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Order, Sovereignty, and Violence in Mexico

Updated: Mar 22

Romain Le Cour Grandmaison

A version of this essay is available in Spanish from Nexos here.

In 2020, analyses of violence and criminality have been marked by the tired refrain of “the effect of COVID on organized crime.”

One principal conclusion has emerged. The pandemic has caused the power of the state to ebb and the influence of ‘organized crime’ to expand. Across Latin America, the relationship between criminals and public authorities is thus cast as a zero-sum game: one actor’s gain is equivalent to another’s absolute loss.

Yet, as it often does, social reality does not obey that math. In order to shed light on some of the complexities, I focus on the ideas of order, sovereignty and power in Mexico.

In this essay I argue that political-criminal relationships are a fluid process, involving continual interactions between multiple private and public actors. Those interactions are unstable and sometimes violent, but they do not necessarily indicate the capture, weakening, or failure of the state. Rather, there are in fact multiple overlapping sovereignties that collaborate and compete in a given territory.[1]

“Order” does not mean peace

In Mexico, as in many other places, violent actors do not seek to overthrow the political system, but rather to gain or maintain an advantageous position within it.[2]

To support this argument, I advance four ideas:

1. Max Weber’s theory about the State as the sole proprietor on the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, falls short of explaining what is at stake in Mexico. In fact, it is important to understand and acknowledge not only that the state does not seek to monopolize violence, but that it never really did, and that it does not impede its formation process and power.[3]

2. There are violent social orders. It might seem paradoxical, but “order” does not necessarily imply the absence of violence, but rather the regulation of its use by multiple actors.[4] In this case, the word “order” can be understood as the collection of rules that govern the use of violence, as well as the modalities of power and authority, particularly at the local level.

3. Public authorities are not bystanders in the operation of violent social orders. They are both participants and arbitrator, setting the rules and the terms of violence. In the Mexican context, there is no shortage of historical examples of this.[5]

4. Power of the State is neither perfect nor absolute across time and space. This does not imply a normative conclusion about the quality of its power—contrary to the concepts of “weak” democracy or “failed” state. Scores of academic works have shown that “violent orders” do not lead to the collapse of the state, but instead a redefinition of its role in regulating the use of violence relative to a multitude of actors.[6]

If we accept these four propositions, then there are scores of local configurations for violence that emerge within Mexico over time, comprised of networks and relationships that permit violent actors to interact with public authorities and vice versa.[7]

It is essential to abandon the idea that political-criminal relationships are based on processes of absolute, clear-cut domination. In fact, these interactions are inherently unstable, and the lord of today is the serf of tomorrow. It is best understood, therefore, through what Norbert Elias called “configurations”: networks of reciprocal interdependence, marked by constant collaborations, (dis)equilibrium and conflict.[8]