Unravelling the Roots of the Upsurge of Criminal Violence in Mexico

Illegal drug trafficking is not inherently violent. The horrific surge of violence that began in Mexico in 2006 thus requires some specific explanation.

The most common account is that when President Calderon turned the force of the state on to organized crime groups, the old arrangements were overturned and a cycle of violence began. The drug kingpins used violence against government officials and citizens in an attempt to intimidate the state into giving up on enforcement. Further, as gangs were de-capitated, they broke into smaller groups warring for supremacy with each other.

But this account may be entirely wrong or only partly correct. Evidence presented this week in Bogota at the conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy shows that there was another enormous shock to the criminal system concurrent with Calderon’s campaign.

Colombia shifted its cocaine suppression strategy from crop eradication to further down the production chain (e.g., laboratories and exporters), resulting in a more than doubling of cocaine seizures beginning in 2006. At this same time, the Mexican gangs became the dominant partner in their relationship with the Colombian gangs. Rather than simply receiving cocaine at the southern border of Mexico and carting it north, they moved into Central America and the edges of Colombia, giving them a larger role in transshipment and processing.

Cocaine is the biggest source of revenue of the Mexican gangs, meaning that these changes were highly disruptive to the old stasis. The cocaine flow shrank, but what was left became more valuable. This intensified competition among the Mexican gangs which may be the root of the burst of violence.

Whether this explanation is fully or partly correct is being investigated by Dr. Daniel Mejia Londoño and his colleagues at the Universidad de los Andes. He is one of a number of young Latin American scholars who are bringing new perspectives to drug policy research. Collectively, they will help policy analysts escape the trap of seeing drug policy only from the point of view of consumer countries (e.g., Europe and the USA). And in the long term, the “Calderon explanation” for Mexican violence may be only one of the received truths that this new generation of researchers overturns.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.