By Scott Stewart, Vice President of Analysis, and Tristan Reed
Last week we read an article discussing the idea that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto was somehow going to be able to create a "new narco-reality" in Mexico. The article theorized that if the Mexican government were to soften its investigation of drug crimes, the administration could defuse the situation and thus violence would decrease. The author of the article is not alone in exploring this line of reasoning. In fact, the article expresses a theoretical shift in approach we have often heard while discussing the problem of violence in Mexico with both Mexicans and interested foreigners.
Unfortunately, reducing the levels of violence is not quite that simple. The nature and origins of violence in Mexico severely constrain the Mexican government. Because of these constraints, merely lessening the government's prosecution of drug crimes will have little impact on the level of violence. Therefore, the theoretical argument will remain just that.
Nature and History
When analyzing the violence in Mexico it is helpful to put the violent incidents into one of three distinct categories: incidents that result from government action against the criminals, incidents that result from one criminal group attacking another and incidents that are the result of criminals attacking innocent citizens.
By reducing the tempo at which it prosecutes the drug war, the Mexican government could influence the number of incidents in the first category — government action against cartel figures. Clearly these incidents can and do provoke a considerable amount of violence.
Tristan recently visited the street corner in Matamoros where Antonio Cardenas Guillen, also known as "Tony Tormenta," was killed by government troops in November 2010. Even though the incident occurred more than two years ago, the neighborhood still shows significant damage from the ferocious firefight that erupted between the military and Cardenas Guillen's bodyguards. The scene was reminiscent of the damage Tristan saw while in Iraq and Afghanistan and not something normally associated with a law enforcement operation, especially one within small arms range of the United States (the firefight forced an evacuation of the University of Texas at Brownsville campus).
But, while quite dramatic, such operations are relatively rare. The government simply does not initiate the majority of violent incidents in Mexico and is not even involved in most of the violence. Many of the deadliest incidents in Mexico have no government involvement at all, such as the May 2011 ambush in Nayarit state in which 29 cartel gunmen were killed; the July 2010 ambush in Saric, Sonora, in which more than 20 cartel gunmen were killed; the August 2011 casino arson in Monterrey in which 52 people were killed; the killing of 72 migrants on a bus in Tamaulipas state in August 2010; and the hundreds of victims displayed in the dueling body dumps by Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel in each other's territory in 2011 and 2012. Even in the prolonged firefights in Reynosa in March 2013, there are reports that the government allowed the two warring criminal groups to fight for hours before getting involved in the fray.
Indeed, while the popular narrative is to ascribe the beginning of Mexico's cartel war to a campaign launched by former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, this is simply not the case. The escalation began well before Calderon was elected, and it was not government actions but a change in narcotics smuggling routes to the United States and competition over those routes between Mexican criminal groups that really sparked the escalation of violence.
This dynamic first became visible in the early 1990s when Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera and his Sinaloa Federation partners sent forces from Sinaloa state into Tijuana, Baja California state — controlled at the time by the Arellano Felix brothers — to buy stash houses and construct tunnels for moving drugs across the border. In response, the brothers tortured and killed Sinaloa operatives in Tijuana and even tried to assassinate El Chapo. The war between Sinaloa and the Arellano Felix brothers sparked a prolonged season of violence in Tijuana that eventually led Mexico's president at the time, Ernesto Zedillo, to dispatch Mexican soldiers to the city in 2000 in an attempt to quell the violence.
A similar escalation occurred in Tamaulipas state in 2003, following the arrest of Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, when El Chapo and Sinaloa made an attempt to seize control of the lucrative Nuevo Laredo plaza. This incursion caused a powerful counterattack by Los Zetas, and a bloody, protracted struggle erupted in the city. By mid-2005 law and order had completely broken down in Nuevo Laredo, and then-President Vicente Fox deployed the army to the city to reassert government control.
Currently in Tamaulipas, the federal police and the military control security, and the local police have been disarmed in some cities, such as Reynosa. In such an environment it will be impossible for the federal government to disengage without first rebuilding local and state police forces to provide security.
The bottom line is that since the federal government has not initiated most of the violence in Mexico, a decision by the government not to pursue drug investigations would do little to quell the violence.
Beyond this general history of cartel-initiated and cartel-driven violence, there is the changing nature of the Mexican cartels themselves. Perhaps the most significant of these changes has been the fragmentation that has occurred among the cartels. After many years of relative stasis, where there were a handful of large cartel organizations that controlled relatively large areas, the cartel groups and the territory they control have entered a dynamic period. In 2006 and 2007 it was possible for us to do an annual report that explained the main dynamics of the Mexican cartels, but due to the rapid changes in 2010 we felt compelled to do a mid-year update in May. By 2011, the quickly changing cartel landscape demanded that we provide quarterly updates as older organizations splintered and newer organizations rose from them. This process has shown no sign of stopping.
The trend toward fragmentation is partly a result of the Mexican and U.S. governments' policy of seeking to decapitate the cartel groups, but it is too simplistic to suggest that Mexican policy is the sole cause of this fragmentation. In many cases, the reasons are much more complicated. For example, the largest of these new fragment groups, Los Zetas, split from the Gulf cartel nearly seven years after the capture of Gulf cartel leader Cardenas and almost a year before the death of his replacement — and brother — Antonio Cardenas Guillen.
Los Zetas split from the Gulf cartel after they staged what was essentially a failed hostile takeover of the organization and the other leaders resisted their attempt — and resented their greed and arrogance. This resulted in friction between the traditional leadership of the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas that then led to all-out war between the two organizations when a Gulf cartel gunmen killed a Zetas member.
It is true that the killing of Antonio Cardenas Guillen led to additional splintering of the Gulf cartel and to a bitter struggle for control of the organization in 2011 and 2012, but the organization was arguably weakened far more by Los Zetas' insurrection than it was by his death. Currently, the Gulf cartel is very weak and appears to be not a unified organization but a scattered collection of smaller groups fighting to retain control of Matamoros and Reynosa.
The proliferation of these smaller organized crime groups has also resulted in increased friction, and the increase in violence we have seen in places like Acapulco and Guadalajara in recent years is a direct consequence of this. The violence is not just occurring in one or two border towns; it is stretching over a large portion of the country and encompasses several states.
There are also some who cling to the idea that Pena Nieto can forge some sort of agreement with the cartels and return to the way that his predecessors in the Institutional Revolutionary Party used to deal with and accommodate the cartels in the past. However, given the current cartel dynamics, the situation in Mexico is very different than it was under former presidents, such as Zedillo and Carlos Salinas de Gortari. There simply are too many moving parts and too many cartel groups with which to deal.
Another constraint that prevents the Mexican government from taking a hands-off approach to the criminal cartels is that they are no longer simply drug trafficking organizations. They have evolved into something else.
In the 1990s the cartels were mostly focused on trafficking Colombian cocaine to the United States and producing their own marijuana, black tar heroin and synthetic drugs that they then transported to the United States. However, over the past decade the costs of the protracted wars among the cartels and the impact that these wars have had on some groups' ability to produce or traffic drugs have led many groups to branch out into other crimes.
These other criminal endeavors include kidnapping, extortion, human smuggling and cargo theft. Los Zetas also make a considerable amount of money stealing oil from Mexico's state-run oil company and pirating CDs and DVDs. This other criminal behavior is what sparks many territorial fights in areas that are outside the traditional drug production areas and border crossings.
It is not necessary to entirely control a highway or transportation hub to push drugs through — both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement struggle to even slightly interdict the overall drug flow, and a Mexican gang will not be any more successful. But when two opposing groups are using the same turf, and are selling drugs on the streets, extorting businesses or running kidnapping rings, then it's crucial that they keep competitors away so they do not harm profits. This increasing focus on local drug sales also means that drugs are becoming more of an acute Mexican problem rather than just a problem for the Americans.
This drift toward localized crime and drug distribution is one of the major causes of the current violence in states such as Morelos, Mexico, Jalisco, Guanajuato and Quintana Roo. This change has been reflected in law enforcement acronyms. The Mexican cartels are no longer referred to as DTOs, or drug trafficking organizations, but rather TCOs, or transnational criminal organizations, in recognition of the other crimes they are involved in.
A "new narco-reality" has already dawned in Mexico. The environment is vastly different from what it was in the 1990s, and there is no going back. The changes that have occurred to and among the Mexican cartels, and the amount of violence the organizations precipitate without government involvement, mean that it will be extremely difficult for the Pena Nieto administration to ignore the cartels' activities and adopt this theoretical hands-off approach.