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  • Jane Brundage

Mexico in Crisis; Beyond the Drug Cartels - Part I

In 2010 we wrote a lengthy article titled "Narco: The Worst is Yet to Come" that discussed the hypothesis of the "Colombianization" of Mexico. At that time, Mexico was assessing the risk of reaching a crisis of violence similar to that Colombia lived through when Pablo Escobar ran the Medellín Cartel and detonated explosive devices in malls. Escobar's death and the collapse of the Medellín cartel were interpreted as success stories in the fight against drug trafficking. We proposed then that Escobar's violence was only one step in a long process of criminal sophistication that Colombia has confronted; a process, by the way, that has not been halted with the capture of drug kingpins.

The myth that Colombia won the war on drugs with the Escobar's death led some to think that the same would happen in Mexico. It was assumed that the capture of some key kingpin would put an end to drug trafficking in Mexico. It was a costly error that led to focusing the public security strategy on the capture of renowned kingpins, while underestimating the structural and organizational complexity of criminal networks, and thus neglecting the importance of their intimate and decisive relationships with leading groups both in politics and finance and in public and private institutions. This simplification has been used by Latin American governments to overestimate their successes.

Yes, the Worst Was Yet to Come, Even in Colombia

Massacres carried out by Los Zetas in Tamaulipas in 2010 and 2011, the war between the self-defense groups and The Knights Templar in the first half of 2014 in Michoacán, the latest developments inIguala and Tlatlaya, and other situations of violence and institutional deterioration, have shown that, in fact, the worst was yet to come in Mexico; not because Mexico had achieved the deterioration of Colombia, but because the situations in both Mexico and Colombia have been more severe than is commonly believed.

Colombia has not won the war against drugs, and after Pablo Escobar the worst was yet to come. There were countless captures and successful operations, but the death of Pablo Escobar was only a transition from a cruel and sophisticated criminal process that continues today. After the collapse of theMedellín cartel, the Cali Cartel, the Norte del Valle [North of the Valley] Cartel, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the FARC [Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia] took turns in taking on the leadership role in drug trafficking.

The AUC [United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia], a form of narco-paramilitarism, arose under the justification of fighting the guerrillas, relying on financial support from some farmers, landowners and businesspeople as well as drug traffickers interested in consolidating strategic corridors for the movement of illicit drugs and chemicals.

Next the AUC used their considerable financial resources to deploy powerful armies in much of the country to "cleanse" territories of the guerrilla presence and victimize, systematically and massively, broad campesino [rural poor] groups through massacres and forced displacement in order to seize productive land. Over the last 25 years, the cruel narco-paramilitar machine has caused the forcible displacement of 34% of 5.5 million people [1.87 million]; and 7.5 million hectares [18.5 million acres] have been abandoned and plundered [valuable timber, minerals, etc.].

The exercise of violence and narco-paramilitary power in the territory served as a basis for infiltrating and establishing agreements with members of public and private institutions. Thus, the AUC consolidated de facto political and military power in municipalities and [state and federal] institutions. They managed local [municipal] public security and the budget of these entities. They established and signed pacts with businesspeople, mayors, governors, congressmen and candidates. They operated jointly with Colombia's intelligence agency director, and then managed to get close to 40 percent of the national congress elected during the 2002-2006 legislative season.

It is tempting to assume that in this situation, political leaders and public officials were victims of the renowned "silver or lead" choice; however, many times those leaders and officials sought out the criminals to win elections or eliminate electoral rivals. With more than "silver or lead" a criminal sector was consolidated with political and economic power in which the legal and illegal sectors of society mutually collaborated.

Today in Colombia, the successors of the old cartels and self-defense groups dominate the drug trade in the midst of terrible acts of violence. The "houses of pique" where corpses "disappear" are common in areas with intense drug trafficking activity and other illegal businesses such as arms trafficking and criminal mining; areas that, as is to be expected, are submerged in social and economic poverty. Even if the FARC signed a peace agreement with the Colombian State, surely some of their successors would continue the legacy of drug trafficking, criminal mining, extortion and violence in those regions.

So the criminal process continues in Colombia, not at the hands of the great cartels or narco-paramilitary armies with relatively rigid hierarchies, but at the hands of "gangs" with unstable, horizontal structures arising from a combination of deterioration, capture and institutional cooptation. Added to the capacity for carrying out violence and local power, this is a legacy stretching back now across two decades.

The "Águilas negras" [Back Eagles], "Rastrojos" [Stubble], "Urabeños" and "La Empresa" [The Company] are some names that have appeared on the list of "new cartels" in Colombia in the last decade. Flexible, these new cartels are capable of operating locally in the city and in the countryside. We are experiencing something similar today in Mexico with "Guerreros Unidos" [Warriors United in Guerrero] and the like. Without extensive or sophisticated military training, they practice massive violence as low as barbarism.

They Are Not Drug Cartels

The so-called "new" cartels or "micro" cartels, are not really cartels, but volatile networks that interact closely with politics, economics and local [municipal] public administration and are nourished by perverse social dynamics that have emerged amidst corruption, poverty and social inequality. They constitute the dimension of the exercise of local power managed by the same transnational criminal networks that operate across the Western Hemisphere.

But criminal ambition is not limited to the municipal level. Local power also allows them to aspire to state and federal power.

Nevertheless, in Mexico, "Drug Cartels" are still spoken of even when referring to local aspects of crime. This matter, which seems theoretical or rhetorical, leads to grave public policy errors with dire consequences in terms of human lives.

Speaking of "Drug Cartels" leads one to assume, naively, that there is a kingpin whose capture produces the collapse of the criminal structure, that only current criminal organizations participate in drug trafficking, and that it is sufficient to focus attention on strictly criminal agents. These assumptions lead to grave errors:

  1. •First, almost all public security policy focuses on capturing kingpins.

  2. •Second, what is neglected is the importance of criminal activities that earn profits, but which illustrate the operational power of criminal networks, such as kidnapping, extortion and human trafficking, minerals and hydrocarbons.

  3. •Third, also neglected is the importance of complex financial and political organizational structures that allow the flow of resources between legal and illegal sectors.

Spanish original

See also: Mexico in Crisis: Beyond the Drug Cartels - Part II.

*Luis Jorge Garay Salamanca, pursued Industrial Engineering studies, MA in Economics from the University of the Andes, Bogotá, Colombia; Ph.D. in Economics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Visiting researcher at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford (1981-1982), England, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) (1994). IDB consultant (1994-2001), United Nations Program for Development (2000-2002), National Planning Department of Colombia (1996-1998) and Comptroller General of the Republic of Colombia (2001-2002). Special Adviser to the Ministry of Finance for management of external debt and macroeconomic programming (1984-1991), Ministry of Foreign Trade in negotiating free trade agreements (1993-1994) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia.

**Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Philosophy, MA in Political Science from University of the Andes. Served as Area Coordinator in Methods and Teaching at the University of the Rosary in the areas of technology, evolution and genetics. He has written about crime and violence in Colombia and has been an advisor to Colombian State crime prevention agencies. He is author of the book "Corruption, Judgment and Sense" (2007) and coauthor of the book "The Capture and Coopted Reconfiguration of the State in Colombia"


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