Shannon K. O'Neil

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O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Explaining Violence in Mexico

by Shannon K. O'Neil
December 5, 2011

Soldiers stand guard in their military vehicle outside a clandestine drug processing laboratory discovered in Zapotlanejo (Courtesy Reuters).

There are many theories out  there about why we have seen a huge uptick in violence in Mexico – now running close to 25,000 homicides a year. An interesting academic paper by Melissa Dell, PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),  tests one particular theory – elaborated by Eduardo Guerrero among others — that the policies spearheaded by Calderón and the PAN more generally have actually caused the increase in violence.  To do so she uses statistical models to examine how PAN victories in close mayoral elections affect violence locally, and whether they have “spillover effects”, causing traffickers to divert their routes to neighboring municipalities.

She finds that when a new PAN mayor comes in after a close election, homicides become 9 percent more likely, and drug traffickers are much more prone to have confrontations with the police. The movement of drugs also shifts to nearby towns  — causing an increase in violence there — confirming the so-called cucaracha, or cockroach, effect.  Dell argues that government’s policy is behind these statistically significant differences, and specifically that the PAN’s decisions — from top to bottom — to take on drug traffickers more aggressively than other parties is behind the surge.

This rigorous analysis is extremely helpful, and is the type of work that academics should be sharing with policymakers on both sides of the border. Yet we should also be mindful of the limitations.  For one, Dell only considers locally produced drugs – marijuana, heroin, meth – leaving out the biggest cash cow, cocaine. Her analysis also exclusively focuses on drugs and not organized criminal groups’ other businesses such as extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking (she does nod to these, but finds no adequate dataset to use). As the business model has changed, so too have the targets, bringing these criminal groups much closer to the general population –as customers and as prey.

This leads to the third limitation – the assumption that “more than 85 percent of the [drug] violence consists of people involved in the drug trade killing each other,” a figure repeated a number of times without any footnotes. Though this has albeen the mantra of the federal government over the last five years, so far neither the Mexican government nor outside sources have provided any proof that this is true. Of the nearly 50,000 drug trade-related deaths since 2006, the Attorney General’s office has investigated less than 1,000 (and solved less than 350). Given the shifting commercial interests of the criminals (bringing them closer to innocent civilians), it seems doubtful that the deaths are  still almost all between the gangsters themselves, or that the percentage of bad guys killing bad guys hasn’t changed.  Indeed, as a recent Human Rights Watch report points out, there are many cases of misclassification, where the authorities presume that murder victims are linked to drug traffickers until proven otherwise (which they rarely are, since the Attorney General’s office investigates less than 2 percent of the killings). The rise in extrajudicial killings by the military, also laid out in detail by Human Rights Watch, further questions these claims.

Finally Dell makes the assumption –  repeated in the press and elsewhere – that drug-related violence picked up with Calderón and his “war against narcotraffickers.” But the data show that the uptick started earlier, under president Fox, increasing some 40 percent from 2004 to 2005, and another 25 percent from 2005-2006. This doesn’t necessarily disqualify a PAN-ista effect (given both Fox and Calderón hail from the same party), but it needs to be explored more, as the security policies of the two differed in some respects.

The paper provides some policy suggestions, particularly regarding how to best use scarce law enforcement resources (for starters, don’t set up roadblocks). But the other more ominous implication is that if drug traffickers are rational economic actors, and PAN victories are so costly for them (in terms of relocating their routes or bringing in competitors), it makes sense for them to invest up front – and buy more local elections. As we head into 2012, all should be worried about this conclusion.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Ed Juline


    Excellent commentary, as always.

    Have you read Ioan Grillo’s new book, El Narco?

    What do you think?


  • Posted by Chris L

    Thank you for the article. While I can appreciate the difficulty in explaining the violence in Mexico, I wonder how much of it derives from a US policy mistake. Listening to George Schultz in March and then last week discuss the War on Drugs, I continue to think he’s correct that it is not winnable given our insatiable demand for the underlying products. I’m increasingly of the belief that a more relaxed drug stance (legalizing the production and use of some drugs like marijuana) would rapidly change the environment on the ground in Mexico. Would appreciate your thoughts (or link to prior thoughts if you’ve already written about this). Warm regards –

  • Posted by Shannon K. O'Neil

    Leaving aside the question of what “legalization” means — which narcotics we are talking about and how exactly we’d control them — as well as the question of the public health and ancillary crime implications, the effects of legalization for Mexico and for violence are still unclear. Legalization would significantly cut into Mexican criminal organizations’ profits and disrupt their business model — all positive results. But organized crime networks now are involved in a host of other businesses – extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking – and these are only likely to grow to replace the lost revenue from legalization.

    Mexico’s continued problem is that there is no legal deterrent to crime. Over 80 percent of all crimes are never reported; few that are reported are investigated. Only 1 or 2 of every 100 crimes is solved. So until Mexico has a functioning court and police system, crime (and associated violence) will likely continue, whatever the underlying products and businesses entail.

  • Posted by Elaine W

    Shannon, excellent research. I live in the heart of Mexico – Michoacán– and most of our people agree with you on many issues. Our people live in fear. I have a ministry and am associated with many in surrounding areas and states so I know some of what is going on. We are not allowed to discuss goings-on locally. Someone from every extended family is working in these mafias, and you never know who. They can never leave the mafia alive.

    As you know, Mexico has some multi-millionaires and not from drug traffic as many in the USA think. It’s called old money. One wealthy businessman sent his son to the USA to the best universities, and the son took over the family business in another state. He was kidnapped, and the father gave several million dollars for his ransom. The young man was found brutally murdered. The family wisely decided to report it as an auto accident to not draw attention to the family or their wealth that could generate a repeat kidnapping of another family member.

    Michoacán is like some of the deep-south USA states where the salary is minimal. A domestic worker gets about $13 dollars a day here and a brick mason gets about $20 a day, after starting at $7.00 as a helper learning the trade, and many prices are higher here than in the USA. Transportation takes approximately 10% of their wages. (I once told a worker that I would pray that the average wage increased. She asked me to please not pray that way as inflation eats them alive every time there is an increase in wages.) If someone reading this doesn’t believe me concerning prices, go to central Mexico and see. I have been here more than 25 years and can vouch for it. I have the blessing of buying in both countries for the best price. I threw this in only to point out that young boys are enticed into a pseudo-religious organization, where the members carry and distribute Bibles, don’t smoke or take drugs, but sell them and cut off heads. This group has reorganized and does not seem to have the power that it had last year after their leader was killed on December 9. We had an extremely high number of kidnappings last year where all family members had to borrow cash for ransom, and the victim had to sign over all properties to them to be released. These people (victims) are called the new rich and are several levels more affluent than our middle class in the USA. The mafia threatens them and makes them sign over their late-model trucks or their families will be killed. I am hearing practically none of this in 2011, thank God!

    Our pastors are not being threatened to give the mafia their tithes from their churches as protection to keep their doors open as they were last year. I am aware of the kidnapping of the pastor in the large church in Lazaro Cardenas in April of this year who was taken at gun point wile preaching. He was set free.

  • Posted by Tony Maza

    Part of the problem is that we have no reliable statistics from the years of the PRI regime. Some believe that killings were as high as they are today, but freedom of speech was not a fundamental right that a PRI government was willing to uphold which might explain at least in part the sudden and dramatic surge in the number of killings. However, even today PRI governed states are among the worse regarding drug related violence. Those who know more about the problem affecting both of our countries should realize that the return of the PRI would make things even worse.

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