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Criminal Violence in Mexico: Between the Stealthy and the Unintended

In this article, Ricardo Márquez Blas discusses two factors that continue to profoundly impact the rise of violence in Mexico.

President López Obrador came into power in December 2018 promising to end the war on drugs, and to bring down violence levels in the country. In the 18 months since then, however, we have seen a continuation of existing approaches to fighting organized crime and ever-rising levels of homicide and other violent crimes.

In this short article, I address two factors that continue to profoundly impact the rise of violence in Mexico.

I. A Stealthy Retreat

In Mexican public security institutions, at least during the last decade, there is a stealthy but clear tendency towards functional retreat in front of criminality, particularly in the face of organized crime. This functional retreat represents an important factor to explain the very high levels of violence in Mexico.

This retreat has not been expressed in official public policy documents on security. It is not an official strategy but rather a stealthy reality of the way in which the country's police operate daily.

According to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), in the period from 2010 to 2018, while the total number of crimes that occurred in the country increased by 42.8 percent, the interventions of the state and municipal police did so only by 9.5 percent. Likewise, while in 2010 there was one police intervention for every 4.2 crimes that occurred, in 2018 there was one for every 5.4 crimes.

In practical terms, this implies, on the one hand, lower levels of police efficiency to discourage the commission of crimes; and, on the other, that the police increasingly intervene less in the crimes that have occurred.

Within the framework of this general trend towards the functional retreat of the criminal sphere, there are important differences according to the type of crime and the police corporation.

Type of crime: police interventions for alleged crimes of the federal jurisdiction, usually linked to organized crime, were reduced by 76.8 percent and those corresponding to crimes of common jurisdiction by 32.1 percent; that is, the functional retreat of the police has clearly been greater in federal crimes than in common law.

Type of police corporation: the functional retreat has been greater in state police corporations than in municipal police, since while in the former, interventions for alleged crimes of the federal and common jurisdiction were reduced by 81 percent and 41.2 percent, respectively; in the latter, they decreased by 70.9 percent and 27.1 percent.

In contrast to this retreat from the criminal field, the interventions of the country's police for alleged administrative offenses increased by 29 percent.

Thus, in their daily actions, the country's police have privileged attention to the problems associated with civilized coexistence and the civic behavior of citizens, rather than controlling crime, especially organized crime.

II. Unintended Consequences

The governments of Mexico and the United States have expressed as one of their highest priorities to counter illegal drug trafficking and the lethal violence that derives from organized crime activities. However, historical experience shows that at least some of the operations and actions recently implemented by both governments would have unanticipated consequences clearly opposed to what was planned.

A) On the first day of last April, in order to prevent drug cartels from taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the shipment of illegal drugs, the U.S. government announced the strengthening of anti-drug operations by air and sea in the Pacific and the Caribbean in charge of the Southern Command. In that announcement, Attorney General William Barr reiterated that one of the U.S. Department of Justice’s highest priorities is the destruction of the Mexican cartels.

Beyond good intentions, recent historical experience shows that a perverse effect of this blockade by sea and air is that the transportation of drugs is carried out by land and this, in turn, implies: i) the empowerment of Mexican cartels in the hierarchy of transnational organized crime, due to the greater relevance that the transportation of illicit drugs through national territory gives them; ii) the intensification of their disputes over the control of the zones of entry, transport routes, distribution, and exit from the country of illicit drugs; and iii) the continuity and intensification of lethal violence in Mexico.

In February 2015, on a visit to Mexico, former President Bill Clinton apologized for precisely those kinds of public policy decisions: “We redirected transportation out of the air and water, and then everything happened by land, and I apologize for it." Thus, recent historical experience clearly shows some of the unintended but foreseeable consequences of such operation.

B) Although pointed out as main factors in the impressive growth that lethal violence has had in Mexico, since its beginning the current federal administration has insisted that it will not confront organized crime organizations, especially those dedicated to drug trafficking, nor it will systematically persecute its leaders. Despite this, 2019 registered a new record of intentional homicides in the country (35,620).

Such a position is highly disconcerting when one considers that between 65 and 80 percent of lethal interpersonal violence is linked to organized crime. It is even more puzzling because in the case of another of the determining factors of lethal violence, the availability of firearms—7 out of 10 homicides are committed with such weapons—the federal authority has conferred the highest of the priorities and has requested the cooperation of the U.S. government to jointly face this problem.

It is worth noting, first, that the weapons do not fire by themselves and that the evidence shows that, in the vast majority of cases, those who operate these weapons to deprive other people of life are part of organized crime organizations; and second, that the policy of not confronting them or systematically persecuting their leaders is in stark contrast to the position of the U.S. government to destroy the Mexican cartels and bring to justice those who lead them. With the available evidence, it is possible to foresee that, without a defined and effective policy to counter the actions of organized crime, the probabilities of controlling and reducing lethal violence in Mexico are very low.

About the Author

Ricardo Márquez Blas

Security Analyst
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more