Legitimacy matters. Los Caballeros Templarios and the mutation of Mexican organized crime

Author:Falko Ernst
Position:Department of Sociology, University of Essex, Colchester, UK

Purpose - This paper aims to revisit paradigmatic depictions of organized criminal behavior. Unveiling shortcomings, it asks how contingent manifestations of organized crime can be better grasped by borrowing analytical tools from organizational scholarship. Design/methodology/approach - The potential for cross-disciplinary... (see full summary)

Legitimacy matters
Los Caballeros Templarios and the mutation
of Mexican organized crime
Falko Ernst
Department of Sociology, University of Essex, Colchester, UK
Purpose – This paper aims to revisit paradigmatic depictions of organized criminal behavior. Unveiling
shortcomings, it asks how contingent manifestations of organized crime can be better grasped by borrowing
analytical tools from organizational scholarship.
Design/methodology/approach – The potential for cross-disciplinary fertilization is showcased by
reecting recent transformations of Mexican organized crime. Over a year of close-proximity eldwork,
exclusive rst-hand empirical data were gathered on Los Caballeros Templarios, one of Mexico’s principal
criminal organizations. Interviews with its leaders were carried out and participant observation conducted
amongst local communities.
Findings – Criminal organizations have turned to the local to generate resources vital for their survival.
Emerging as forces of alternative governance, the strategic use of organizational legitimacy has gained
unprecedented prominence. It acts as an interface for reciprocal criminal-organization–environment
inuences.Largely neglected, it has driven the mutation of Mexican organized crime and the country’s armed
conict altogether.
Research limitations/implications – The reported ndings are of limited scope insofar as they are
derived from in-depth data on a single case. Future research would ideally generate such data on further
cases, enabling greater theorization qua cross-comparison.
Originality/value – Informed by rare rst-hand empirical data, this paper offers exclusive insights into
the on-the-ground realities of Mexican organized crime and its role in the fragmentation of social order and
governance. This is of interest for scholars, the wider public and policymakers alike. The innovative
conceptual approach is easily replicable so as to support similar enquiries.
Keywords Mexico, Criminal governance, Empirical eld study, Los Caballeros Templarios,
Organizational theory, Organized crime
Paper type Research paper
A conceptual poverty overshadows contemporary scholarly accounts of organized crime.
Increasingly so over the past decades, the view that organized crime is empowered by
rationally designed enterprises pursuing prot alone has become predominant. In line with
what Paoli and Fijnaut (2004, p. 28) coined the “Illicit Enterprise Paradigm”, the how of illicit
organizing is postulated to obey universally applicable rules of rational act and reasoning.
Proliferated from the eld of neo-classical economics, the reliance on rational actor modeling
has moreover translated into tight spatial constraints to analyses. The where of illicit
organizing is (tacitly) accepted to be conned to (transnational) illicit markets. It is within
this sphere of action – portrayed as a clandestine “underworld” cut off from its stereotypical
counterpart (for a critique, cf. Van Duyne et al., 2002) – that participants need to perform by
generating resources necessary for survival. In the same vein, the what – i.e. the chain of
activities seen to constitute, in aggregate, organized crime – is boiled down to immediate
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of Mexican
Journalof Money Laundering
Vol.18 No. 2, 2015
©Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JMLC-10-2014-0037
working steps involved in the generation and processing of illicit proceedings (cf. Levi, 2012,
p. 597).
My contention is not – and cannot be – that organized crime should not be approached as
an economic activity. The above-outlined paradigm, however, entails certain blindness
toward key aspects shaping contingent manifestations of organized crime. This concerns,
crucially, those mechanisms and processes that underlie the reproduction of criminal
organizations – and, thus, of the phenomenon of organized crime as such. Contemporary
theorizing on organized crime falls short in terms of accounting for where and how criminal
organizations guarantee sustained access to the resources necessary to this end. In assuming
the possibility for organizations to function as rationally designed one-goal machines,
essentially closed off from otherwise chaotic social surroundings, the vital role
criminal-organization–environment interactions occupy in this context is fundamentally
underestimated. This view corresponds to an understanding of organizations as “rational
systems” (Scott, 1981,2004), long overhauled by informed organizational scholarship (cf.
DiMaggio and Powell, 1991).
The shortcomings of this approach become blatantly clear when empirically grounded
insights into local realities shaped by organized crime are produced[1]. Mexican organized
crime, which has undergone a veritable mutation, offers a prime scenario in this vein. Its
participants have, as I discuss in the rst segment of this article, ventured well beyond the
connes of illicit markets. An “operational turn to the local”, as I phrase it, has occurred
because local settings have increasingly been targeted as pools of resources vital for
organizational permanence. The case of Los Caballeros Templarios (LCT, “The Knights
Templar”), considered one of Mexico’s principal criminal organizations until recently,
emblematizes this development in especially clear ways. Drawing on exclusive rst-hand
empirical data gathered over a year-long eldwork period during which I conducted
participant observation amongst as well as interviews with leading members of LCT and
local civilian populations[2], I unveil how LCT has coupled its survival to the advancement
of a project of alternative governance. As such, LCT integrated the true kaleidoscope of
actors engaged in the production of rule and governance in wide parts the “global south”
today, including Latin America. Under the conditions of its accentuating dissolution of the
traditional nation-state, its designated core functions such as the provision of security and
welfare are increasingly assumed by non-state entities (cf.Arias and Goldstein, 2010;Clunan
and Trinkunas, 2010 for an overview). Novel modes of social and moral order, of loyalty and
allegiance have emerged as a result. Criminal actors’ involvement in such fragmentation of
sovereignty (Davis, 2010; cf. Bobea, 2010) has been duly noted. “The origins and nature of
alternative authority and governance structures in contested spaces” (Clunan, 2010,
p. 3), however, remains underexplored.
The mutually empowering galvanization of “criminal” governance and organized crime
in sensu stricto into a hybridized phenomenon, I maintain, cannot be properly deciphered by
relying on the above-outlined paradigm. In contrast, much is to be gained by incorporating
an understanding of organizations as “open systems” (Scott, 1981,2004). This view
postulates that organizations and surrounding social environments necessarily permeate
and inuence each other. I reect key insights produced by organizational scholars to
highlight the central role of organizational legitimacy. Largely neglected for declared
contradictory to the very nature of organized crime, the striving for organizational
legitimacy has become a prominent feature of the conduct of Mexican criminal
organizations. In the present case, it acted as the prime interface for the reciprocal ow of

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