mexico’s drug violence: a mass atrocities approach

I read Patrick Keefe’s recent operational analysis of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel with significant interest, not simply as an insightful understanding of one of Latin America’s largest transnational social networks, but also as a nuanced, complex handling of the sub-state politics of mass atrocities. As topically-focused atrocity watchers, the atrocities prevention community has a tendency to ignore, minimize, or dismiss Mexico’s drug violence as a “different issue”; a brief survey of atrocities/R2P-focused human rights organizations demonstrates that, with the exception of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, which has recently expanded its atrocities prevention work to Latin America, Mexico’s atrocity-laden violence remain entirely unaddressed.

And yet, the fact of mass atrocities persists. Violence between Calderon’s security forces and drug cartels has killed approximately 50,000 people since 2006, when the Calderon administration escalated its operations against Mexico’s organized crime syndicates; to add anecdote to statistic, instances of mass violence against civilians are particularly, creatively gruesome. Geographical evidence suggests that, far from random lawlessness, Mexico’s escalating spate of murders represents a systematic characteristic of intrastate violence: between the end of 2006 and mid-2010, seven percent of the country’s municipalities experienced 80 percent of reported murders, according to the Inter-American Dialogue. Security-force and drug-cartel violence has continued to erode popular perceptions of civilian security, and persistently undermine public confidence in Mexican law enforcement, in spite of Calderon’s public-facing, U.S.-supported counter-crime campaign.

Calderon’s security approach has yielded few positive results for Mexico’s populace, and instability has worsened, rather than improved, under his administration; in the absence of an effective interlocutor, the international community will have to wait until Mexico’s upcoming presidential transition to facilitate a shift in security, counternarcotics, and stabilization policies. With that said, Mexico’s drug violence will likely get worse before it improves; the evolution of atrocity events will, unfortunately, follow the same path. According to Greg Weeks, cartel-related violence has also metastasized: as cartel networks become more diffuse, related murders have occurred in a wider variety of Mexican municipalities. In spite of Mexico’s economic growth, its institutional capacity to mitigate the acute and structural factors of cartel violence will remain limited, absent a decisive shift in political consolidation. In the meantime,  an atrocities prevention-infused framework for conflict assessment and early warning may prove useful. A preventive approach necessitates a thorough understanding of indicator signposts: that is, how do we know when atrocities are likely to escalate, and in which circumstances?

A broad range of atrocities indicators and forecasting models have emerged over the past fifteen years; most frameworks have centered around an intent-related “genocide and politicide” classification, as articulated by political scientist and Political Instability Task Force adviser Barbara Harff. Gregory Stanton’s Eight Stages of Genocide and the UN Office of the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide (UNOSAPG)’s analysis framework incorporate similar criteria, defined by an escalatory, intra-societal trend in political, ethnic, religious, or social fragmentation. More recent efforts, however, including Jay Ulfelder’s (unfinished) public early warning system and Chris Blattman’s Liberia-oriented conflict prediction research, have centered on a more general range of political institutions and indicators. The indicators to follow will use the latter approach, given ethnic fractionalization’s secondary role in cartel dynamics. Additionally, the indicators focus on Mexico’s internal politics, despite foreign drug consumption’s well-established contribution to Mexico’s illicit narcotics supply chain. In the interest of brevity, I selected two qualitative indicators, culled from Keefe’s analysis of Sinaloa operations, Mexican politics, and intra-organizational dynamics:

Corruption: As Keefe’s interviewees indicate, corruption is the primary driver of continued cartel mobilization in Mexico. As Michael Busch suggests in his recent, excellent post on organized crime and international relations theory, the Mexican state bears a striking similarity to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “disaggregated state,” an amalgam of transnational networks, political institutions, and illicit trafficking operations. Under a “disaggregated state” model, illicit actors conduct dynamic interactions with legitimate, established institutions, seeking to wield influence within local, regional, and international political spheres. As Mexico’s corruption levels increase, drug operations expand; as the cartels’ networks emerge, bolstered by their infiltration of Mexican political and security institutions, incentives for violence–against rival cartels, as well as security forces–increase. Mexican security forces may step up their operations, capacity, and reach, but if corrupt practices continue to persist, there’s little hope of restoring basic security to Mexico’s citizens.

Cartel Fragmentation: Since 2006, instances of localized cartel fragmentation have functioned as flash-points for violent upticks, with substantial consequences for proximate civilian populations. The evolution of Tijuana’s cartel violence, as described by Vanda Felbab-Brown, provides an instructive example. The Arellano Felix cartel–or, more popularly, the Tijuana cartel–operated widely between the 1960s and early 1990s, when Mexican and U.S. security agencies began to crack down on trafficking in the Mexican border town. The cartel hit its low point in 2008, when, following its organizational demise, the Tijuana organization fragmented: one faction merged with an ally of the notorious Zetas; the other, with the Sinaloa cartel. A Tijuana turf battle ensued, due to Tijuana’s essential role as a logistical hub for U.S. trafficking operations. The cartel violence, much of which affected Tijuana’s civilian populace, served a number of purposes, not the least of which was a signaling mechanism: we’ll pick up the operational pieces, or you’ll face this level of brutality. While a manpower-heavy police operation stabilized Tijuana, Sinaloa was able to claim operational victory, securing its cartel monopoly throughout the city. Since 2010, Tijuana has encountered a measure of stability; as rogue cartel groups emerge, however, contained outbreaks of violence persist on the city’s outskirts. The lessons are scalable: Sinaloa’s operational dominance throughout Mexico will fragment, as occurs with all diffuse, networked organizations; when it does, atrocity-heavy, inter-organizational violence is likely to resume.

What am I missing? As Michael Busch observed, there’s not enough research taking place on the intersection between organized crime and international relations theory; the same applies for organized crime, trafficking operations, and mass atrocities, as Central America’s gang violence trends demonstrate. As this blog’s content demonstrates, my regional focus tends towards sub-Saharan Africa–insofar as Latin American conflict and atrocities dynamics persist, however, I’d like to diversify my regional base. Comments from Latin Americanists are most welcome.

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