Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

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

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Organized Crime Beyond Drug Trafficking

by Shannon K. O'Neil
March 16, 2012

A person walks past a glass door damaged by bullets at the police headquarters where Marisol Valles Garcia used to work in Praxedis G. Guerrero (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters). A person walks past a glass door damaged by bullets at the police headquarters where Marisol Valles Garcia used to work in Praxedis G. Guerrero (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Harvard’s winter 2012 ReVista magazine focuses on crime and violence primarily in Mexico and Central America. Many of the authors were participants in a Harvard-sponsored working group, bringing together scholars and researchers from the university, as well as from other institutions in the United States and throughout the region to delve into the many complicated issues surrounding these themes. The articles are short, well-written, and quite useful to get a broad overview of the various perspectives on the reasons behind the rising tide of violence and of what may lay ahead.

On the explanation side, Noel Mauer provides a concise synopsis of the long-term factors behind today’s violence in Mexico, and an explanation of the shifting business model (away from drugs, toward extortion, kidnapping, contraband, and the like) that fuel today’s violence. Eduardo Guerrero’s piece expands on the more recent factors behind these bloody changes, specifically the policy choices of the Calderón administration.

Many of the authors explore the changing dynamics on the gróound, and in particular the fragmentation of the cartels. Yet unlike Colombia, where fragmentation helped bring down the violence, in Mexico it has fueled the mayhem – at least in the short to medium term. Morris Paneer (along with Eduardo Guerrero) point out that the “cartels” no longer deserve that moniker; instead we are talking more about local gangs and even freelancers than disciplined hierarchical multinational organizations. The diversification into new “businesses” has just exacerbated this trend.

While presenting new challenges, at least some of the scholars see hope in these shifts. Most expect smaller organizations to be easier for the government to take on. Viridiana Rios and Gabriel Aguilera describe the current structure in almost goldilocks terms – not too dominant, not too dispersed – perhaps just right for ongoing reforms and efforts by the Mexican government and others to succeed. Paneer too sees these smaller units as more manageable, something improved law enforcement (as opposed to the military) could theoretically tackle. These authors, as well as many of the others, also see greater potential for communities to “take back” local neighborhoods with this fragmentation. One hopes this is the case, as civic engagement is vital for Mexico’s (and the other nations facing similar security threats) longer lasting security. Though many end on optimistic notes, all see these as long-term processes that will demand the attention and dedication of the next Mexican president and legislature to make progress.

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