Drugs, gangs and vigilantes: how to tackle the new breeds of Mexican armed violence.

Autor:Santamaría, Gema
Cargo:Texto en inglés


At the end of 2007 Mexico joined the list of Latin American countries that, despite being formal and relatively stable democracies, have experienced epidemic levels of lethal violence that either match or surpass the number of deaths associated with civil war and traditional political conflict (1).

Like Mexico is experiencing today, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela and the countries of the northern triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) have witnessed the emergence and consolidation of criminal networks that have profoundly weakened citizens' security and the state's capacity to uphold the rule of law.

The results have included expressions of violence neither rooted in traditional armed conflicts nor driven by objectives that could be qualified as political in any conventional way (Adams, 2014: 1; Davis, 2010: 399-400) (2). Instead, they involve the participation of armed non-state actors, whose use of violence is generally motivated by the pursuit of profit, the need to ac quire territorial control over trafficking and distribution routes, or the simple imperative to neutralize competing organizations.

Like other countries across the region, Mexico attempted to contain and counteract the presence of criminal organizations, particularly drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs), through a security strategy that privileged the use of repressive and militarized measures. Announced at the end of 2006 by Mexico's former president, Felipe Calderón (in power 2006-12), as an imminent all-out war against organized crime that the Mexican state had to undertake, this strategy also had several negative and unexpected consequences for the country's insecurity. Among these were a steady increase in lethal and non-lethal forms of violence, including kidnappings, extortion, extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances; an escalation in human rights violations by military and police personnel; and the fragmentation of DTOs, together with the emergence of smaller and more volatile criminal organizations (Guerrero, 2012). This has triggered the emergence of self-defense forces that, while claiming to defend the security of their communities, have pursued the strategy of taking justice into their own hands (Afura-Heim & Espach, 2013). Although Mexico's current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has promised to revise the country' security strategy and move towards a more holistic approach that would prioritize protecting local communities, safeguarding the rights of victims and reducing the impact of violent crimes, evidence as to the effects of these changes has been mixed (Felbab-Brown, 2014). Furthermore, the recent disappearance and apparent mass killing of 43 students in Iguala, a city located in the Mexican state of Guerrero, has exposed the central role corruption and impunity play in explaining the country's current levels of violence (3).

As a result there is a pressing need to consider alternative ways to confront the challenges posed by non-conventional forms of armed violence in Mexico. This report will argue that acknowledging the plural, dynamic, and hybrid character of non-conventional violence is central to the design and implementation of integral, sustainable, and effective responses. By the term "plural", this report refers to the manifold actors and groups that characterize Mexico's ever more fragmented and volatile insecurity context, and which call for the adoption of differentiated and context-specific policies. The term "dynamic" illustrates the capacity of non-conventional armed actors, such as DTOs, gangs, and other criminal networks, to adapt and transform their activities, modes of organization, and geographical scope relatively quickly. The term "hybrid" points to the fact that non-conventional armed violence may involve the participation of both state actors (including public officials, and police and military personnel) and members of local communities. Recognizing the hybridity of non-conventional violence illuminates the limits of those security policies designed in terms of an "us versus them" logic, in which state institutions and communities are regarded as incorruptible and impenetrable, while non-conventional armed actors are regarded as deviant elements or actors that lie on the margins of the country's institutional and social fabric.


Three main actors are behind Mexico's current state of insecurity and violence: DTOs, street gangs and self-defense forces. While their interests and modes of organization differ, the connections between the illicit markets driving their activities and the political and social forces legitimizing their presence suggest that these actors operate as part of a continuum rather than in isolation.

For instance, evidence suggests that self-defense forces are at present partially funded by DTOs and are thus becoming a threat to the very communities they claimed to protect (CCSPJP, 2013). For their part, street gangs have developed a closer relationship with DTOs and have become instrumental in ensuring the trans-shipment of drugs and their distribution in the U.S. market. Moreover, many DTOs have diversified their activities, incorporating other violent crimes such as robbery, kidnapping, extortion and human trafficking. In so doing they have coerced, if not displaced, more autonomous and localized criminal cells that used to control these criminal markets. For the purposes of our discussion I will describe these actors separately in an effort to differentiate their relations with local communities and state authorities.

The first part of this report will examine the three abovementioned actors--DTOs, street gangs and self-defense forces--by looking at their aims, levels of organization, and connections with communities and state actors. The shortcomings of the past and present strategies that the Mexican government has adopted towards them and potential ways these might be remedied will also be highlighted. A second and final section will present five core elements that an alternative approach to non-conventional armed violence in Mexico should incorporate.


DTOs have played a prominent role in Mexico's recent escalation of violence, as well as in the emergence of more visible and spectacular forms of violence. According to recent estimations, organized-crime-style killings represent between 30% and 50% of the total number of intentional homicides in Mexico (Shirk et al., 2014: 24). Although the presence of DTOs in Mexico can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century (Astorga, 2005), the role of DTOs as one of the country's main drivers of violence is a more recent development. As argued by Snyder and Durán-Martínez (2009), illicit markets do not necessarily generate greater levels of violence, particularly when political elites are willing and able to offer state-sponsored protection deals to criminal organizations (4). Until the 1990s and again at the beginning of the 2000s, Mexican DTOs benefitted precisely from such protection rackets, thus privileging the use of bribery over violence in their transactions.

However, the relationship between DTOs and political elites fundamentally changed as a result of both, the country's process of democratization and the regional consolidation of Mexican DTOs, which emerged as the main suppliers of drugs to the U.S. market (Astorga & Shirk, 2010: 33). As a result DTOs increasingly turned to violence as a preferred means of securing dominance over their competitors. Moreover, as DTOs gained the upper hand in their relationship with political elites, they began to use violence against public officials who did not comply or who did not deliver the expected protection.

The security policies promoted by former president Felipe Calderón against DTOs further intensified levels of violence. Anchored in a three-pronged strategy--the use of militarized operations, the imprisonment and elimination of DTOs' main leaders or kingpins, and the seizure of drugs--Calderón's policies directly contributed to rising levels of violence both within and across these organizations. DTOs increased their arsenals of weaponry; directed attacks against public officials, journalists and civil society activists; and diversified their illicit activities by turning to kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, and gas and oil theft (Magaloni et al., 2011). Furthermore, the imprisonment and killing of several DTOs' most influential kingpins led to the fragmentation and atomization of these organizations and to the subsequent emergence of smaller and more independent criminal cells (Felbab-Brown, 2014: 16). Moreover, the presence of these organizations became more widespread, as did the geographic distribution of intentional homicides (Shirk et al., 2014: 26). Lastly, many DTOs started to promote the forced recruitment of members in order to make up for manpower losses. Mexican children and youth from marginalized areas, as well as Central American immigrants in transit to the U.S., have been particularly affected by this new development (Meyer, 2010).

Although President Peña Nieto has tried to demarcate his security strategy from that of the...

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