The Six Years War

As Felipe Calderon’s six-year term as President of Mexico came to an end, Nexos Magazine assembled a roundtable of writers and social scientists to debate the legacy of his most important program: deploying the military in Mexico’s own domestic war on drugs. The following is an excerpt from Nexos’ much longer transcript of the four hour discussion.

Denise Maerker:

I propose that we begin at the beginning, and ask ourselves what has happened to the country during this perfect storm of coincidences; the closure of narcotrafficking’s ‘Carribean Route,’ Mexico’s democratic transition which may have diluted existing mechanisms of social control, the historical weakness of [presidential]administrations and local police, the end of the ban on high powered weapons sales in the United States.

Eduardo Guerrero:

Since the 1980s there have been numerous episodes of violence linked to narcotrafficking in various parts of Mexico, but it seems to me that the question we are all really asking is this: Why is it that starting in May 2008, the number of murders linked to organized crime increased in such a sudden and sustained manner, to levels never seen before?

This increase in violence occurred at the moment that the Mexican government put the fight against narcotrafficking and the strengthening of the security sector at the top of its agenda.

And paradoxically, these government decisions intended to strengthen security are the key to explaining this extraordinary violence. Violence increases, for example, when capos are arrested, or when weapons and automobiles are seized. It seems to me that the current policy of arrests (and perhaps some of the seizures) are relevant to explaining the current violence.

Alejandro Hope:

One point we can maybe all agree on is that the root of the crisis is not structural. We know how weak the security and justice institutions are, but with these same police, and these same ministries, we saw a long and sustained fall in some indexes of violent crime, between, say, 1993 and 2007.

What is surprising, and what makes finding answers difficult, is the sudden rise which begins in 2008. To explain this, we have to examine conjunctural factors, between 2005 and 2008. Some of these factors are associated with the decisions of the government, but some are not.

For example, between 2007 and 2009, the price of cocaine in the United States rose. According to the DEA database, the price of cocaine doubled over those two years. So if you graph the homicide rate against the price of cocaine, you will see that the rates parallel one another.

This is one point, and not a trivial one. A second point is weapons. We do not have much information on this, but recent studies have shown that the availability of firearms seems to have increased the number of violent crimes in border communities.

A third point of conjuncture: the US government accelerated the deportation of ex-convicts starting in 2002. Between 2002 and 2008 the number of ex-convicts deported to Mexico increased by 35 percent, and grew even further in 2009 and 2010. In 2010 they deported something like 120 thousand ex-convicts; in 2002 it was 30 or 40 thousand.

Fernando Escalante:

I think we can agree that it is federal government policies, things the federal government has done, or stopped doing, during this presidential term, is the decisive factor for explaining the jump in violence.

There are other factors, but a change of this magnitude in a single year can only be explained by conjunctural factors. However, I think it is important to underline that what the federal government has done and has ceased to do did not only affect the criminal organizations Eduardo Guerrero talked about.

There are other forms of violence which have nothing to do with selling drugs. Mapping the violence regionally, the incidents not associated with narcotrafficking seems to me to be even more serious; not so much the disputes between criminal organizations, which are eventually resolved, but this other violence which has insinuated itself into the country.

Denise Maerker:

There is a fundamental question about the inevitability of the state’s intervention.

Was intervention desirable? Was it necessary?

Eduardo Guerrero:

I would hazard, correct me if I am wrong, that around this table we agree that the government must fight organized crime and criminality. What is surprising is how rushed the government was to launch the offensive.

Only ten days after taking power, on December 11, the new government launched its first operation, in Michoacan; with, as it happened, apparently positive results. In that year, 2006, Michoacan was the most violent state in the country. There were assassinations of police commanders, and statements by the governor, Lazaro Cardenas, that traveling through some municipalities of Michoacan was no longer possible. Since the end of Vicente Fox’s term [as President, in 2006]this governor had sought the intervention of the federal government.

It appears that it was not Fox who responded to the request, but Felipe Calderon, (who was of course born in Michoacan). With this federal government operation, the violence subsided, and there were important seizures and arrests. The president’s approval ratings increased as well.

The intervention was the president’s response to a demand from society. The struggle was politically convenient, given the conditions [a disputed election]under which the president had taken power. The element of surprise was important in the Michoacan operation, but this factor was no longer present in the next ones, and the effectiveness gradually declined.

Ana Laura Magaloni:

It is not clear to me what we are calling a crisis of criminality.

Who is really threatening society? The ‘other forms of violence’ that Fernando Escalante talked about, or the violence of organized crime?

I say this in reference to the question of whether the state’s intervention was inevitable or necessary. We have to ask ourselves: Inevitable or necessary for what?

I do not know what was the indicator showing that intervention was absolutely necessary. Other than in Michoacan, homicides were declining; violence was not a real problem. Today we have a level of violence that seems uncontainable, and crimes which are damaging society: kidnapping, extorsion, murder.

Why was intervention necessary? Because, doubtless, in these years the phenomenon had changed: We are facing another phenomenon which requires other kinds of intervention. It is important to define the crisis of criminality we are talking about, why it was necessary for the sate to put the army and the police on the streets. Because if we can’t agree about that, we won’t be able to understand if it was the right thing to do or not.

Joaquin Villalobos:

There is one important factor that is not so much linked to the number of homicides: I am referring to a change in the characteristics of violence between 2005 and 2007. Violence in Mexico before those years was minimally brutal, was not particularly systematic, and was not organized.

However, near the end of Vicente Fox’s term, a form of violence began to appear that was systematic, organized, and with an extraordinary degree of brutality; a qualitatively distinct form which was associated with structural factors like the illegal drug market, the evolution of organized crime groups, and the weakness of state institutions.

I would suggest that there was a qualitative change between 2005 and 2007, and this change fully manifested itself in 2008. This new violence led, necessarily, to the intervention of the state; it contained a level of intimidation that was too powerful, that threatened the state’s authority; a challenge completely different from that posed by normal violence.

Here is an even clearer example: When the eruption in Chiapas began in 1994 [the Zapatista rebellion], the number of homicides were not very high; in fact there was hardly any violence, but the state’s reaction was proportionate to the potential problem, both in terms of the forces it deployed and in terms of its willingness for dialogue and to invest social capital in the area.

In other words, the state cannot only base its response to this kind of problem on numbers; the phenomenon has to be analyzed from a distance. And what happened in Mexico between 2005 and 2007 is that violence and those carrying it out began to challenge the state. It couldn’t be kept under the rug anymore, you might say.

Guillermo Valdes:

If we compare the level of violence in 2010 and 2011 with that of 2006 and 2007, certainly the state’s intervention cannot be justified, because the level of violence in 2006 was very low, but I would like to put things in perspective.

The current level of violence, the more than 40,000 people killed in recent years, would not have happened if there had not been a slow process of accumulation of what we might call ‘criminal density.’

In order for there to be 40,000 dead in five years, there have to be a very large number of armed criminals on the street. It is simply impossible to build armies with this kind of training, equipment, and disposition for violence overnight. The process of accumulation had already begun by 2007.

The question is: Why here? Sure, we have to go into conjunctural reasons to explain all of this, but I would also point at a somewhat more historical reason that these organizations were so powerful in 2007. Starting at the end of the 1980s, the various groups dedicated to drug trafficking coalesced into two large organizations: The Federation-comprising the Juarez Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel and the Pacific Cartel- and on the other side, the Gulf Cartel.

Starting in 1997, a period of fragmentation began, and by 2006, there were no longer two, but six cartels: Tijuana, Pacific, Juarez, La Familia, Gulf and the Zetas (who although part of the Gulf Cartel had become increasingly autonomous since 2003). The fragmentation led to violence in various parts of the country, such as Nuevo Laredo in 2005 and Michoacan in 2006.

What we have been seeing since 2008 is a conjunction of very violent conflicts between these organizations, whose logic is to end the fragmentation so that only two remain: on one side, a Pacific Cartel (if it were able to defeat or take control of the Tijuana, Juarez and Beltran Leyva groups), while the other would be the winner of the struggle between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas. The wars of the Pacific Cartel against its adversaries explain a bit more than half of the homicides of this presidential term. And the conflicts between the Gulf Cartel and its adversaries ad up to another 30 percent of the murders.

Ana Laura Magaloni:

Guillermo’s concept of “criminal density” is interesting. But it is worth noting that this criminal density was at one point not violent, and now it is. Mexico had an orderly or contained criminal density, in a country where the line between legality and illegality was, historically, never very clear.

Natalia Mendoza:

Eduardo Guerrero suggests that there has been a fragmentation of the cartels. On a certain level, this may be true. What is interesting is that on a local level, there is a different reality. In 2005, when I did fieldwork in Altar, Sonora, the cartels weren’t part of the local reality: rather, there were a series of small narcotraffickers who worked as subcontractors or even independently.

These same narcos might say: ‘On TV, it says everything around here is the territory of El Chapo, but I don’t know anything about that; I buy weed from what’s-his-name…’

The feeling you get these days in a place like Altar is that drug trafficking has ‘cartelized.’ Meaning that as it got more difficult to get across the US border, narcotraffickers who had worked more or less independently, saw the necessity of allying themselves with powerful organizations who could afford to pay assassins and negotiate with higher levels of the military and police hierarchies. The feeling of belonging to a cartel gradually becomes stronger.

I don’t buy the idea that a bunch of families live off the trafficking of drugs is, in and of itself a threat to the ‘logic of the state,’ at least no more seriously than, say systematic tax evasion is. Nor is it certain that the kind of relatively independent drug trafficking that existed before, necessarily brings about the kind of violence we are living through today.

The perverse effect of federal involvement in the fight against drug trafficking is that the cartels have put down much deeper local roots, and have professionalized-they operate more and more with salaried employees- and of course have become much more violent.

We have mistaken our enemy: Mexico’s problem is not the sale of drugs in the US., but violence. Fighting it requires a different kind of response on the part of the state.

Eduardo Guerrero:

It seems to me that the policy of capturing the members of criminal organizations has ended up having a peculiar effect on the operation of the cartels: The expectations of mid-level cartel commanders about their interactions with the capos have changed radically (in terms of how informal contracts between them are carried out).

This is a key point, because contracts inside the cartels are verbal and informal. The only guarantee of their completion is the reputation of the leader with whom it is agreed, and his continuing leadership. When the leader is constantly being removed – either because he’s been arrested or because he’s been killed – the incentives for the mid-level commanders to keep participating in the cartel disappear, and many cells split off from the organization. Thus the theme of fragmention of the organizations, and the launching of ‘localized businesses’ like extortion, drug-dealing and kidnapping. Systematic, and apparently haphazard arrests of capos has ended up leading to structural changes in the working of these organizations, which has itself produced more violence.