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Violence in Mexico and Latin America


February 21, 2014 · in COHA Daily News, COHA Opinion, Human Rights, Mexico. You can read the original here. COHA is a LAB partner.

How Mexican children see violence in their country. Taken from the book "El México que Vivo", published by the Michoacan State Human Rights CommissionLatin America is the most dangerous region in the world, and the situation is getting worse, a lot worse. According to a recent World Bank study, over the past two decades nearly every region in the world has grown safer or at least stayed the same, except, that is, Latin America. [1] Latin America holds eight percent of the world’s population but suffers 40 percent of the world’s homicides and 60 percent of the kidnappings. [2] The murder rate in Latin America is 26 per 100,000. In Europe it is nine. [3]

Of the 50 most murderous cities in the world, 41 are located in Latin America. [4] Mexico’s Acapulco ranked third, with 113 murders per 100,000 in population, behind the Latin American cities of Caracas, Venezuela, placing second at 134, and San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with 187, winning the dubious honor as the most dangerous city in the world. [5]

Mexico has an overall homicide rate of 22 murders per 100,000 people per year, an elevated rate, although not as high as its neighbors. According to a Interpol study, from 1998 to 2009 the homicide rate rose from 24 to 47 in Guatemala, from 30 to 51 in El Salvador, and jumped from 41 to 68 in Honduras. [6] Still, Mexico is dangerous enough for the U.S. Department of State to issue a January 9, 2014 statement “warn[ing] … U.S. citizens about the risk of traveling in Mexico due to … carjacking[s], … kidnapping[s], and … [other] violent crimes.” [7]

Not all of Mexico is unsafe, just some of it. As Harvard scholar Viridiana Ríos has correctly pointed out, the illegal drug cartels run their violent operations in less than a third of all Mexican municipal districts. [8] The carnage is concentrated: more than eight of ten homicides in Mexico take place in contested cartel zones along the border and in the states of Sinaloa and Guerrero. [9] Some cities are worse than others: five of the ten most violent cities in Latin America are in Mexico, including Acapulco, Ciudad Juárez, Torreón, Chihuahua, and Durango. [10] Ríos is right, much of Mexico is peaceful, but parts of Mexico are very dangerous, and some places one really should avoid no matter what. As reporter Dawn Paley warned, driving “a new SUV [in parts of the northern Mexico] … is akin asking to be held up.” [11]

The War on Illegal Drugs, Mexican Style

The official tally in the 2006 presidential election proclaimed Enrique Calderón of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party or PAN) the winner, albeit by a narrow 200,000 vote margin. Losing candidate Andres Manuel López Obredor of the left-wing Partido del la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution or PRD) leveled angry allegations of election fraud and organized massive protest rallies in downtown Mexico City. Calderón desperately needed to change the conversation, and made a fateful decision to launch an all-out war on the illegal drug cartels.

The situation that Calderón confronted had been long in the making. The illegal drug trade in Mexico had taken off 1960s with commerce in marijuana, and in the 1980s Mexico had become a much more important player in the cocaine business after the United States Drug Enforcement Agency cracked down on drug traffickers’ favored transshipment routes from Colombia through the Caribbean and on to Florida. With the Caribbean passage under assault, the route shifted to Mexico. Then, after the North American Free Trade Accord went into effect in 1994, the volume of trade between Mexico and the United States rose dramatically. The U.S.-Mexican frontier became the busiest crossing in the world, with both legal and illegal commerce growing ever upward. [12] While in 2008 less than half of the America’s illegal drugs came up through Central America and into Mexico, today nine of every ten tons of cocaine destined for U.S. users comes in via Mexico. [13] As researcher Stephan Morris notes, “these changes funneled vast fortunes to the Mexican [illegal drug] organizations which, in turn, heightened the degree of competition among them … These changes multiplied the number of organizations, raised the stakes, and, in the process, made them more violent.” [14]

Calderón’s strategy to win the war on illegal drugs was a surge, deploying over 40,000 soldiers across Mexico. [15] The cartels responded to Calderón’s offensive by fighting back, and levels of violence directed against the government exploded. What followed was a sea of blood. During President Calderón’s time in office, 2006-2012, Mexico’s murder rate tripled, with nearly three-quarters of homicides drug-war related. [16] The occasional government successes in killing drug kingpins served mainly to create leadership vacuums inside the cartels, triggering fierce internecine conflict. In the ensuing slaughter over 60,000 have died and another 26,000 have gone missing in the violence brought on by Calderón’s assault on the drug cartels. [17] Hammering the cartels is like hammering mercury.

Stability, Predictability, and Corruption

Taken from "El México que  Vivo".Law enforcement officials in Mexico have long been forced to make a choice offered to them by the cartels, plata (silver) or plomo (lead)–take a bribe or take a bullet. When police officers earn but $6,000 USD a year in official salary, as they do in Mexico City, the choice is not really a difficult one. [18]

While the illegal drug trade exploded in volume and violence in the 1980s, with time matters started to get sorted out. The cartels showed a willingness to put making money over killing people, for as violent as they can be, the drug lords understand that warfare is bad for business. [19] Despite common perceptions about the innately violent proclivities of illegal drug trafficking enterprises, they are not necessarily so if cooperation between the cartels and with the government can be established in some manner. And this is what happened in Mexico.

The rise of the trade in illegal drugs came during the long the reign of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI), which had consolidated its hold over Mexico and constructed a single-party state. PRI had a long-standing propensity for bribe taking, and this characteristic proved an attractive asset in arranging things with the emerging cartels. The PRI’s stranglehold on political power allowed it to organize and centralize cartel bribe payments. [20] As a rule, the cartels only had to pay off the head honchos in the PRI and law enforcement, with the leading PRI cronies and top-ranking police officials raking in the biggest shares of the loot. This arrangement seems to please both parties. Together, the PRI and the cartels created a business atmosphere that was more stable and predictable for the burgeoning trade in illegal drugs.

Under the PRI system the cartels were relatively well behaved. As George Grayson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies points out, under the PRI-cartel pact the “drug dealers behaved discretely, showed deference to public figures, spurned kidnapping, … [and] helped the hegemonic PRI discredit its opponents by linking them to narco-trafficking.” [21] “When conflict among [illegal drug trafficking] organizations emerged,” researcher Stephan Morris adds, “state governors, under the direction of central authorities, would resolve it.” [22] “This state-sponsored racket,” Morris concludes, “resulted in lower levels of violence: a situation that prevailed well into the 1980s and 1990s.” [23]

However, as Amherst and New York University researchers Arindrajit Dube, Oeindrila Dude, and Omar García-Ponce note, “beginning in the late 1980s … opposition [political] victories first occurred in local elections, culminating ultimately in a national national-level democratic transition in 2000,” bringing a “marked rise in political competition.” [24] Soon “electoral turnover … encourage[ed] … [drug cartel] rivals to expand into areas where they previously did not operate,” leading to “greater territorial contestation and fighting.” [25] As Dube, Dube, and García-Ponce conclude, the “rising political competition reduced the ability of drug cartels to bribe PRI [officials] …, fueling fighting with rival cartels and the state.” [26]

With the one party system breaking down the PRI-cartel pact began to unravel. Now the drug lords had to hand out many more bribes, and the return on the money they laid out became much more uncertain. Rival illegal drug organizations returned to fighting over previously settled and PRI-backed cartel boundaries. Fragmentation followed: Mexico had six cartels in 2006, eight by 2009, and then broke apart into many more after that as fighting between cartels intensified. [27]

Other problems emerged. Corrupt officers weeded out during government crackdowns often become job applicants for full-time work for the very cartels for which they had previously worked part-time. Meanwhile, the special units created to combat illegal drugs ended up, sooner or later, joining forces with the cartels. As Stephen Morris concludes, “increased enforcement heighten[ed] … the degree of violence.” [28] Unfortunately, “launching a simultaneous attack on all is beyond the state’s capacity,” he adds. [29]

Several other factors have contributed generously to the rising violence in Mexico. One is the availability of firearms. The United States is by far the largest manufacturer of weapons in the world and is also the most active in the international trade in firearms. In the U.S. gun enthusiasts enjoy a largely unregulated environment for the purchase, trading, transportation, and carrying of all manner of guns, ranking second in the world, after Yemen, in this regard. [30]

Not surprisingly, the Latin America countries in closest proximity to the U.S. free market in firearms find it easier to obtain guns, even if their own laws ban or restrict weapons sales. The tracing of weapons used in crimes reveals that 8 of 10 crime guns in Jamaica were purchased in Florida, while 9 of 10 in Mexico were purchased in U.S. border states, especially Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. [31]

In an effort to staunch gun violence, U.S. president Bill Clinton in 1994 signed into law a ban on the sale of assault weapons, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The law was written with a ten-year sunset clause, and the ban expired in 2004. However, in California state-level restrictions remained in place after the expiration of the federal law. For researchers Dube, Dube, and García-Ponce, this situation created a sort of natural experiment: with the assault weapons ban lapsing in the border states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, but not in California, they could study the variable impact on violence levels in adjacent sections in Mexico. [32]

Dube, Dube, and García-Ponce found that the lifting of the U.S. federal ban led to a “substantial increases in homicides … tied specifically to guns” in the non-California Mexican border zones, with murders rising “60% more in municipios at the non-California entry ports” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. [33] Mexico suffered “at least 238 additional deaths annually in the area located within 100 miles of the border ports” in the non-California border zones in Mexico. Today the Mexican cartels routinely load up on U.S. military-grade weapons with larger clips. The easy availability of U.S. weapons made for war has transformed much of Northern Mexico a war zone.

The Lack of Respect for the Rule of Law

Taken from "El México que vivo"One key contributor to high levels of violence in Mexico and Latin America is the widespread lack of faith in the fairness and honesty of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. A recent public opinion survey by the leading Latin American polling firm, Latinobarómetro, revealed that more than half of Latin Americans had “little” or “no” confidence in the police, and just one in five thought that poor people had equal access to the justice system. [34] A study by Benjamin Widner, Manuel Reyes-Loya, and Carl Enomoto of New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, concluded that the number one cause of rising violence in Mexico was the defective judicial system. For lawbreakers, they found, “the probability of getting caught and punished … is low.” [35]

Criminals in Mexico operate with near total abandon. Only about one in four crimes in Mexico are ever reported to the police, either because people have come to the conclusion that the police can never to trusted, or else because experience has taught them that contacting the authorities is just a waste of time. Worse, only 7 percent of reported crimes in Mexico proceed on to court. Most cases never go on from there; overall, only about 3 percent of lawbreakers ever come to trial in Mexico. Many of these, of course, are not convicted. [36] Whether due to police and prosecutor corruption, incompetence, lack of funding and resources, understaffing, or poor training, nearly no one is ever jailed for committing a crime in Mexico. On the off chance that a violent criminal is convicted and actually sent to prison, it is relatively easy to escape. On December 17, 2010 151 inmates broke out of the Nuevo Laredo prison, and then on July 15 the next year another 61 ran off from the same facility. [37] In Mexico this sort of thing happens all the time.

Given all this, for potential law breakers the decision-making balance is tipped toward criminal behavior. Just do it, there is almost no chance that you’ll get caught and punished. Crime pays. As researcher José Luis Solís González of the Universidad Autónoma de Coahuila put it: “impunidad es casi absoluta (there is near absolute impunity).” [38]

“Barbarians” in a World of Inequality

Demography is also an important factor in the rise of violence. Most lawbreakers, throughout history and around the world, are young men. It is not an accident that prison populations are nearly all male and young, for it has always and everywhere been so. Demographers routinely use a shorthand expression for this group: the “barbarians.”

In Latin America today the most violent nations tend to be those with the largest cohorts of “barbarians.” Still, several social institutions have a proven record at getting “barbarians” to behave. If young men are surrounded by a loving and watchful home community, if the church exerts a strong moralizing influence, and, above all, if “barbarians” marry, crime will go down. Married men commit five times fewer crimes than unmarried ones do. [39] But the best solution for getting good conduct out of the “barbarians” is to age them. As men get older they usually find they just have less energy for crime. Past 35 years of age further criminal conduct becomes rare.

When violent crimes do take place, it is usually “barbarian” on “barbarian.” [40] As researcher Pierre Salama of the University of Paris notes, in Brazil young men between the ages of 15 and 19 suffer nearly double the national homicide rate. [41] In Mexico, according to the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization, the male homicide rate in 2002 was 29.6 per 100,000 while the female homicide rate was 3.1, a ratio of nearly 10 to 1. [42]

For these young men, unemployment and poverty can make becoming a criminal or a cartel a foot soldier more attractive options to them. Too often they can see no other employment opportunities. Research shows that as the job market improves, crime does go down. [42]

But although poverty is an important factor, inequality is more important. Latin America has the greatest income inequality of any region in the world. Every day young males living in poverty in Latin America see dangled before them the products that decorate the lives of the wealthy. Television ads teach these young men what they are supposed to want, but their day-to-day struggle for survival in the slums teaches them that they will never possess these goods. As researchers Roberto Briceño-León of the Universidad Central de Venezuela; Andrés Villaveces of the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia; and Alberto Concha-Eastman of University of North Carolina sum up the research findings, “in areas where wealth and extreme poverty cohabit, violence tends to occur more frequently.” [43]

The Latin American pandillas (youth gangs) are formed by adolescents who live in a world that treats them like human trash. Joining a gang gives them power. They have the power to make you afraid, the power to make you obey, they wield the power to kill you. As one incarcerated Brazilian gang member, proudly rejecting conventional morality, explained, “we are different than you … we are a new species.” [44] This is half right. We have always had ego-centric, self-justifying sociopaths living amongst us.

It is worth remembering that most young adults in Latin America, no matter what their living circumstances, do not become criminals. It is these individuals, and not those who would prey upon them, who show the most dignity and courage in their lives.

The Emergence of Mexican Self-Defense Groups

Taken from "El México que vivo"Beginning in 2013 self-defense groups have formed in Mexico, especially in the states of Michoacán, Jalisco, Chihuahua, and Veracruz. This too may be a by-product of the war on illegal drugs. Cartel fragmentation has led to the appearance of many new gangs, ones that are too small and weak to grab a part of the lucrative trade in illegal drugs. As a consequence, small gangs have turned to more accessible, but lower-profit crimes, focusing their efforts on car-jacking, kidnapping, and petty extortion. From 2007 to 2010, as President Calderón’s war on illegal drugs moved into full assault mode, “bank robberies increased 90 percent, extortion 100 percent, car theft with violence 108 percent, and kidnappings 188 percent,” Mexican analyst Guerrero Gutiérrez reports. [45] The situation for law-abiding people became intolerable, and the government, preoccupied with high-profile assaults on cartels, did almost nothing to crack down on rising crime. Ordinary people decided they had to do something on their own.

The self-defense groups have seldom taken on the drug cartels, focusing instead on punishing the small gangs and local criminals that carry out robberies, assaults, and rapes. These community-protection organizations only go after the cartels when some of their members start to engage in crimes of violence against citizens. Most Mexicans do not care about the illegal drug trade unless the violence is turned against them. Drug use is mostly viewed as a U.S. problem, and producing for that market is not regarded as wrong.

One advantage of the self-defense groups is that they know the local population and the lay of the land, something that national level police or military forces sorely lack. However, the danger with the formation of self-defense groups is that the can sometimes morph into cartels. After all, the notoriously violent drug cartel La familia Michoacana started as a self-defense group. Although his view is self-serving, the head of the Los Caballeros Templarios cartel (the Knights Templar), Servando Gomez, is already claiming that the self-defense groups are allied with rival drug cartels. [46] There is some evidence that he might be right about this, for the groups have fairly impressive arsenals of weapons for such limited resources. For the moment the self-defense forces are succeeding in carving out some islands of relative security for long-beleaguered Mexicans. Nevertheless, the emergence of self-defense groups is fraught with potential dangers, from out-of-control vigilantism, to cooptation by major drug cartels.

The Role of the United States

Credit: African Narco NewsWhile the United States government has expressed alarm over spiking levels of violence in Mexico and Latin America, its policies have served to aggravate the situation. The easy available of weapons from the United States continues to be a significant concern to the Mexican government. In a May 2010 address before a joint session of the U.S. Congress Mexican President Calderón pleaded for a reinstatement of the U.S. assault weapon ban. Mexico’s highly restrictive gun laws do little good when weapons steadily flood in from the United States. Unfortunately, there is at present no chance that the U.S. Congress will move on this question, even in the wake of repeated massacres.

U.S. policy has contributed to violence in the region in other ways. The United States brought considerable pressure on Latin American nations to adopt neoliberal, free-market economic policies, and the resulting government programs have served to retard job growth and hindered the reduction of income inequality in Latin America.

Moreover, two of the most violent gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and the 18th Street gang (M 18), were actually made in America. These gangs started in Los Angeles, but when law enforcement arrested gang members for any criminal conduct, U.S. policy called for their deportation if they were not U.S. citizens. If they were not born in the U.S. they were not, for many had come to the U.S. as infants when their parents fled El Salvador or Honduras. A large population of non-U.S. citizen criminal gang members were shipped out of the country and dumped into El Salvador and Honduras. The results of this U.S. policy have been horrific, dramatically raising the level of violence in both of these nations.

Worst of the all, the U.S. continues to mindlessly pursue its failed war on illegal drugs, even after many in the hemisphere long ago recognized the folly of these policies. When the United States recently provided $1.4 billion USD to Mexico to beef up its military response to illegal drugs, it further shoved the nation in precisely the wrong direction.

According to U.S. Department of Justice estimates, the Mexican cartels collectively take in some $39 billion a year. [47] But if the business environment were to shift, if the drug trade were no longer illegal, then the cartels would either have to adapt or they would die. It is possible that they could double-down on their other criminal economic activities and move more deeply into pirated software and human trafficking. Still, the cartel’s real money comes from illegal drugs, not from peddling knock-off hip hop CDs or from trying to squeeze a few extra pesos out of impoverished migrants looking to hire a coyote to help them across the U.S. border. The cartels are, after all, in the business of making money, not just making money illegally. Decriminalization of the drug trade would change the business climate for the cartels. Do this and we might well see them become more intent on making a killing in the stock market than ordering a mass killing along the border, less eager to cut throats than to hatch cutthroat business deals.

But without this basic change in U.S. policy, the violence will continue.


* Ronn Pineo is a COHA Senior Analyst and Chair of the Department of History, Towson University

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.

Main photo credit: Comisión Nacional de Seguridad, México.

For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action


[1] Elaine Denny and Barbara F. Walter, “Explaining High Murder Rates in Latin America: It’s Not Drugs,” Political Violence @ a Glance, August 30, 2012.

[2] “Latin America Has World’s Highest Murder Rate,” Latin American Herald Tribune January 26, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Edwin Mora, “Study: 41 of World’s 50 Most Violent Cities in Latin America,” Breitbart, January 20, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Pierre Salama, “Homicidios, ¿es ineluctable la violencia en América Latina?” Frontera norte 25:49 (January-June 2013), 10.

[7] U.S. Department of State, “Travel Warning for Mexico,” January 9, 2014$%7BTravelWarnings%7D).

[8] Viridiana Ríos, “Who Started the Mexican Drug War?” Harvard Kennedy School Review 13 (May 2, 2013), 21.

[9] Salama, 11.

[10] Ibid, 12.

[11] Dawn Paley, “Off the Map in Mexico: In the Wake of a Militarized Drug War, the Power of Cartels is More Pervasive than Ever,” The Nation May 23, 2011, 22.

[12] Evelyn Krache Morris, “Think Again: Mexican Drug Cartels,” Foreign Policy 203 (November/December 2013): 30-33.

[13] Gabriel Marcella, “The Transformation of Security in Latin America: A Cause for Common Action,” Journal of International Affairs 66:2 (Spring/Summer 2013), 72.

[14] Stephen D. Morris, “Drug Trafficking, Corruption, and Violence in Mexico: Mapping the Linkages,” Trends in Organized Crime 16 (2013), 209.

[15] Paley, 20; Ríos, 21.

[16] Patricio Asfusa-Heim and Ralph Espach, “The Rise of Mexico’s Self-Defense Forces,” Foreign Affairs 92:4 (July/August 2013): 143-150; Arindrajit Dube, Oeindrila Dude, and Omar García-Ponce, “Cross-Border Spillover: U.S. Gun Laws and Violence in Mexico,” American Political Science Review 107:3 (August 2013), 399.

[17] E. Morris, 30-33.

[18] Benjamin Widner, Manuel L. Reyes-Loya, and Carl E. Enomoto, “Crimes and Violence in Mexico: Evidence from Panel Data,” The Social Science Journal 48 (2011), 605.

[19] S. Morris, 199-200.

[20] Ibid, 196.

[21] Quoted in S. Morris, 206-207.

[22] S. Morris, 207.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Dube, et al., 400.

[25] Ibid, 400.

[26] Ibid, 398.

[27] Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, “At the Root of Violence,” Washington Office on Latin America,” translation by Charlie Roberts, September 10, 2011, 3.

[28] S. Morris, 213.

[29] Ibid, 214

[30] Dube, et al, 402.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid, 397.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Salama, 8.

[35] Widner, et al., 604.

[36] Ibid, 605, 611.

[37] Garry Moore, “Mexico’s Massacre Era: Gruesome Killings, Porous Prisons,” World Affairs (September/October 2012): 61-67.

[38] José Luis Solís González, “Neoliberalism y crimen organizado en México: El surgimiento del Estado narco,” Frontera norte 25:50 (July-December 2013), 21.

[39] Widner, et al., 606.

[40] Roberto Briceño-León, Andrés Villaveces, and Alberto Concha-Eastman, “Understanding the Uneven Distribution of the Incidence of Homicide in Latin America,” International Journal of Epidemiology 37 (2008), 753; Salama, 14.

[41] Salama, 15.

[42] Widner, et al., 606.

[43] Briceño-León, et al., 755.

[44] Salama, 20.

[45] Guerrero Gutiérrez, 17.

[46] Jerónimo Mohar and Benoît Gomis, “Rise of Self-Defense Groups Highlights Mexico’s State-Level Security Challenges,” World Politics Review January 24, 2014.

[47] E. Morris, 30-33.


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