By turning to kidnapping and extortion, the fragmented remains of Mexico's drug cartels found a new way to support themselves without focusing on transnational drug trafficking. That's why the future of Mexican organized crime isn't someone like El Chapo -- it's splinter groups like the Guerreros Unidos

Twenty years ago, to be a mafioso in Mexico meant being a drug trafficker. Here there was no "organized crime," only "narco." Kidnappers, extortionists and bandits existed, of course, just as they always have, but they played on a different field. The criminal big leagues were taken up by gangs dedicated to moving drugs, crossing borders and dodging customs agents. They were sophisticated, identifiable, connected to the world, and had the ability to put even an anti-drug czar on their payroll.

This article was originally published by El Daily Post and is republished with permission. It is the latest installment in a journalism project called NarcoData, developed by Animal Politico and Poderopedia, which seeks to explain the evolution and growth of organized crime in Mexico. See the original here

But such a Tigres del Norte scenario started to change in the '90s. The business became decidedly more complicated. Besides the usual marijuana and heroin, cocaine began to arrive in industrial quantities and methamphetamine came into the picture. The change brought with it two problems.

First, the entire issue became more public, making government tolerance more difficult. The publicity problem was exacerbated by the American government issuing certifications every year, and even more so as the Kiki Camarena case stayed in the rearview mirror. The spotlight demanded that one capo or another had to fall from time to time, and one shipment or another had to end up in the Federal Attorney General's Office's warehouses.

Second, and probably more important, internal control grew more difficult for the narco leaders. More drugs moving means more drugs to steal. Inevitably, more than one gang member felt the temptation to slip a hand into a package, or to tip off a rival (for a price) as to where a shipment was heading, or where a warehouse was located.


Mexico's smuggling wizards were gradually pushed aside by the violence specialists.


The result was a growing militarization of the drug trafficking groups. As is well known, the pioneer of this strategy was Osiel Cardenas Guillen, head honcho of the Gulf Cartel. Toward the end of the '90s, he recruited elite military personnel — the Zetas — and turned them into his Praetorian Guard. Soon, other gangs followed suit: Sinaloa with its Gente Nueva, Juarez with La Linea, the Beltran Leyva Cartel with its Negros and its Pelones, and its FEDA (Spanish initials for Arturo's Special Forces, Arturo being the first name Beltran Leyva usually used).

That strategy not only escalated the conflict between rival drug traffickers, it also changed the balance of power within the individual organizations. The smuggling wizards were gradually pushed aside by the violence specialists.

SEE ALSO:  Mexico News and Profiles

The latter, now-dominant, soon figured out that drug trafficking opened up other criminal opportunities. There they were with plenty of men, weapons, vehicles, safe houses and bought-off authorities — why not take advantage of all that and get into kidnapping? Or extortion... first targeting other criminals, then the public at large? After all, the marginal costs were zero.

What's more, it was a good way to reduce labor costs: Payment to the hired killers could be kept at a minimum by instead giving them permission to kidnap, extort and steal (always with a cut for the higher-ups, of course).

So toward the end of the Vicente Fox administration (2000–2006), what had once been gangs specializing in drug trafficking had turned into diversified criminal consortiums. Some of the gangs, such as the then-newly formed Familia Michoacana, born out of a split in the Gulf Cartel, were already more involved with plunder than with illicit merchandise.


We still have the giant cartels, dedicated to drug-trafficking and plugged into the international markets. But they represent organized crime's past in Mexico.


That development exacerbated the organizations' visibility problem; secrecy is not much of an option when you're out there extorting every day. Worse, it changed the relationship between the crime organizations and the communities — tolerance and indifference turned into calls for help.

Eventually, as Calderon moved out of the presidency in December of 2012, the new business logic triggered a government intervention marked by a hitherto unseen ferocity. Violence took off, capos began to fall, and lieutenants felt they were ready to take over as capos. The once hierarchical and identifiable organizations began to break into thousands of pieces. From the Beltran Leyva organization emerged at least seven groups, nine from the Zetas and a dozen from the Gulf Cartel.

Those new organizations — which were really more like splinter groups, though they presumed sometimes to call themselves cartels — possessed neither the international contacts nor the logistical sophistication to carry out major drug trafficking operations. But they did have weapons, men and a strong inclination toward violence. And toward extortion, as mentioned. And toward kidnapping. And stealing. And denuding hillsides with illegal logging. And looting mines. And anything else that generates cold, hard cash.

When pillage becomes a business, local politics is suddenly the center of attention. Municipal government became an irreplaceable source of information: Who's in charge of what? Who wants to start a new business? Who applied for a building permit, or a license, or a whatever?

 

To keep on thinking in terms of cartels and smuggling routes is to live in the past. What matters today, what will matter tomorrow, are gangs and turf and extracting income.

Local government also turned out to be a convenient supplier of muscle. Why hire assassins if you already have the local police at your beck and call? Mayors, for their part, had the option of being accomplices or prisoners of the gunmen. Plata o plomo. Silver or lead. Or both, in grim succession.

However, when criminals take over the daily lives of ordinary citizens, unexpected sources of courage sometimes pop up. In some places, most dramatically in Michoacan, residents abandoned those useless calls for help in favor of armed resistance. And yes, here and there they actually defeated the criminals and recovered a semblance of peace.

In other cases, though, the informal forces of justice ended up turning into what they were supposedly fighting against — that is, delinquent groups no different than the previously existing crime organizations.

So here we are. We still have the giant cartels, dedicated to drug-trafficking and plugged into the international markets. El Chapo is still there, so are El Mayo and El Mencho.

But they represent organized crime's past in Mexico. The future is Guerreros Unidos and Los Rojos. The future is H3 and the Metros and the Viagras. The future is all the other groups that are something more than local gangs and something less than cartels — local in scope, diversified, and more interested in exploiting local economies than in supplying foreign consumers with drugs (though some also go that route).

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of the Guerreros Unidos

This transition is both good and bad.

The good: The emerging groups are going after mayors and local police forces, not the State. They have neither the motive nor the means to bribe a drug czar or corrupt half the SEIDO (the Federal Attorney General's Office anti-organized crime division). They are not, nor can they be, a threat to the integrity, stability and permanence of the State. They don't play in that league.

The bad: The emerging groups are a permanent, everyday threat to the life, liberty, dignity and property of millions of Mexicans. The are also a threat to what little State presence there is to be found in many regions — that is, the municipal governments.

If the risks today are more like leeches than mammoths, some deep thought is called for about the most effective way to contain them. The Army, Navy and Federal Police are very good at catching capos (though keeping them in prison is apparently another matter). But they may not be the best tool for dealing with small-time extortion, with short-term abduction, and with looting at the municipal level.

What's probably needed for those things is, first of all, a professional, well-paid police force at the local level, working closely with the community. Second, there need to be prosecutors who really seek justice, who know how to build a case, who can dismantle an entire criminal ring with one well-aimed blow.

Is that a lot to ask? Perhaps. But it's what reality dictates. To keep on thinking in terms of cartels and smuggling routes is to live in the past. What matters today, what will matter tomorrow, are gangs and turf and extracting income.

That's how it needs to be understood. That's how it needs to be taken care of it. And soon.

This article was originally published by El Daily Post and is republished with permission. It is the latest installment in a journalism project called NarcoData, developed by Animal Politico and Poderopedia, which seeks to explain the evolution and growth of organized crime in Mexico. See the original here

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