Fighting for Security in Mexico

Between the “Alternatives” and the Right Way

by | Jan 28, 2012

The “fight for security” is a priority in Mexico today. Photo by Lorne Matalon.


The last time I collaborated with ReVista I wrote the introduction of an edition dedicated to Latin America’s Year of Elections (Spring/Summer 2006). In those days, the most important academic efforts around Latin America focused on elections, ballots and voters. Consolidation of democracy appeared to be the only issue on Latin America’s agenda, perhaps because it was an imminent priority. Five years later, the main subject of the academic discussion is “the fight for security.”

The evolution of drug trafficking organizations, the changes of the illegal market, the debate around regulation of drug consumption, even explanations about violence are increasingly filling academic—or non-academic—journals. I celebrate that many people are trying to understand this very complex phenomenon nowadays because it is the most important challenge that our region has today.

In this article, I describe some alternatives Latin American governments apparently have in order to deal with this problem. But first, it is necessary to define clearly the kind of crime we are trying to neutralize; it will then be easier to show why not all the alternatives lead us towards the right path on the way to a genuine, long-lasting security. Therefore, I’ll review some of the factors that explain the transformation of drug trafficking into organized crime in the Mexican case.


The change from drug trafficking to organized crime

Until the 1980s, Mexican drug trafficking was mostly the business of some producers of marijuana and poppy seed usually exported to the United States. Business changed dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s, due to several transformations affecting the entire drug market.

The closure of the Caribbean route for drug trafficking (between the 1980s and early 1990s) managed to diminish the flow of most cocaine produced in Colombia, but this policy did not avoid great quantities of cocaine traveling through Mexican territory. Consequently, a large number of producers that had been exporting marijuana to the United States joined the international trans-regional drug trafficking scheme that sent South American cocaine through Mexican territory into the United States.

Colombian cartels started paying Mexican organizations not only in cash but in kind; thus, an increasing amount of cocaine crossing towards the United States stayed in Mexico, generating a real domestic market in the country. The existence of such a market implies a deep transformation of crime. What used to be just international trafficking with no need for territorial control and almost no confrontation with domestic authorities became a violent race to control routes and territories for distribution.

The new face of business made it indispensable for cartels to have distribution networks, and beyond, to co-opt, corrupt, or inflict fear upon local security authorities in order to guarantee the distribution of their products. It also explains the diversification of business: if the cartels had already assumed the costs of crime, their incentives to add extortion, kidnapping or human trafficking to their list clearly increased. 
In addition, during those years efforts to improve and transform institutions were not successful enough. The absence of investment and little attention paid to local police institutions generated a structural damage, making them incapable of confronting changes in organized crime. 

To complete the scene, the expiration of the assault-weapons ban in the United States generated an arms race between criminal organizations that made their disputes more and more violent (see Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act:

Thus, while cartels were becoming stronger and more complex, local security institutions not only lacked improvement, but were progressively being weakened and damaged by this phenomenon.

President Felipe Calderón took office facing a hard scenario: more powerful criminal organizations, increasing criminal rates, weak local institutions, defective laws, and a damaged social fabric. His choice among the alternatives was definitely a structural transformation, but had he really many options?


The alternatives don’t come easy

One key element regarding organized crime is the set of alternatives both government and society have to face. The first and most important decision to be made by authorities is whether to take action on the matter or simply ignore it. The answer may seem obvious and simple, particularly given the state´s fundamental obligation to provide security to its citizens. Unfortunately, acknowledging the problem of criminal gangs and taking the appropriate action is not always the most popular choice. Many governments have washed their hands of the problem because there seems to be too much at stake with no immediately visible reward.

Yet when the choice is made to address the criminal phenomenon, it seems like there are some alternatives on the table. Which one has proven to be more effective? And beyond, which one is really an alternative? Well, it depends on the scope and depth of the results each one allows us to achieve. There is one true thing about the fight against organized crime: false solutions abound and are often disguised as straight and smooth paths towards a long-lasting security; nothing more than magic recipes for complex problems.

Diverse alternatives have been subject of debate among security experts, policy makers and society. For that reason, it is important to examine briefly the main options discussed as well as some of their premises.


This alternative is based on the idea that criminal organizations will naturally come to unwavering agreements with one another. So why act as an authority if criminals themselves will not represent a major problem? Omission fails to consider that organized crime, being an illegal market, is unable to reach stability. Any agreement made between criminal gangs is always fragile and at jeopardy. You never know when some kingpin’s brother will be killed by a rival or when drug market transformations will bring on incentives for fighting against each other for bigger earnings. Hence, historical disputes between criminal organizations, whether they respond to economic reasons or personal vendettas, break up all kinds of settlements and end up in cartel excisions and fights for controlling “plazas.” Mexico, along with other countries in the region and the world, has experienced the grave consequences of tolerance to crime.


Making a pact

Negotiating rests on the assumption that ceding ground to criminals allows preserving order in the rest of the country. The logic—by the way, wrong and tricky—is that if authority gives away control of a certain territory, criminal organizations will in turn, concentrate their criminal activity there, leaving the rest of the country undisturbed: that is, a criminal gang will be satisfied just with the earnings obtained from this ceded territory. Without a doubt, this is a very fragile assumption that has proven to be wrong.

Making a pact with organized crime contravenes the law and undermines one of the state’s most basic functions that in fact justifies its own existence: the obligation of providing security to its citizenry. Making a pact with organized crime does not guarantee the end of violence; instead, it gives drug traffickers, kidnappers, extortionists and human traffickers license to harm society. Besides, no criminal organization settles for a delimited territory. Their own business model calls for expansion, and that is when they should have to meet authority and not impunity.

A good example is the breakup of the alliance between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas criminal gang, in part due to the ambition of the latter to become the “boss” instead of being the “employee.” Why share the profits? All the incentives are for rivalry.


Discretional Intervention

Some of the main detractors of the National Public Safety Strategy chosen by the Calderón administration argue that a frontal combat against organized crime increases violence because of the cartels’ internal fragmentation that results in instability and disputes among their own members and against other criminal organizations. To prevent this, some suggest as an alternative the focalization of law enforcement, that is, fighting a particular criminal organization or a specific part of their structure.

There are several risks and false assumptions surrounding this proposal. First, the alternative is comparable to a “selective” concept of justice where a fundamental human right is not promoted equally but discretionally, since not all criminals would be equally investigated and prosecuted, but only some of them, based on subjective criteria. Furthermore, available evidence demonstrates that capturing or killing a criminal leader does not necessarily trigger violence. On the contrary, many case studies show a deceleration of criminal homicide rates. Besides, it is impossible to know accurately which target, in terms of criminal organizations’ structure, will detonate more violence because there is no pattern that indicates, for example, if focusing an attack on financial operators is more effective than concentrating efforts against criminal organizations’ lieutenants. 
Unless we have a crystal ball or criminal organizations adopt systematic behavior, it will continue to be practically impossible to embrace this alternative without provoking more harm than benefits.

In contrast, evidence confirms that fighting only a bunch of criminal organizations and leaving others to their criminal activities generates the most perverse effects. By weakening just one criminal organization, necessarily another one comes out stronger. The outcome is having some criminal organizations profiting from the state´s tolerance to their expansion and their winning control of “plazas” over other criminal gangs that are being effectively targeted with law enforcement actions.


Public force as the only tool

Fighting criminal organizations with federal force alone was the central policy in Mexico during the late 90s. Nonetheless, this alternative carries a huge inconvenience: the use of federal force to contain criminal organizations is merely a step in the path towards a long-lasting security. The Armed Forces may play a provisional role in providing security, especially in communities where the police corps has to build capacities in order to fulfill its obligations regarding security. If local security institutions don’t engage in structural transformation processes, Armed Forces deployment would have to be permanent in order to maintain the containment and weakening of criminal organizations, and that is simply impossible. No army in the world has either the capacities or the human resources to work as a civil security corps. Thus, the role of Armed Forces must be understood as subsidiary, temporary and as a part of a comprehensive public safety strategy.


Structural reform

Organized crime and its accompanying violence is a multi-causal phenomenon. A public policy seeking to address all its possible fronts is not only ambitious but complex. The National Public Safety Strategy, implemented by the Mexican government, includes comprehensive actions with expected effects in the short, medium and long term. This governmental plan aims to contain and weaken criminal organizations, but also to transform Mexican legal framework and Mexican security institutions. In addition to these two components, the strategy also works on a third one, which focuses on strengthening the social fabric. How can we aspire to save communities without expelling tolerance to crime from our own cultural practices? Our goal, thus, is not only to reverse society’s vulnerability as a target of criminal activities, but to go further in promoting the culture of rule of law that finds its roots in society itself. That way, the first obstacle crime will find in the future will be strong communities that easily reject any illegal activity no matter how “insignificant” it appears to be.

If what a society wants is to establish genuine, long-lasting security, then it must choose the path of institutions, law and the reconstruction of the social fabric. This may be more difficult and costly or unpopular, but it will also be more effective and permanent.

Certainly, public policy aiming for long term results is not the most attractive one, given that its outcomes are hardly visible and don’t come easy. As Federal Government spokesman for security, one of the highest challenges I faced was that of effectively communicating the achievements of the National Public Safety Strategy. For example, it was difficult to explain that education coverage was also part of the strategy, or that vetted policemen do not grow in trees but require the full commitment and shared responsibility of federal, state and local governments.

In the end, President Calderón’s administration is building bridges. Even if they are not visible right now, one day Mexicans will cross over to the other side of the road, where a corrupt policeman is the exception and not the rule; where peace and quiet is an everyday occurrence in our communities; where the underlying transformations that we have undertaken will have rendered their fruits.

Spring 2012Volume XI, Number 3

Alejandro Poiré was appointed Mexico’s Minister of Interior on November 17, 2011, by President Felipe Calderón. Previously, Poiré served as head of Mexico’s National Security Agency and as Secretary of the National Security Council and Cabinet and Spokesman for the National Public Safety Strategy. He holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and is the author of Towards Mexico’s Democratization: Parties, Campaigns, Elections, and Public Opinion. He was the 2006-07 Antonio Madero/Fundación México Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS.

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