the fact that under many of the Mexican State structures the population in fact can arm itself if the government is not providing basic security. In some ways we are seeing the play out of an unfinished 1910 revolution.

This yesterday from borderlandbeat is interesting in that it "shows" the Mexican governments latest response and at the same time the core problem for many Mexican States---providing namely simple/basic security for the population of those Federal States threatened by and or under control of the cartels.

"Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, interior secretary formally requested the self defense to lay down their arms and return to their communes of origin, through a press release, the United Self-Governing Michoacán said "We will not lay down our arms."

Fearing the loss of gains, the statement released by the Facebook page Valor por Michoacán, said: "The self-defense struggle will continue until we see leaders of criminals behind bars, we want the leaders of organized crime apprehended and then we'll sit talk to the government. "

Until this happens, "and do not see results by the government, will continue to help the people free themselves from criminals," self-defense groups now control security in over 14 towns and 67 villages in Michoacán.

Also the group criticized the lack of results from the government security strategy that has failed apprehension of the leaders of organized crime in the state and emphasized that they rose up in arms against drug trafficking, because the government failed to do their job.

"we are not just a group of people with guns, we are people, we are the UNITED COUNCIL OF MICHOACAN AUTO-DEFENSE, formed by entrepreneurs, farmers, mayors, aldermen, gardeners, lemon growers, students, parents etc. ... We are united people and we all partake."

Note---not a single comment out of the DoS to this development---in fact little to no mention of it anywhere in US media.