Mexico was recently reported as the second-deadliest conflict country in the world after Syria. The new report suggests that somewhere around 23,000 people were killed in 2016. The study was over-hyped in the media, with many pointing out that, on a per capita basis, Mexico’s homicide rate is actually far below other countries, even in Latin America. That Mexico has experienced an upsurge in violence in the past year cannot be ignored. Around 50 percent of Mexico’s homicides stem from conflicts in the criminal world, putting pressure on the government to respond. Combating the problem will take incredible political will, as the government needs to focus on defeating the cartels and eliminating the underlying drivers that feed the cycle. Widespread violence associated with organized crime is fueled by myriad factors that are difficult to control and this piece will examine why these problems are so vexing.
Violence among drug cartels and armed gangs is the primary driver of the increased violence in Mexico. Mexico has touted high-profile arrests of top cartel leaders, most notably the infamous head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The Mexican Attorney General reports that the government has captured 106 of its top 122 wanted cartel members. The arrests only fractured the cartels, leading to power vacuums. Within the Sinaloa Cartel, Guzman’s sons and another high-level leader engaged in a battle for control over the cartel with one of Guzman’s top lieutenants, who attempted a power grab. Their battle contributed to the rising death toll in the state of Sinaloa. The fracturing of the Sinaloa Cartel also encouraged the aggressive New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG) to grab for more power, igniting battles between the two cartels.
The violence is also fueled by competition over increasingly valuable poppy fields. High-yield poppy strains are making even small fields extremely lucrative, particularly in the mountains of Guerrero State. Driven partly by spiking rates of opioid abuse in the United States, cartels and the gangs they employ are increasingly battling to feed the market. This only adds a layer of violence on top of the killing already associated with extortion, human smuggling, and fuel theft already associated with the cartels and their affiliates.
A high rate of violence, even if mostly among criminal groups, is severely detrimental to the country. I’ve detailed elsewhere that violence degrades state stability by challenging public security, rule of law, and state legitimacy. Outside of the academic discussion, the real impact on Mexican citizens cannot be understated. Rural farmers with few other options are forced, either by economic necessity or by pressure from criminals, to cultivate poppies, adding to the cycle. Businesses, both small and large, are extorted, reducing the incentive to engage in the legitimate economy. And all are at risk of becoming caught in the crossfire as heavily-armed cartels battle each other and the state.
With cartel-related violence increasing in Mexico, looking at Colombia, which itself experienced a wave of drug violence in the 1980s and 1990s, offers a possible comparative study. Starting in the mid-1980s, the murder rate soared in Colombia, largely as a result of massive drug cartels battling the state. Most notably, Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel engaged in a campaign of terror to pressure the state. In the city of Medellín, the murder rate reached nearly 400 murders per 100,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 1990s, a rate that dwarfs Mexico’s current level of about 16.
The murder rate dropped from a high of around 95 per 100,000 in 1993 to between 50 and 70 through the rest of the decade. The drop can partially be attributed to Escobar’s death at the end of 1993, as his practice of violence was extreme. An additional factor was the subsequent decline of all the major Colombian cartels. As Caribbean trafficking routes were shut down by increased U.S. pressure, Mexican cartels gained strength as the primary conduit for drugs headed to the United States. Violence dropped further in the early 2000s when right-wing paramilitary groups that had fought against left-wing insurgents demobilized.
The case of Colombia, unfortunately, does not provide a blueprint for Mexico. While the CJNG is notably violent, it is not an Escobar-level driver of violence. There are not one or two individuals that could be removed to help reduce the murder rate. This leaves the government with few easy options for quickly reducing violence. Furthermore, Colombia’s murder rate dropped through the collapse of armed criminal groups. While Mexican cartels may split and reform, a wholesale reduction in their power is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. An overarching driver is the United States. It is the primary market for illicit narcotics and sends drugs and weapons south, increasing the power of criminal organizations. Reforming drug policy in the United States to reduce consumption rates could blunt this trend, but that does not appear to be on the horizon.