Beleaguered security forces’ attempts to dismantle cartels and encroach on their vast territories are failing to stem the proliferation of violence in Mexico.
Former President Felipe Calderón’s policy directly confronting the groups succeeded in killing a significant number of kingpins. However, the cartels are no closer to loosening their grip on their hard-earned power.
The cartels’ ability to project violence across the region, traffic drugs and kidnap remains a significant security threat. Analysts speculate the approach of the new president, Enrique Nieto, will be to accommodate rather than confront the gangs, suggesting a possible policy shift over the coming years.
Economics of the Drug Trade
To fully understand the subtleties of how the cartels operate, their territorial disputes and aspirations for power, we must appreciate that they are driven by the basic economics of drugs. Officials estimate that drug-trafficking could constitute up to 4% of Mexican GDP, providing direct or indirect employment for a large proportion of its population.
Growing sophistication, industrialisation and trans-nationalisation of drug-trafficking colours cartel behaviour. When cocaine, for example, travels up the Latin American supply chain towards its end user, profit margins and associated risks significantly increase. Mexico’s geographic importance gives the cartels, now the senior partners, the power and leverage to negotiate a greater share of the profit.
Labelling a cartel as a purely business driven organisation is to misunderstand and over-simplify. The vast accumulated wealth, firearms and geographic stretch renders some of the gangs influential, albeit controversial, political players.
Mexican cartels are not ideological insurgencies in the traditional sense but are becoming increasingly motivated by and interested in political power, a seemingly natural transition from gang-warfare.
Infiltration into state infrastructure goes beyond small-scale localised kidnap, extortion and corruption and into positions of considerable power. Worryingly, the installation and integration of gang-influenced individuals is likely to continue while Mexican organised crime institutionalises.
Focusing briefly on Jalisco state, to the west, it is clear that gang politics is as complex as it is violent. According to Stratfor, The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, a growing criminal power which emerged from the Sinaloa Federation, is embroiled in a bitter turf war with Los Coroneles in addition to fighting The Gulf and Knights Templar cartels.
Nueva Generación’s departure from Sinaloa is emphatic of the internal power struggles which complicate gang-warfare and spill out into wider Mexican society. Jalisco state lies at the heart of this conflict, offering gangs an opportunity to control Guadalajara, seminal to Mexican drug-trafficking routes and infrastructure.
Sinaloa, arguably the region’s largest cartel, is likely to challenge for authority, drawing further groups into contention and escalating levels of violence. Jalisco’s local police and judiciary infrastructure are either corrupt or powerless to react to cartel politics and the perpetual problems arising from gang fractures.
The proposed policy shift is a marked departure from Calderón’s confrontational security response which actively targeted gang-leaders, potentially amplifying violence by creating a power vacuum. Nieto is acutely aware that Mexicans are weary of the pervasive violence and will broadly support a different and more nuanced approach.
Violence Intensifies and Uncertainty Remains
Focusing on reducing citizen-related violence and highlighting the plight of victims with the newly passed General Victims Law, policy-makers hope this will seem less war-like. Nieto confirmed, however, that military and paramilitary organisations–groups widely criticised for corruption and human rights violations–will still remain part of the security response. Consequently, bilateral tensions are anticipated with the US, whose priority remains stopping trafficking, and whose cooperation is desperately needed.
Nieto’s policies are unclear, with many questions of implementation unaddressed, the future of Mexico’s drug war is still undefined. The complexity, sophistication and continual fracture of some cartels continues to threaten the entire region’s security landscape, adding further instability.
Travellers, Mexicans and foreign nationals alike face significant risks as nationwide violence spills over from gang-related conflict. While drug-related profits, corrupt ineffective security and the potential for political influence continues to incentivise gangs to fight for power, violence may go unabated.