Lessons from Bulgaria: Can Mexico’s Cartels Be Institutionalized?

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A recent report compares Mexico’s security threats to the development and subsequent pacification of criminal networks in Bulgaria, highlighting the institutionalization of illegal groups as a strategy for mitigating violence. However, this approach does not take into account key differences in the Mexican criminal dynamic, and where it has been tried in Mexico it has so far fallen well short of being a sustainable solution.

In a report by the Vortex Foundation entitled “Sharp Around the Edges: A Comparative Analysis of Transnational Criminal Networks on the Southern Borders of NAFTA and the EU,” (see attachment) Iñigo Guevara Moyano compares the development of criminal organizations in Mexico and Bulgaria, two countries at the bottom of their respective economic groups, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the European Union (EU). 

Guevara argues that in both countries, criminal networks have benefitted from basing operations in the least developed member of a powerful economic group. The close ties to developed markets afforded by NAFTA and the EU allow the groups to sell their products at a higher price in neighboring countries while taking advantage of weaker law enforcement in their host countries.    

According to the report, criminal groups in Bulgaria and Mexico also underwent a similar development process, emerging under authoritarian rule and growing more powerful as the country transitioned to democracy and a free market economy. 

In Mexico, for example, the origins of the Gulf Cartel can be traced to a ring that smuggled whisky and rum into the United States during Prohibition. By the 1970s the group had moved on to narcotics, but it wasn’t until the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) started to lose its authoritarian grip that business took off. As Mexico transitioned to democracy and opened its economy to more trade and foreign investment in the 2000s, cartels across the country gained power, even growing to the point of challenging state authority in some areas, the report states. 

Similarly, modern smuggling networks in Bulgaria were created in the 1970s when the communist government established companies to trade outside the Soviet Union. After the fall of communism, these companies used the channels that had enabled them to obtain products for the government to smuggle drugs, weapons, and other contraband. Here, as in Mexico, criminal groups flourished in the absence of a powerful authoritarian government and with the aid of economic ties strengthened through a liberalized economy.   

Given the parallel development of Mexican and Bulgarian criminal networks, Guevara suggests they can be pacified in a similar manner. Bulgarian criminal organizations became a serious threat about a decade before Mexico’s cartels, and have since moved into a legal gray area, first as private security firms and later as insurance companies. 

Although the groups continued to use violence to intimidate and extort local businesses as private security firms, Guevara argues they caused less damage to society as semi-legal companies than dangerous gangs. He reasons that while far from ideal, corrupt security and insurance companies are preferable to cartels like the Zetas in Mexico. 

SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profiles

Guevara believes Mexico would benefit from employing a similar tactic and promoting the institutionalization of criminal groups. He points to the historical precedent set by former president Benito Juarez, who enlisted bandits to create rural defense militias in the 1860s. According to Guevara, the bandits’ experience and knowledge of criminal groups enabled them to reduce crime on roads and in rural areas. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The concept of institutionalizing groups that threaten the state’s grip on security is already being tested in Mexico with the legalization of the vigilante militias that have swept across the state of Michoacan fighting the Knights Templar criminal organization. 

In January 2014, the Mexican government reached an agreement with the self-defense movement, which agreed to register their members and weapons and join new “Rural Defense Units.” However, the institutionalization process has not gone as smoothly as hoped.

Thousands of militiamen have been excluded from the institutionalization process, some of which have continued to operate outside of the law. On June 26, rebel vigilante forces took over the town of La Mira in Michoacan and vowed to continue their fight against organized crime. After the capture of their leader, Jose Manuel Mireles, they also threatened to take over the strategic port of Lazaro Cardenas.

There are also indications that elements of the self-defense militias have criminalized and may have even created a new cartel, the Third Brotherhood, or “H3,” which allegedly counts a vigilante commander among its leadership. While the extent of criminal operations linked to the militias has yet to emerge, concerns remain that some elements will use their legitimate facade to mask criminal activities rather than abandon them.

Attempts to institutionalize Mexico’s brutally violent and openly criminal groups, such as the Zetas, would likely prove even more problematic. The most obvious obstacle is that any legitimate economic activity would undoubtedly represent a serious pay cut for these criminal organizations.

Unlike the Bulgarian groups, the Mexicans are world leaders in one of the most lucrative criminal activities there is — cocaine trafficking. Judging by the amount of money cartels send back to Mexico from the United States, the organizations make an estimated $19 to $29 billion a year from drug sales in the United States, not to mention sales to European and Asian markets and other profitable illicit activities within Mexico like illegal mining and extortion.

No matter what state aid is provided during any institutionalization process, it will simply not be able to compete with these revenues, meaning even if a section of the underworld could be convinced to legalize, other elements would inevitably move in to take over their criminal networks.

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