Mexico’s Challenges

Lessons in the War against Organized Crime (2007-2011)

by | Dec 28, 2012

A Madonna watches over broken glass and a corpse in Mexico. Photo by Fernando Ramirez Novoa



When Felipe Calderón took oath as Mexico’s president, he identified security policy—particularly a struggle against criminal organizations—as the flagship policy of his administration. Like millions of Mexicans, I was enthusiastic, expecting that his initiative would establish the foundations for a stronger rule of law through much needed reform and professionalization of police and the judiciary. While the President has been praised for his determination to face a challenge bypassed by previous administrations, after almost five years the outcomes of his anticrime strategy are far from satisfying. From December 2006 to October 2011, there were about 50,000 organized crime-related deaths (see chart). In addition to increasing levels of violence, criminal incidence has risen dramatically, especially regarding high-impact activities (i.e., extortion and kidnapping) related to organized crime in regions where government interventions have focused. In some areas, criminal organizations’ violent response to the government have brought a further decline in the rule of law, and deeper intervention of criminal organizations in public affairs, including some attempts to rig local elections. These outcomes proved wrong some of the optimistic expectations many Mexicans had around what seemed to be a brave and fair resolve by their president.

Given the disappointing performance of the Mexican government’s security strategy, I started collecting data and analyzing the origins and dynamics of the current crime and violence epidemics. Calderón’s strategy has certainly had some positive features, and some adjustments have already been implemented. However, the security situation in Mexico calls for major corrections in government strategy that the next president—to be elected in July 2012—will have to address. Much can be learned from the recent experience of trial and error. The following are lessons that stem from my analyses:

Government intervention must be based on a sound diagnosis of the criminal organizations—their force, structure, internal cohesion, etc.—as well as a thorough assessment of the government’s own resources.

As violence spreads and becomes epidemic throughout the country—and criminal organization attacks pose ever more daunting threats to public security institutions, political processes, and civil society— it has become evident that President Calderón did not have a thorough understanding of the resources and dynamics of Mexican criminal organizations. An evidence-based diagnosis (including data, for instance, on the strength and level of reliability of police forces, and the recruitment capacity, location, hierarchy and internal cohesion of criminal organizations) could have informed the strategy and saved much pain. Following a bald strategy without such diagnosis, the Federal Government soon found itself between a rock and a hard place.

The first large-scale intervention against a drug-trafficking organization was launched in December 2006 in Michoacán (a state where violence had reached unprecedented levels during the previous months) only a few days after the beginning of the administration. This first “joint operation” was launched in response to an explicit request by Michoacán’s governor, and rendered good short-term results. During 2007 and 2008, however, the Federal Government launched seven additional large-scale joint operations. These joint operations were not a response to clear security crises; the army and navy had to spread their resources too thin. Despite the intensive deployment of forces, violence and criminal activity reached record levels by mid-2008.

The main explanation for such an outcome is that the non-selective arrest of leaders of drug-trafficking organizations during the joint operations splintered the cartels and brought bloody conflicts among organizations. During these conflicts criminal organizations have shown the ability to continue recruiting members and to establish alliances with gangs, to bribe authorities and to diversify to a new set of criminal activities. The government has not been able to stop any of these activities. Moreover, unlike rigid bureaucratic structures, criminal organizations are flexible, adapting to the new context (even though they fragment and incur in large losses, they hardly ever disappear completely).

Regarding the government’s own resources, it has become clear that the forces deployed to tackle criminal organizations—and to develop public security duties in several regions—were ill-suited for this task. The large increase in the number of human rights complaints against the army and the navy during this administration are a consequence of this mismatch. Even though the security budget has increased substantially during this term, this expenditure remains largely unaccountable, and there are insufficient reports or indicators that assess the effectiveness of these expenditures. Nevertheless, the development of a 35,000-strong Federal Police—that boasts substantially better levels of professionalization than most state and local police departments in the country— is certainly an asset that will contribute to the implementation of a more effective security policy in the years to come.

Another obstacle for the implementation of government strategy has been the high turnover in police departments, likewise in the national and state attorneys’ personnel—constant changes due to dismissals, resignations, arrests and homicides. For example, on August 1, 2011, 21 state delegates of the Attorney General’s office resigned simultaneously.


Widespread violence fosters crime and weakens the stability of law-abiding citizens vis-à-vis criminal organizations.

In the early years of the current administration some analysts, as well as some senior public officers, seemed to be convinced that widespread violence was a necessary by-product of successful interventions against organized crime, and even a hallmark of success.

In a situation of widespread violence, however, it is easier for criminals to engage in predatory activities that hurt citizens the most, such as kidnapping and extortion. In addition, violence itself creates a market for illegal protection, so that businesses and individuals are not only forced, but in some cases are willing to pay organizations that have the ability to provide them protection (since criminals have shown that they have both weapons and the resolve to use them if necessary). Thus, widespread violence has brought new rents, which are available for criminal organizations. In some cases these rents have substituted for drug-trafficking profits (especially in the case of organizations which have been displaced from the major trafficking routes). However, the new criminal business model has proved to be more damaging because it relies more heavily on predatory activities.

It would have been naive to expect that the powerful Mexican cartels could have been tackled without a substantial deployment of force and without casualties. Nevertheless, it is important to maintain public support for government intervention as well as avoid the perverse effects that violence epidemics have brought to several regions throughout Mexico (such as migration, decreases in investment and tourism, and political instability). During 2011, some subtle changes in the official communication as well as a large scale operation that narrowly targets Zetas (the most violent large Mexican drug-trafficking organization) suggest that the Federal Government may finally be shifting the strategy in order to focus on the most violent organizations and increase deterrence.


Adequate incentives must be offered in order to obtain the necessary support from state and local authorities.

Originally, President Calderón did not build broad coalitions with governors and mayors to support his aggressive security strategy. Interventions against organized crime, starting with the “joint operation” in Michoacán in December 2006, were publicized as an endeavor of the Federal Government, and construed by the media as a response to ineffective state and local authorities. Hence, governors and majors had little incentive to effectively collaborate with the Federal Government.

Moreover, the Federal Government has set no limits to the amount of time that the army and federal police forces would remain in states facing a critical security situation. This means that state governments have no incentive to seriously start a much-needed purge, expansion and professionalization of their public security forces. A large number of municipalities—including several with the highest criminal incidence and violence levels—have police-to-population ratios well below recommended thresholds (defined using a methodology that takes into account police and military casualties). Additionally, only 8.6 percent of state police officers and 34.3 percent of municipal police officers were evaluated between 2008 and 2010. On the other hand, the fact that organized crime is deeply entrenched into local police departments implies that governors and mayors would face strong resistance (and would take a substantial risk) if they engaged in effective action against organized crime.

It is noteworthy that Baja California is the only state within a large-scale joint operation where violence did not increase in 2009 and 2010 (even though it can hardly be described as a model of safety). This state and its joint operations are frequently showcased as a success story by government officials. Unsurprisingly, Baja California is also the only state with a large-scale joint operation where the governor belongs to President Calderón’s party.

In the long run, public opinion may push state and local governments to engage more actively and effectively in the struggle against organized crime. In Nuevo León, the arson-fire at a casino in August 2011 caused the death of 52 people. In the aftermath of this event the state government, under strong pressure (including requests for the governor to resign), finally started what seems to be a full-fledged purge of local police department in the state municipalities.

Two additional steps to foster stronger coalitions of all authorities in the struggle against crime have been implemented lately, with mixed results. The first step has been the publication of information related to compliance with a set of security policy “commitments” signed by all 32 Mexican governors. For instance, a report by the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System shows that by October 2011 half the states failed to fully comply with the commitment to perform polygraph examinations to senior staff in security agencies (including two states which did not perform such polygraph examinations at all). A second step has been to establish transfers conditional on performance and compliance with security policy commitments (such as uploading security data to a national database which should allow better coordination of security policies across states).

Nevertheless it has proved difficult to accelerate the pace of coordination between the Federal Government and the states. It is even suspected that some state governments are doctoring data—such as crime incidence—in order to remain unaccountable, to avoid electoral losses, and to elude budget cuts. The task of making state and local authorities responsible for security, along with the Federal Government, will remain an important one in the next administration’s agenda.

Spring 2012Volume XI, Number 3

Eduardo Guerrero studied Political Science at El Colegio de México, the University of Delaware and the University of Chicago. Currently he is a consultant on security affairs at Lantia Consultores ( His articles on security, violence, and drug-trafficking are published regularly in the Mexican magazine Nexos. He recently published “Security, Drugs and Violence in Mexico: a Survey” available at

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