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Conceptualizing Corruption and Violence

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Michael Lettieri

To move beyond sweeping portrayals of corruption as a key protagonist in Mexico’s drug violence, we must examine both what “corruption” means, and the ways in which different forms of corruption may lead to violence. To do so requires wrestling with the ways in which Mexico’s history has created a stereotype of corruption that—while holding grains of truth—also distorts our perceptions. While it is hardly inaccurate to say that corruption is widespread, many forms of “corruption” that marked the country’s twentieth century are now less prevalent: electoral fraud is relatively rare and grand corruption (high-level embezzlement by politicians, fraudulent contracts, etc) is typically exposed and sanctioned. What remains ingrained, however, are institutional weaknesses that lead to bureaucratic corruption (for building permits, for example) or bribe-taking by police to tolerate informal commerce or petty crime. What this persistence of widespread corrupt practices suggests is not, however, wholesale or wholehearted subordination of the state to private interests (be they criminal or commercial) but rather evidence of differences in state capacity and arrangements with local political forces.

If it is difficult to measure the scale of this corruption, it is harder still to measure its impact, particularly on violence. Even if we acknowledge significant suborning of police, judges, and political leaders, neither those practices, nor the underlying factors that permit their survival, are new: they were present prior to the spike in violence in 2007. On a general level it has been theorized that widespread malfeasance erodes the legitimacy of the law and weakens social trust making crime and violence more difficult to eradicate. A “security trap” approach suggests that corruption writ large exists as part of a mutually reinforcing cohort of institutional failures and societal phenomena, alongside impunity, crime, and violence. If crime is a rational calculation of risks, corruption contributes to reducing the probable cost of criminal activity (including violence), and thus in Mexico “disorder engendered disorder.”

Yet a simple systemic correlation between violence and corruption serves to obscure the mechanisms through which specific—rather than abstract—acts of corruption foster or facilitate violence. There are two key questions that help us reflect on this:

First, what kinds of corruption matter and why? In this, it is helpful to examine how deviant behavior alters state function, and to what end. Embezzlement or political self-enrichment clearly has a different relationship to violence than does the suborning of a judge by a criminal group. If the former might, by extension, weaken public trust and deprive law enforcement of economic resources, the latter might allow violent criminal activity to go unpunished. The quality of corruption matters as well: there is a difference between a police officer who receives a bribe to ignore criminal activity compared to a police officer who is coerced into serving as an enforcer for a trafficking organization. Acknowledging these distinctions is essential.

Second, how do different forms of corruption lead to changes in violence? On the lowest rungs, the bribe-seeking activity of street-level law enforcement officials reduces public confidence in police and reporting of crime. An inefficient—but not necessarily corrupted—judicial system has a similar impact. Yet neither should inevitably lead to higher levels of violence (as opposed to levels of criminal activity): such failures of public service existed during a period in which homicides steadily decreased. Ineffectual or indifferent responses to violence—failure to take reports of disappearances seriously or investigate homicides—that lead to increased impunity and reduced costs for violence are less suggestive of active corruption than of broader institutional weaknesses. More active forms of police malfeasance, such as involvement in the commission of a violent crime like the Ayotzinapa disappearances, have occurred across Mexico, but in such cases “corruption” may be more symptom than illness, and do not offer a wholly compelling explanation for an overall increase in homicides.

While large-scale organized drug trafficking could not exist without the connivance of certain high-level state functions, corruption that guarantees such criminal activity does not, ineluctably, lead to violence. There are two scenarios where the collusion of a top law enforcement official with a criminal group could produce an increase in violence. First, if the official’s use of state functions to confront rival groups leads to bloodshed above and beyond what a confrontation between the rival groups alone would have produced. Indeed, this belief underlies many of the claims that corruption has played a significant role in Mexico’s violence. The second hypothetical scenario relies on the notion that security policy designed without the corrupting influence of criminal groups would differ in ways that would significantly reduce violence. That assumption, central to more moralistic claims about corruption in Mexico, is harder to test. What has been demonstrated, however, is the opposite: that state protection rackets have the potential to reduce overall levels of violence.

It is suggested, therefore, that it was precisely the breakdown of such established systems in Mexico that changed the dynamics of corruption and violence. In this interpretation, violence increased with the post-2000 decentralization of state function as fracturing and diversifying criminal groups faced fragmented governmental structures that could not be controlled with selective bribery. As confrontations between groups intensified, so did criminals’ efforts to control the behavior of diverse state actors. In this model corruption is less a driver of violence than a product of it, with a weakened state unable to guarantee the security of officials who would otherwise resist criminal entreaties.

Segmenting forms of corruption and critically examining their relationship to violence is more than an academic exercise. Corruption is a first-order problem for Mexican policymakers, but resolving it offers no simple fix to violence, and anti-corruption strategies that do not acknowledge the diversity of forms are doomed to failure.


Michael Lettieri is a Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. He is a co-founder and managing editor of the Mexico Violence Resource Project.


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