After five years of horror, the violence in Mexico could be beginning to stabilize. Alejandro Hope asks what is behind this turn, and looks ahead to what it will mean for politics in the country.
My five regular readers already know, but maybe the few lost ones who have wound up reading this column do not: the explosion of violence that has affected Mexico in the last few years is almost unprecedented, except for in countries experiencing civil war. The comparison with Colombia in the 1980s gives an idea of the exceptional character of what we have experienced: between 2007 and 2010, the number of homicides in Mexico grew twice as fast as in Colombia during the war against Pablo Escobar.
As there are few precedents, there are few analytical references to understand what has happened to us. Many variables have been used to try to explain the homicidal mania that has suddenly enveloped the country: from the decapitation of criminal organizations to the rising price of cocaine to the deployment of federal forces. There are even some people who, in tedious attempts at pop psychology, have blamed the phenomenon on the intrinstic violent nature of criminals and/or Mexicans (which, for some badly explained reason, never manifested itself before 2007). It is a debate that remains unresolved, and will not be resolved for many years.
Yet, while we were engaged in this discussion, reality played a joke on us: the level of violence began to stabilize. Of this there remain few doubts: according to the Attorney General’s Office as well as the National System of Public Security, the number of homicides grew many times slower in 2011 than in the three previous years. Furthermore, if we look at the daily average, the
curve has been more or less flat since June 2010. We now have a new topic of debate: Why has the growth of violence slowed? What changed in the last 18 months? I have gone back to this question many times and I still do not have a very good answer, but here are some possibilities (the list is not exhaustive, far from it):
- More state capacity: from 2007 to 2011 the federal security budget has almost doubled. The number of federal police has quadrupled. In more qualitative terms, it is very probable that a) more and better intelligence on criminal groups is available and b) there is a greater capacity to exploit this capacity at an operational level (that is to say, the right people arrive at the right place at the right time): various recent arrests of alleged high level criminals have gone smoothly. If you add to this the more open and direct involvement of the US agencies, the combination could be potent. Also, it is probable that, after five years of combat, lessons have been learned about what does and doesn’t work at the local level. In summary, it is not unlikely that the combined effect of more resources and better operations is having some deterrent or incapacitating effects.
- New equilibriums in the criminal underworld: the countours of organized crime have been altered radically since 2007. Some criminal organizations are now no more than a shell of their former selves (e.g., the Juárez Cartel, the Beltran Leyva Organization), others have split one or more times (e.g., La Familia/Caballeros Templarios, the Gulf Cartel), others have confronted serious internal struggles (e.g., the Sinaloa Cartel in Durango) and others have seen the loss of important parts of their command structures (e.g., the Zetas). It is possible that there exists a perception of vulnerability in narco-trafficking circles and that this fact is creating in certain regions incentives for more cooperative, less risky behavior by criminal groups. In the case of Tijuana, there is much talk of the possibility that the Sinaloa Cartel and the Arellano Felix Organization have ended a confrontation with a more or less friendly arrangement. It is not impossible that something similar could be happening in other places with other groups.
- Changes in the drug market: in 2007 and 2008, the price of cocaine doubled in the United States. Among other effects, this extraordinary rise probably destroyed demand: the number of users fell 25 percent between 2006 and 2010. Its highly likely that this led to a reduction in prices and a substantial drop in income from the exportat of drugs (cocaine probably represents a little more than 50 percent of the total). Something similar could have happened with methamphetamine. The consumption of heroin, for its part, has remained stable for a decade. Among the drugs exported from Mexico, only marijuana has had an upward trajectory in the number of users, but there is anecdotal evidence of a reduction in prices. In summary, it’s probable that there exists less money in the drug business, and, ceteris paribus, less money means narcrotraffickers are disposed to take fewer risks.
- Improvement in the economic environment: in general, criminologists say that there is no mechnical and direct connection between short-term economic performance and the development of crime. Nonetheless, the simultaneous occurence of the severe recession of 2008-2009 and the beginning of the explosion of violence is suggestive. Did the collapse of economic activity and its impact on employment have some accelerating effect on violence, especially on the border communities? Maybe, maybe not. Conversely, the recovery that began in the middle of 2009 could be having a mitigating effect (I insist on “could”).
All this is speculation. It is most likely that all the factors listed and various others are ineracting in incredibly complex ways. But the only thing that is certain is that the roles of the discussion will be inverted: for years, the government has insisted it has no responsibility for the violence. Some critics, on the other hand, have insisted on assigning the entire guilt to President Calderon’s security strategy. Now, the government will want to give itself a medal for the stabilization of violence and its critics will seek to ascribe the cause to exogenous factors.
The fight for the medals will intensify when the violence begins to diminish in a sustained way. More so if the next government is from a different party. And still more if the drop is more abrupt than anticipated. The scene is not as absurd as it appears at first glance. Up to a certain point, the growth of violence has been inert: the first shot exceeded the capacities of the authorities and, in consequence, the probability that any individual crime be punished fell. As the probability of sanction reduced, more homicides occurred and as there were more corpses to attend to, impunity grew, and so it went on. But in the moment in which, for some reason, there are slightly fewer homicides than in the previous period, the process can reverse itself and at the same rate: fewer homicides, a higher probability of sanction, which leads to fewer homicides, and so on (something like this may have happened in Tijuana and now in Ciudad Juarez).
Imagine the following scenario: suppose the violence begins to diminish in the first half of this year and keeps diminishing for the next three years. We would be approaching the 2015 intermediate elections with a number of homicides 30 to 50 percent lower than today. Determining what turned the security crisis around, and when the process began, will become the principal theme of political debate in the country and could even define the outcome of the election.