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Order, Sovereignty, and Violence in Mexico

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

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]

Overlapping Sovereignties

Analyzing dynamics of violence in Mexico is like looking through a kaleidoscope within which multiple sovereigns interact, and where violence, be it legitimate or not, does not represent an anomaly or an obstacle, but rather a political resource. A tool that allows to establish or preserve a position of power relative to competitors.

In this sense, there is a continual back-and-forth in the relationship between state authorities and criminals, without either having total control over the interactions. These are relationships where there is a constant tension, primarily related to the degree of autonomy violent non-state actors have relative to the authorities.[9]

The result is that the categories of good and bad, legitimate and illegitimate, legal and illegal, become fuzzy and fluid. Many times, the narco or the criminal (the violent actor, to use a more neutral term) is also a cacique, a political leader, a police official, a member of the military, a governor, a mayor, a council person, or a businessman, among many others. Therefore, rather than seeking to impose rigid normative or moral categories, it is crucial to analyze the constant changes in alliances and hierarchies to understand how power is designed and held in territories that, despite what is often said, have not been abandoned by the State[10]. To do otherwise is to ignore the historical processes that built the State in Mexico, as well as its role as a central actor in contemporary violence.

In this context, violent actors might accumulate a high degree of power and resources, and become “de facto sovereigns” defined by their capacity to govern, punish, and control populations and regions within the national territory.[11] Nevertheless, the trap is conceptualizing the power of these sovereigns in opposition to public authority and not in articulation with it. What I observe in Mexico is that hundreds of sovereigns evolve in the same territory, forming layers of sovereignty that overlap, where the presence of one does not necessarily implies the disappearance of the other.

As a result, narcos, businesspeople, and public authorities can very easily coexist, collaborate, or come into conflict according to given political configurations and opportunities, in what I call “layer cake sovereignties.” This is the case in municipalities where avocado is produced in Michoacán, for example. In this scheme, the use of violence is not about overthrowing the political system, but about opening a space within the political game in articulation with public authorities. De facto sovereigns are thus constructed within the national borders, in collaboration, in spite, and against the state. As with a kaleidoscope, however, these sovereignties are not stable. Instead, they represent ephemeral projects, constantly threatened by other actors, including public authorities or forces, aiming to occupy a more important space within the game.

Where is the State?

In the Mexican context, the crises do not arise from the presence of informal sovereigns at the local level: they have always been present. They build on the ever-growing centrality of violence as a means and resource to access local power. Conflicts are thus resolved through exerting lethal and non-lethal forms of violence that are evermore extreme, including those perpetrated by security forces. The objective is not only to obtain a better position within the political game, it is to obtain maximum domination, often through the annihilation of adversaries and their supporters, including through terror, displacement, and massacre.

Coming back to the idea of non-monopolization of violence by the state, the role of public authorities and institutions in these processes is multiple, and sometimes counterintuitive. What authorities seek are reliable intermediaries and allies, even if they are violent or criminal actors.[12] For example, the collaboration and negotiations between the federal government and the Autodefensas de Michoacán (2013-2015) was a clear example of governance through violent private groups. The Peña Nieto government did not seek to impose itself as a unique sovereign, but to reorganize local configurations of power to its benefit, even if it implied giving political space to illegal violent groups.

In short, the state does not prevent the violent game, but rather seeks to set the rules by which it plays out, including sometimes as a player itself. The issue, as we mentioned earlier, is that these interactions are deeply unstable, and their rupture tends to lead to more violence. These dynamics, however, cannot be examined from Mexico City but require deep examination of local dynamics. By extension, policy solutions will remain unattainable in the absence of careful diagnostics of local situations. It is urgent that we do so.


Romain Le Cour Grandmaison holds a PhD in Political Science from the Sorbonne University (Paris-1) and is anon-resident Research Fellow at the UC San Diego Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies (USMEX). Romain is also the co-founder of Noria Research, and the coordinator of Noria’s Mexico and Central America Program. Twitter @romain.lecour


[1] These hypotheses come from my PhD. Dissertation : "Drug Cartels, Autodefensas, & the State: from Political Brokerage to Patronage Wars in Michoacán, Mexico". They are based on extensive fieldwork conducted in the Mexican states of Michoacán and Guerrero, as well as on a rich bibliography in sociology, history, anthropology and political science that I cannot fully quote in this text’s format. [2] See GRAJALES, Jacobo, LE COUR GRANDMAISON, Romain, (eds.), L’État malgré tout. Produire l’autorité dans la violence (The State, after all. Producing authority amidst violence), Karthala Éditions, 2019. [3] See DAS, Veena, POOLE, Deborah, (eds.), Anthropology in the Margins of the State, Santa Fe, School of American Research Press, 2004. [4] See the work of Jean y John Comaroff, especially Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2006 MALDONADO, Salvador, , Los márgenes del Estado mexicano. Territorios ilegales, desarrollo y violencia en Michoacán, Zamora, Colegio de Michoacán, 2010 [5] JOSEPH, Gilbert, NUGENT, Daniel, (eds.), Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico, Durham, Duke University Press, 1994. [6] In Mexico, and particularly for the Michoacán case, see the work of MALDONADO ARANDA, Salvador, , Los márgenes del Estado mexicano. Territorios ilegales, desarrollo y violencia en Michoacán, Zamora, Colegio de Michoacán, 2010. [7] See ARIAS, Desmond, Drugs and democracy in Rio de Janerio : trafficking, social networks, & public security, University of North Carolina Press, 2006 [8] See ELIAS, Norbert, What is Sociology, Columbia University Press, 1978. [9] See GILLINGHAM, Paul, SMITH, Benjamin T., (eds.), Dictablanda. Politics, Work, and Culture in Mexico, 1938-1968, Durham-Londres, Duke University Press, 2014. [10] See the work of MENDOZA, Natalia, Conversaciones en el desierto. Cultura y trafico de drogas, Mexico, CIDE – Investigacion e ideas, 2007. [11] These terms come from the work Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat, particularly: Sovereign Bodies. Citizens, Migrants and States in the Postcolonial World, Princeton-Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2005 [12] See the work of FUENTES DIAZ, Antonio, FINI, Daniele, (eds.), Defender al pueblo. Autodefensas y Policías Comunitarias en México, Puebla, Buenemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla – Ediciones del Lirio, 2018.

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