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Forgetting El Chapo: Why Mexico’s Violence Will Remain Unabated

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Cecilia Farfán-Méndez

Starting in November 2018, headlines related to drug trafficking were, for months, largely dominated by one name: Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as “El Chapo.” Drama-infused reports from the courtroom surpassed each other every day, ranging from a $100 million bribe allegedly paid to former president Enrique Peña Nieto (2006–2012), a son betraying his father to save his own life, and Guzmán running naked through Sinaloa’s sewers in order to escape from the Mexican navy. Even in the absence of Guzmán’s testimony, the headlines from his trial could hardly be manufactured even in the best Hollywood writing rooms.

Undoubtedly, the trial is a rich source of information for those interested in drug trafficking and it is unlikely we will have the opportunity to observe similar legal proceedings of another top manager of a drug trafficking organization in the next few years. However, the explosive testimonies from a variegated group of witnesses in El Chapo’s trial obscured most of the more important facts about drug trafficking groups, organized crime, and violence in Mexico.

In this essay, I discuss three topics that are indispensable for informing further research and conversations about violence and insecurity in Mexico: the importance of distinguishing between organized crime and drug trafficking groups; the diversification of illicit activities by certain criminal groups; and the need to examine the role of women in violence and drug trafficking. This is not intended to be an exhaustive account of organized crime and drug trafficking in Mexico, but rather is meant to call attention to elements that are central for making an informed analysis of the current context of chronic violence in the country.

Distinguishing Between Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations

Scholarly, policy, and legal literature have yet to agree on what constitutes organized crime. However, despite the varying conceptualizations offered by different schools of thought, what is clear is that drug trafficking and organized crime should not be equated. Instead, drug trafficking should be thought of as a type of organized crime.

To date, the media have linked the increase of violence in Mexico over the last 12 years — in particular, homicides — to drug trafficking groups. The argument is deceptively simple: Drug trafficking organizations are inherently violent due to the illicit nature of their business and, as a natural consequence of their battles to establish territorial control, they cause bloodshed.

And yet, illegal markets are not inherently violent: In fact, the business model for some criminal groups does not dictate using predatory violence against civilians, but, instead, generally calls for its selective use against rival criminals. While a more robust discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this article, what matters is that a narrative that inextricably links drug trafficking organizations with violence blurs the distinction between organized crime and drug trafficking. As violence in Mexico has expanded and grown in complexity, including both lethal and non-lethal forms of violence, it is crucial to differentiate between the types of actors that perpetrate varying violent acts. This is important for at least two reasons: first, so the state can administer justice and redress victims of crime, and second, so the state, civil society, and communities can work together in designing policies that address the consequences of living in environments of chronic violence, rather than only following a hardline militarized approach.

Establishing the distinction between organized crime and drug trafficking organizations is not a straightforward task. Nevertheless, definitions matter, because they determine how we think about a problem and the scope and methodologies for researching it. From an academic standpoint, organized crime can be understood to be on a spectrum, with the following characteristics varying in degree:

  • Criminal sophistication: What degree of planning is used in carrying out crimes? How long do individual criminal ventures last? How much skill and knowledge is required in carrying out these crimes?

  • Structure: Is there a division of labor with clearly defined lines of authority and leadership roles? Does the structure maintain itself over time and for different kinds of crimes?

  • Self-identification: Do the participants in criminal activities see themselves as being members of a defined organization? Is there, for example, an emphasis upon bonding, such as the use of colors, special clothing, language, tattoos, initiation rites, etc.?

  • Authority of reputation: Does the organization have the capacity to force others — whether criminals or non-criminals — to do what it dictates without having to resort to actual physical violence? In other words, is the organization’s reputation sufficient to instill fear and to intimidate others?

Determining what qualifies as organized crime is further complicated by different definitions used at the international level, for example, the definition in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime differs from the definitions adopted by individual countries, even those that are signatories and have ratified the convention. The U.N. treaty, signed in 2000 and ratified by Mexico in 2003 and the United States in 2005, defines organized criminal groups as a “structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences […] in order to obtain directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.” In contrast, the definition adopted in 2008 by the United States through the Law Enforcement Strategy to Combat International Organized Crime aims for a more ambitious approach:

International organized crime refers to those self-perpetuating associations of individuals who operate internationally for the purpose of obtaining power, influence, monetary and/or commercial gains, wholly or in part by illegal means, while protecting their activities through a pattern of corruption and/or violence or through an international organizational structure and the exploitation of international commerce or communication mechanisms.

The authors of this definition have acknowledged it is too broad and fails to fully provide practical guidance to federal prosecutors. Nevertheless, the trade-off between flexibility and applicability was made in an effort to capture evolving threats that were not reflected in the U.N. convention. Notably, the National Plan for Peace and Security presented in November 2018 by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration does not include a definition of organized crime that sheds light on how the government conceptualizes this problem.9 Instead, it focuses on the nexus between organized criminal activities and corruption, without which, the plan argues, crime would not be possible.

The tension that exists among the many definitions of organized crime challenges our understanding of this problem. However, lack of consensus notwithstanding, what is common to these varying definitions is that while drug trafficking is understood as a type of organized crime, not all organized crime is engaged in drug trafficking. Violence in Mexico may be perpetrated by organized criminal groups but this does not automatically mean they are drug trafficking organizations nor that every act of violence in the country is linked to the “drug war.” Rather, there are groups that pursue crimin