High homicide rates over time and across the country have been often attributed to conflicts between criminal groups. This narrative championed by the Felipe Calderón administration (2006-2012) and commonly reproduced by the media, has obscured rather than illuminated our understanding of the different types of criminal groups that operate in Mexico, beyond drug trafficking organizations, and structural causes that generate contexts of chronic violence.
Undeniably criminal organizations in Mexico have engaged in violent confrontations, but while facts are scarce questions abound. The starting point for a discussion of conflicts between groups should at least answer how many groups are there? and where do these groups operate? The answer is simple: we remain ignorant.
US and Mexican government agencies have at times released information to the public but the maps rarely have useful information for analysis and more importantly, seldom overlap. That is, US and Mexican agencies, that arguably share a transnational problem, disagree on the location, areas of influence, and number of criminal groups. Furthermore, in the last few years Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office has been releasing the same map of criminal group presence in response to freedom of information requests from the media, but the map has not been updated since 2015.
Recent efforts by academics are focusing on developing high-quality data on key attributes of violent criminal organizations, including their structure, where they operate, what activities they engage in and how they relate to one another. This will be a significant contribution on the study of criminal groups but remains behind highly accurate information such as the Yakuza statistics of Japanese organized crime produced by the Japanese police since 1958.
Even when confrontations between criminal groups take place, we know with less certainty why they happen. This question is often answered around the actions of known criminals, which ultimately perpetuates stereotypes of criminal groups better suited for Hollywood than serious journalism and academia. Why confrontations matter is a significant question because an accurate answer can reveal different levels of sophistication for criminal groups, which translate into different policy approaches to counter and weaken their activities. A conflict caused by employees shirking reveals reduced vertical control compared to a conflict derived from a disagreement on who should pay for a lost drug shipment.
What we do know, with a higher degree of certainty, are the consequences on the general population of violent confrontations between criminal groups. However, research has shown that piecing together even the most violent episodes of recent Mexican history is a process that requires time, skills, and resources. Therefore, explanations of violence, even if attributable to conflict between groups, are rarely robust when advanced in real time.