Drug Trafficking, Violence, and the State in Mexico

April 2009

Dr. Phil Williams

Strategic Studies Institute

Headlines and television commentaries about Mexico becoming a failed state as a result of drug-related violence have become a dime a dozen. Terms such as “criminal insurgency,” “narco-terrorism,” and narco-insurgency are all used to describe the widespread killings. The Joint Operating Environment Report of 2008 even suggested that Mexico, along with Pakistan, could suffer from a dramatic collapse of the state, with serious implications for U.S. national security. Former Drug Czar, General Barry McAffrey, published an after action report on a visit to Mexico in December 2008 which concluded that “Mexico is not confronting dangerous criminality—it is fighting for survival against narco-terrorism.” The situation in Mexico is clearly serious, and there is no argument that drug-related violence increased steadily through 2006 and 2007 and more than doubled in 2008. Yet, inflammatory language and hyperbolic rhetoric do nothing to clarify the issues. To describe Mexico as becoming a failed state is deeply insulting to a country in which national sovereignty and national pride remain power-ful impulses. Even the common description of Mexican drug trafficking organizations as cartels is a misnomer; they control neither price nor production levels—the requisite criteria for a cartel. Moreover, too few commentaries focus on the reasons for this increase in violence or what it really means to the stability of the Mexican state. While some of the rhetoric has had an impact in Washington, compelling the new adminis-tration to treat Mexico as a high priority, it has also generated much more heat than light.

This does not deny the horrific nature of the violence: torture and decapitations have become common, barrels of acid have been used to dispose of bodies, executions have been posted—albeit only briefly—on YouTube, and drug trafficking organizations are able to outgun the police and provide a challenge even to the Mexican Army. Yet it is important to understand why the violence has increased, who the main victims are, and how it can best be combated. The common portrayal of a country out of control and a state likely to be forced into submission is not compelling.

Mexico’s involvement in the drug business is long-standing, and Mexican organiza-tions are active in the cannabis and methamphetamine trade as well as in the cocaine business. The role of Mexico was transformed during the late 1980s and 1990s, however, as U.S. interdiction efforts made it far more difficult for Colombian drug trafficking 2

organizations to transport cocaine successfully through the Caribbean. As a result, the Colombian groups started to go through Mexico, often making payments in cocaine to the Mexican trafficking organizations that assisted them. Inevitably, the Mexicans went into business for themselves and have gradually replaced the Colombians as the dominant force in cocaine trafficking throughout the United States—a development facilitated by both legal and illegal immigration of Mexicans into the United States. In effect, the trafficking organizations and networks took advantage of what in other ways can be understood as a location curse in which Mexico is the natural transshipment point for drugs coming from Colombia to the United States.

The violence in Mexico has grown as the Mexican government moved from acquiescence and even tacit support for the drug trade under the PRI to confrontation with the traffickers by the PAN Presidents, Fox and Calderon. Consequently, Mexico is suffering from what might be described as transitional violence: comfortable and collusive relationships between organized crime and the state have broken down, and alternative relationships have not been institutionalized. The attacks by trafficking organizations on police chiefs, officials, and soldiers can be understood as an attempt to pressure the state to move away from confrontation and to give the trafficking organizations space in which to operate. This does not constitute an insurgency; and the violence—although it has spilled over and killed innocent civilians—has, with one exception, not deliberately targeted civilians. When grenades were thrown into a crowd in Morelia on Independence Day (September 15, 2008), this sparked widespread con-demnation. Although culpability is not entirely clear, in the aftermath, some of the drug trafficking organizations publicly announced that they were not responsible for the attack and offered rewards for the capture of those who were. How much of this was simply trying to shift the blame for the attacks in which eight people were killed and many more injured remains uncertain. The public reaction, however, was one of shock and outrage. Recognizing this, trafficking organizations, many of which are embedded in local communities, might be inclined to avoid such indiscriminate attacks in the future.

Apart from the violence designed to inhibit the Calderon administration from further efforts to interfere with the business, most of the killings are related either to competition among the major trafficking organizations or to rivalries at the retail level. Control of the retail outlets to the indigenous consumer markets, which have emerged in Mexico during the last several years, has become a source of contention locally. The major clashes between larger organizations have centered on the control of strategic warehouses for major stockpiles and shipments of cocaine in cities such as Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, and Cuidad Juarez. The proximity of these cities to major interstate highways (or drug transportation corridors) in the United States has intensified the struggle for control.

Another factor which feeds into the violence is the ready availability both of powerful weapons and those who know how to use them. The main source of weapons is the United States and in particular the frequent gun shows which take place close to the U.S.-Mexico border—although some weapons are also smuggled into Mexico from 3

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