October 17 as Evidence of Restraint
As if the complexities of transnational criminal activities rested solely on one man’s destiny, the extradition of Joaquín Guzmán a.k.a “El Chapo” prompted speculation about the weakening and potential disappearance of the Sinaloa criminal group. For some, the extradition and subsequent trial marked the end of an era and the eclipse of what had been seen as Mexico’s most powerful ‘cartel.’ For others it was the beginning of another wave of violence in the rush to fill the vacuum Guzman’s absence created.
Evidence against these conjectures was perhaps never as strong as on October 17, 2019. The criminal group effectively deterred the arrest, and potential removal from Sinaloa, of Ovidio Guzmán and in doing so, reignited debates about the power of the criminal group once left for dead. Discussions of what the group’s high-powered operation meant, however, cannot solely focus on firepower. The image of an M2 machine gun mounted on the back of a truck should not obscure that the deployment evidenced long-standing ties and loyalties ready to be mobilized in a context where state actors, rather than alleged criminals, are the ones seen as perpetrators of violence. For some in Culiacán, as Juan Carlos Ayala notes in this collection, the good ones “won” that day.
Paradoxically, the deployment also underscored the need to study the strategic use of violence by criminal groups. By unleashing the force they did on October 17, the Sinaloa organization reminded non-sinaloenses, of the firepower capacity they possess and, more importantly, the selectiveness with which they use it. The day left no doubt: while the group possesses the material capacity to inflict serious damage on the general population, it nevertheless chooses to exercise restraint. Examining the motivations for such behavior requires some conceptual clarification. When discussing the Sinaloa organization, I do not refer to a group led by a kingpin or assume there is only one leader.
Furthermore, I do not imply the organization is a monolith and that members always act in the interest of the group. However, my discussion of the Sinaloa criminal organization entails managerial levels and assumes that the incentives that exist for the top echelons are not necessarily available for lower ranking members of the group. Criminal activity, then, and the violence associated with it, defies easy categorization.
The Myth of Compulsory Criminal Diversification
Media portrayals of gangsters feed the myth that all criminal activities are compatible, and that all criminal groups will seek to diversify. This idea has been particularly prevalent in Mexico where changes in U.S. drug markets are used as explanations for the diversification of criminal activities. Purportedly, a decreased demand for cocaine in the U.S. caused drug trafficking groups to become extortionists and kidnappers who fought over increasingly shrinking profits. From the official discourse, the narrative explained the behavior of a long-standing group such as Sinaloa as well as more recent organizations like the Zetas.
The problem with this alleged causal mechanism is that it assumes that criminal groups want and can succeed at any given criminal activity simply by virtue of being outlaws. Extortion and kidnapping require public displays of violence in order to issue credible threats: either you pay for “protection” or there will be consequences. Targets are not other criminals but the general population. In contrast, transnational drug trafficking requires interacting with other criminals and covertness is paramount. Violence may be exerted but does not demand publicity. The credible threats are not for the population at large but for those found in breach of contracts.
Using violence selectively is not altruism but the result of a business model focused primarily on drug trafficking. This does not mean, that criminal groups involved with drug trafficking are never involved with criminal activities that are predatory towards non-criminals. Specially, when we consider that criminal groups are not monoliths and members may shirk. But the assumptions that all criminal activities are compatible and that all criminal groups can and want to diversify obscure our understanding of when and against who, violence is used. This is particularly important because as Le Cour Grandmaison notes, criminal groups do not evolve as formal oppositions to the state and “can build social order amidst, through, and in spite of violence”.
The Stealthy Take Over of January 25
What October 17 did not suggest was that the Sinaloa organization relies on violence to control public space. Three months later, another child of Joaquín Guzmán, his daughter Alejandrina Gisselle, took over downtown. This time there were no assault weapons. Her wedding in the city’s cathedral included photos of the bride and groom, some videos of the event circulated on social media, and articles appeared in major Mexican and foreign newspapers. Curiosity about the wedding was further piqued by reports that the groom is related to a known money launderer for the Sinaloa organization.
The wedding, just a few months later after Jueves Negro, was a useful reminder of how top members of the Sinaloa organization operate in their home state. In many ways, October 17 was the anomaly whereas January 25 is the norm. Streets downtown were closed, the Catholic church confirmed there was a wedding at the cathedral but refused to provide more details, the photos and videos on social media were not paparazzi snaps but shared by the hosts, and guests—including Ovidio—came and went undisturbed.
Onlookers knew not to transgress the event even if they were initially unsure about the identities of the bride and groom. Closed streets were the message. To occupy public space did not involve automatic weapons but rather a set of understandings and a perception that violence is not used indiscriminately, but rather as one of a collection of tools with which power is forged.
Data from the annual victimization survey (ENVIPE per its Spanish acronym) lend support for this assertion. According to the most recent ENVIPE, in Sinaloa 64.6 percent of the population believe living in their state is unsafe compare to the national average of 78.9 percent. More importantly, whereas in the last decade (since data are collected) perceptions of insecurity in the country have steadily grown, in Sinaloa they have decreased. Sinaloenses feel safer today in their state than they did in 2011.
This contrast is even greater if we look at data at the municipal and neighborhood levels. Whereas 70 and 50.6 percent of Mexicans feel unsafe in their municipality and neighborhoods respectively, only 55.8 and 29.4 percent of inhabitants of Sinaloa do so. These numbers suggest not the normalization of violence, but a complex coexistence with it, and the codes and coping mechanisms that Iliana Padilla explains in her contribution to this collection.
The Value of Thinking of Violence as Strategic
The events of October 17 are illuminating primarily as a paradox: the extreme violence of Jueves Negro reveals the restraint and selectiveness with which public violence is typically exercised, and the silence that surrounds more invisible forms. By thinking of the strategic use of violence by criminal groups we can develop a greater understanding of the different types of victimization citizens in Mexico face and in the varying strategies developed to exist in contexts of chronic violence. Additionally, it demystifies criminal groups and helps us think of criminal diversification as a process contingent on several conditions rather than an automatic course of action for all groups.
To do so does not require attributing excessive rationality to criminal groups and assuming that every decision is a textbook case of cost-benefit analysis. Yet, anecdotal evidence shows the Sinaloa group attempted to suppress the distribution of a corrido glorifying the events of October 17. This suggests not only that the organization may want to downplay its military capabilities, but that it also understands the panic the day’s events caused among the population, and the repercussions of such negative publicity. In this, at least, criminal and official interests seem to have overlapped. Even if some think of October 17 as the day the Sinaloa organization won, it should not surprise us if they are not eager to have a repeat.
Cecilia Farfán Méndez is Head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and a co-founder and Managing Editor of the Mexico Violence Resource Project.