Over his first year in office, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has tried to shift the national discourse away from violence and focus on his grand plans to transform Mexico’s society, economy, and political system. Lopez Obrador has a clear vision of his place in history and seems to see the country’s current struggles with violent crime as an inconsequential rut on the larger and more ambitious trajectory he is pushing Mexico towards. Lopez Obrador sees crime as a social problem that can be addressed by his broader agenda of economic development and job creation. He continues to blame Mexico’s problems with crime and security on the failed policies of his predecessors but has also neglected to place improving security at the center of his agenda. It’s clear that Lopez Obrador’s political priorities lie in consolidating political control over government agencies that are designed to be autonomous and non-partisan. He has installed a political ally at the country’s Human Rights Commission and is working to cut funding and salaries at the National Electoral Institute. In general, he has promised to cut government spending through a self-imposed austerity plan and only plans to spend ambitiously on pet projects such as a gasoline refinery in his home state and a tourist train in southern Mexico. Recent high profile incidents of organized crime-related violence in Sinaloa, Sonora, and Chihuahua, however, have served to pull the national discourse in Mexico back towards the topic of crime. Polls show that only 31% of Mexico’s residents approve of the president’s security strategy. With 2019 on track to be the most violent year in Mexican history, I reached out to organized crime researcher and co-founder of Noria Research, Romain Le Cour, to ask about the challenges Mexico continues to face when it comes to security.
Nathaniel Parish Flannery: How has the security dynamic evolved in Mexico since you started your research?
Romain Le Cour: I started working on security issues in Mexico in 2009, and conducted years of fieldwork in different areas since 2012, mainly in Michoacán and Guerrero.
First, fieldwork has shown me how much security issues are localized and constantly evolving. It may sound naïve, but there is not just one reality in Mexico. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of complex configurations of violence that perpetually evolve according to political opportunities and conflicts, legal and illegal market fluctuations, the way in which the state chooses to intervene, and how criminal groups’ adapt to all the above. There are also different local dynamics caused by personal conflicts. It is crucial to fully acknowledge this complexity.Today In: Leadership
Second, in many parts of Mexico security is not synonymous with the absence of violence but rather its regulation through practices of collaboration, delegation, collusion and conflict between private actors and state institutions. So before aiming at designing any responses to the current crises, we have to understand the local dynamics of violence as they are. Mexico is made of multiple, overlapping private and public authorities and sovereignties that compete, but also work with each other.
Third, violence is not an obstacle: it is a political resource in the hands of criminal organizations and the state. In Mexico, private and public violence are hard to distinguish from one another. This is not new, but it has definitely worsened over the past decade. One of the main reasons is impunity. Whether it is used by public or private forces, violence is almost never punished by the justice system. More than 95% of crimes are never reported or investigated.
Hence, a zero-sum game interpretation misses the core of political-criminal relations and the profusion of actors involved – and the social, political and economic interactions between them – that make each of Mexico’s contemporary internal conflicts unique, and yet deeply interconnected. The issue here is to acknowledge the complexity of the dynamics of violence in Mexico, instead of deepening the gap that exists between the local realities of violence and the macro-level analyses that pretend to explain them. I do not deny the severity of the Mexican security crises. But I think we need to fully acknowledge their complexity and diversity, and understand that any attempt at analyzing violence, or designing security strategies must rely on articulated knowledge of the multi-faceted social dynamics of violence in Mexico.
Parish Flannery: How should we understand the current situation? Should we view it primarily a cartel conflict or should we frame it as a broader failure by local, state, and national government agencies to enforce basic rule of law?
Le Cour: First, the expression “el narco” has lost any analytical meaning. Hundreds of criminal groups in Mexico are labeled as “narco” with no attention to the specific social, economic, political conditions in which they emerge and evolve. The “narco” label conveys the idea that there is a nationwide entity that would encompass all violent groups, and pictures criminal groups as actors that always make rational choices, and pursue a clear, fixed goal that is never subject to change or evolution.
This is simply not borne out by the evidence. Criminal groups constantly evolve in terms of their activities, practices, and business models. Yet, such evolutions do not emerge from a plan designed by an omniscient leader which is then perfectly executed by obedient followers. Groups evolve in interaction with the society in which they are embedded, as well as with the structural constraints and opportunities the state imposes or provides. There are a lot of factors at play here.
Second, the “War on Drugs” narrative is political and has historically served the purpose of militarizing and criminalizing vast swathes of the population. Third, the “Narcos vs. State” explanation fails to identify the socio-political trajectories of criminal organizations, drug traffickers, and the complex relationships they have with the state. Everything is explained in binary terms as if the dynamics of violence and the relationships, confrontations, and collusions between the state and criminal groups worked as perfect zero-sum games where there shall be a winner and a loser. Such a vision is deeply problematic as it posits that the dynamics of violence, and political-criminal relations more broadly, can follow such a normative, clear-cut path.
Third, the conception of “the state” as a well-delineated – and often monolithic – a unified body of hierarchical institutions vertically orientated to obey the president is a complete fallacy. Mexico has never worked this way. The state must be understood as a sum of institutions whose interests converge or diverge according to specific interests, configurations, opportunities or access to a number of different resources, as well as the varied nature of its presence/absence and how this is expressed and experienced in the diverse regions of Mexico.
Finally, the crucial point is: criminal groups are never perfectly autonomous. The agreements that tie them to public institutional bodies are in a state of permanent negotiation. Where most analyses see fixed pacts, reality provides a mosaic of local collusions, arrangements, and conflicts that lie at the very core of political-criminal relations in Mexico. Years ago, I wrote a small piece that compared Michoacán to a political Rubik’s Cube: whenever you move a slide of the puzzle, it affects another one. I think it still applies.
Parish Flannery: Are you optimistic that Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has an effective strategy for improving public security in Mexico?
Le Cour: I am not a public security expert, so I will answer from a position that is based on what I have been observing on the ground.
What we currently see is – in big part – a status quo or the deterioration of a status quo. Over the past 13 years, there is no doubt that violence has gotten worse and that there are multiple, simultaneous crises. Some are extremely visible but most are not. This is one of the main challenges of public security in Mexico: we don’t know what happens in most of the country. This is because there are no public investigations, of course, but also because our analyses are almost never based on local knowledge. We know people die, but we do not why and we do not know why violence goes up or down. We just comment on homicide statistics, dramatic events, and end up relaying fuzzy narco narratives: narco-wars, narco-state, narco-business, et cetera.
The same blindness applies to policy design which often lacks a connection with local knowledge. If you want to solve crises, you have to go local. Over the past years, I have been advocating for public security policies that would give top priority to the local scale. It is impossible to design an effective public security strategy without reliable, empirical data. I haven’t invented it: many Mexican analysts designed the same proposals before me. But I still believe it is the right path to long-term improvements.
First of all, I think we need to produce local diagnoses. Ideally, this should have started last year, combined with a short-term strategy heavily focused on local presence. It is crucial to combine policy design with the production of local knowledge. We have to go to the municipalities or regions that are most affected by violence and produce proper analyses and diagnoses on what is actually going on there. The plan is not to produce a few thousand municipal reports but rather to identify regions, trends, and issues in order to build focused strategies.
These diagnoses, if regularly updated, would also allow us to identify the country’s blind spots, regions that never make it to the “most violent municipalities” lists because they are controlled by de facto authorities that either maintain low levels of violence or prevent any information from getting out. This is where homicide statistics fall short: low numbers of violence do not necessarily mean that peace and rule of law reigns. They may indicate that alternative sovereignties are in place.
Second, we need to build a multi-tiered security strategy based on these local diagnoses and stop blaming municipal police for a job they are not even constitutionally expected to do. If you want local police forces to deal with the levels of violence they encounter, you need to build institutions, to train and deploy tens of thousands of officers. This will take years. But instead of promoting a highly centralized public security model that deepens the void of local presence, we need to set our goals at the local level. It should be possible to modify the purely reactive security strategies that have been implemented in Mexico for the past 13 years. What we have had is a dynamic where a crisis explodes, instantly followed by a federal intervention that is based on weak intel and scarce knowledge of local dynamics. In Michoacán for example, during the “autodefensas” movement, the federal forces deployed on the ground could not even patrol the dirt roads of the region without getting lost. They had no idea on how to move in the area.
Third, and this is clearly the heaviest challenge and limitation to what I’m proposing: build civilian security institutions and set an agenda for the demilitarization of the country. This also might take years, maybe decades. But without proper police forces and justice institutions, nothing will change. It is not a question of drugs or money, it is an issue of total impunity and absolute lack of trained public forces.
The puzzle gets harder and harder to solve. Armed forces are poorly trained and heavily exposed to corruption. Yet, you have to deal with ongoing crises, taking the risk of adding fuel to the flames. This is where the Rubik’s Cube metaphor is useful again: we need to understand that local dynamics of violence have an impact on public policies, and that public policies have a direct impact on local dynamics of violence. Both are intertwined and produce effects on each other. Failing to address them simultaneously will do nothing but widen the gap between policy design and local realities.
I fully agree with analysts that claim that a long-term strategy cannot succeed without short-term steps. And I firmly believe that part of these short-term efforts must be urgently directed towards the production of local knowledge. We have already seen that 2017 and 2018 were the most violent years in Mexican history, and 2019 is on track to be even worse. We can only hope that the story will change by the end of 2020
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