New Working Paper: Violence within: Understanding the Use of Violent Practices Among Mexican Drug Traffickers

11/20/19-Justice in Mexico, a research-based program at the University of San Diego, released a working paper entitled, “Violence within: Understanding the Use of Violent Practices Among Mexican Drug Traffickers” by Dr. Karina García. This paper provides first-hand data regarding the perpetrators’ perspectives about their engagement in practices of drug trafficking-related violence in Mexico such as murder, kidnapping, and torture. Drawing on the life stories of thirty-three former participants in the Mexican drug trade—often self-described as “narcos”— collected in the North of Mexico between October 2014 and January 2015, this paper shows how violent practices serve different purposes, which indicates the need for different strategies to tackle them.

Figure 3. Participants’ Former Roles in the Cartels
Figure 3. Participants’ Former Roles in the Cartels

According to the author, there are four dimensions of drug trafficking-related violence identified in participants’ narratives: 1) as a business activity, 2) as a means of industry regulation, 3) as a source of excitement, adrenaline, and empowerment, and 4) as a ritual in the cult of the holy death [la santa muerte].  Practices of violence are normalized by participants in the Mexican drug trade as if it were any other business activity.  The logistics of violence in the Mexican drug trade include the casualization of work: workers at the bottom of the hierarchy are conceived as disposable, usually street drug dealers; a clear specialization and division of labour: not all participants in the drug trade—often described as “narcos”—engage in the same type of violence, some focus on torturing people, others on murder, and others transportation and/or disappearance of their bodies.

“Narcos” understand corporal punishments, mutilation and even death, as a way of establishing the ground rules for working within the drug trade. It is taken for granted that, given the illegal nature of the industry, violence is the only way in which drug traffickers can communicate and enforce norms and agreements among themselves, both within their own networks and in relation to their enemies. Murdering and torturing people are practices linked to releasing adrenaline, and even positive emotions such as happiness. Participants suggest that, in the context of poverty, performing acts of violence was the only way they had to feel powerful. Having control over other people’s lives gave them a sense of power that they could not obtain in any other way.

Some participated in violence not only as a necessary business activity, but as a hobby. Former Zetas pointed out that most members are invited to be part of the cult of the holy death [la santa muerte] and some of them are forced to worship her. This cult requires blood, torture and human sacrifices in exchange for protection. Participants explained that they joined this cult in order to have a dignified death rather than living a good life. Drug trafficking-related violence is likely to continue or increase as long as vulnerable groups prone to joining drug cartels remain neglected. In the context of the new administration of López-Obrador, and the creation of the controversial National Guard, this paper’s findings suggest that whereas this new security force may be necessary in some areas of the country, it cannot be the only strategy to minimise drug trafficking-related violence in the long run.

In order to address the first two dimensions of violence, decision makers should consider the legalization of drugs as a way to minimize both violence in Mexico and the quantity of drugs smuggled into the United State. Crucially, legalization should be understood as part of a wider strategy to tackle violence in Mexico. Considering that Mexico is one of the biggest producers of cannabis and opium, it is suggested to fully legalize the production, distribution, and consumption of these drugs in order to reduce the revenue potential of violent, illicit enterprises. The Mexican government should invest more on research and social programs targeted at the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the North of Mexico. Tackling everyday insecurities that children and young men have to cope with is of paramount importance to prevent increased labour pools for drug cartels.

About the Author:

Dr. Karina García is an Assistant Teacher at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations (SPAIS) and the department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies (HIPLA) at the University of Bristol. Her research interests include drug policy, drug violence, qualitative research methods, toxic masculinities, and gang violence in Latin America.

The Capture and Release of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán, Sinaloa

11/05/19 (Written by T McGinnis) – On October 17th, heavy fighting erupted in the Mexican city of Culiacán, Sinaloa after security forces detained Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of the jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. According to El País, authorities initially reported that they found Guzmán during a routine search and arrested him due to the significant role he has played in his father’s illicit activities. However, as noted by the Los Angeles Times, the story evolved rapidly. Mexican officials later acknowledged that the operation had been planned, but suggested that it was physically carried out by rogue security forces without proper authorization. In either case, authorities lacked a search warrant upon entering Guzmán’s property, calling the legality of the mission into question from the beginning. Following this blunder, the cartel launched a large attack in retaliation. As videos and pictures of dead bodies and families scrambling for shelter surfaced and subsequently flooded the media, the public watched as the death toll gradually rose in the days following the violence. Univision later confirmed on October 21st that at least 13 people were killed and dozens more were injured.

According to Milenio, in reaction to the violence, authorities ultimately freed Ovidio Guzmán López and retreated, subsequently defending this course of action by arguing that the most important objective remains to avoid the loss of human lives. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke publicly regarding the matter stating, “We don’t want bloodshed. We do not want that. From anyone. We are also hurting with respect to the loss of the life of an alleged criminal. We are not oblivious to the pain caused by the death of any person.” Reiterating the position that his administration has taken from the outset, Obrador insisted that “you can’t fight fire with fire.” However, this response raised strong criticisms of López Obrador’s security strategy, which thus far has failed to quell Mexico’s rising tide of violence, which has reached more than 3,000 murders each month as noted by El Universal.

Indeed, critics charged that the cartel’s victory represented a stunning “humiliation” for the Mexican government. According to The New York Times, though Obrador rightly maintains that he inherited the problem of unchecked corruption, those who oppose the strategy of release and retreat utilized by the government last month argue that these actions send the wrong message and set a dangerous precedent. Cartels may now more strongly assume that through the leveraging violence, they can get their way and further their interests. Additionally, while the López Obrador administration may opt not to go after drug traffickers, vocal critics like Ioan Grillo point out that the drug “war does not stop even if the government is not attacking them.”

López Obrador has also been criticized for the lack of an effective security strategy, despite his efforts to build a new National Guard to restore order. Indeed, many members of the National Guard have been diverted from their public security role to focus on stopping Central American migrants from entering the United States. Meanwhile, López Obrador’s efforts have been beset by protests from federal law enforcement officers who object to the dissolution of their agency, the Federal Police, and their incorporation into the National Guard during the recent reorganization of security forces, as noted last month by Justice in Mexico. Engelbert Ruiz, a Federal Police Officer, commented that “What is really happening is that they are simply changing our uniforms [with] no explanations, clarity, no rights or guarantees.”

According to the Diario de Yucatán, compounding an already complicated set of internal tensions, “Mexican media outlets reported that elements in the army were unhappy with the outcome of Thursday’s debacle in Culiacán.” As noted by sources, such as Mexican News Daily, this rift between President López Obrador and military forces continued to grow in the days following the operation. On October 22nd, retired military general Carlos Gaytán gave a highly critical speech regarding the worrisome status of “today’s Mexico” under the Obrador administration. “…We cannot ignore that the head of the executive has been legally and legitimately empowered. However, it’s also an undeniable truth that fragile counterweight mechanisms have permitted a strengthening of the executive, which has made strategic decisions that haven’t convinced everyone, to put it mildly.” Though Gaytán never explicitly referred to the Culiacán operation, established sources within the military informed The Washington Post that the speech served as a response to the mission on behalf the armed forces.

However, other sources point out that the story of Ovidio Guzmán’s release remains subject to two very different interpretations. According to Consulta Mitofsky for El Economista, “in Sinaloa, 79% of the population and 53% nationally, considered that the federal government did the right thing by freeing Ovidio Guzmán López from the threat of the Sinaloa Cartel to attack the citizens.” The state of Sinaloa, the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking, is overwhelmed by the presence of crime and an ever-increasing tendency of cartels to use insurgent tactics to achieve their political aims, such as the use of roadblocks to hinder military reinforcement. Vladimir Ramirez, a political scientist in Culiacán, explained that although the gunmen did not intentionally target noncombatants initially, the menace posed by the cartel remained clear. The citizens of Sinaloa, who have been subject and well-exposed to cartel reign, recognized this. The usual elusive quality of cartel gunmen had, in this case, materialized; their visible and violent presence forcing families to hide in small, anxiety-provoking spaces as described by Televisa. “It was a threat of terrorism,” Ramirez said. “The government acted with great responsibility.” Additionally, El Universal reports that during the operation, Aguaruto prison experienced a breakdown in security, resulting in the escape of approximately 50 prisoners, most of whom originally forfeited their rights due to ties with organized crime. Additionally, many approve of the government’s strategy of release and retreat because according to Milenio, cartel hitmen threatened to kill hostage soldiers and their families if Guzmán remained held by authorities.


Photo: El Economista 

Moving forward, it remains to be seen whether the Mexican president will heed critics’ warnings by cracking down on drug traffickers or continue to pursue a self-described approach focused on “hugs, not gunfights” (abrazos, no balazos). Clearly, though, what occurred in Sinaloa on October 17th has increased pressure on the López Obrador administration to develop a coherent and effective strategy to reduce both violent crime and the threat of Mexico’s powerful organized crime groups.

Sources:

Camhaji, Elijah. “Ovidio Guzmán, el hijo de El Chapo cuya detención ha desatado la violencia en Culiacán.” El País. October 18th, 2019.

Milenio Digital. “Gobierno va tras hijo de ‘El Chapo’; ‘que no haya impunidad’, dice AMLO.” Milenio. October 22, 2019.

Espino, Manuel. “Semestre récord en violencia en México.” El Universal. 2 Jul. 2019. 

“En Sinaloa, Gabinete de Seguridad optó por proteger la vida de las personas: presidente AMLO.” Sitio Oficial de Andrés Manuel López Obrador. 18 Oct. 2019. 

Consulta Mitofsky. “Liberación de Ovidio Guzmán: dos visiones diferentes.” El Economista. 22 Oct. 2019. 

Heinle, K. “AMLO deploys National Guard amidst controversy.” Justice in Mexico. 24 Jul. 2019. 

Linthicum, Kate & Sanchez, Cecelia. “Eight killed in Mexico as cartel gunmen force authorities to release El Chapo’s son.” Los Angeles Times. October 18, 2019. 

Grillo, Ioan. “Drug Cartel Control Is No Peace.” The New York Times. October 22, 2019. 

Megamedia. “Trasciende molestia del jefe del Ejército con AMLO tras la fallida operación en Culiacán.” Diario de Yucatán.October 20, 2019. 

Noticieros Televisa. “Miedo y ansiedad: lo que dejó la violencia del Cártel de Sinaloa en Culiacán.” Televisa. 29 Oct. 2019. 

Beauregard, Luis Pablo. “El hijo de El Chapo, tras su detención en Culiacán: ‘Ya paren todo, ya me entregué, no quiero más desmadre.’” El Universal. 30 Oct. 2019. 

USD’s Justice in Mexico Program receives a $3 million government grant to continue collaboration with Mexican public law schools, while extending their geographical reach

10/01/19 – Justice in Mexico at the University of San Diego is pleased to report that due to the generosity of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the Oral Adversarial Skill-Building Immersion Seminar (OASIS) has been extended through the year 2022, receiving an additional $3 million grant. This oral advocacy training program may now utilize the total federal grant of approximately $9.3 million to further its principal mission of providing legal actors in Mexico with the competencies and best practices necessary for the successful performance of their professional duties within the judicial system. 

To achieve the aforementioned goal of OASIS, the Justice in Mexico team organizes and executes three activities throughout the year. First, the program coordinates three 40-hour litigation workshops in Spanish to 240+ law professors and students from Mexico’s most important public law schools. Second, OASIS offers the opportunity to embark on three study tours where Mexican jurists can learn more about the U.S. criminal justice system. Third, in an effort to advance legal scholarship on criminal justice consolidation and provide public education on the inner-workings of the criminal justice system, the program holds an annual international symposium to promote this public awareness and scholarly exchange. 

However, under the new proposal of activities for 2019-22, OASIS will extend its geographical reach to local communities that have previously not had access to participate in the aforementioned training programs. Furthermore, OASIS looks to fortify relations with other regions that will provide important opportunities for broader regional impact. 

Dr. David A. Shirk, Director of USD’s Masters in International Relations and Principal Investigator of Justice in Mexico, states that OASIS provides a model for the “high-level academic exchange” programs needed to establish stronger, more durable ties between the United States and Mexico. “OASIS gives skilled practitioners the opportunity to develop deep and lasting ties that can last well beyond the life of the grant to advance the long-term of strengthening the rule of law in Mexico and improving binational cooperation.” 

This additional funding will allow OASIS to broaden the geographical and methodological reach of the program, and ultimately, engage more critically with the spheres of citizen security, the rule of law, and human rights in Mexico.

Headed for the Exits: An Empirical Assessment of Key Factors Driving Honduran Emigration

 

08/07/19- With the surge in Central American families and unaccompanied children traveling through Mexico to the United States, there has been a compelling need to better understand why people are leaving the region in such great numbers. Despite the increased attention being paid to this phenomenon, there is a lack of consensus about the factors driving Central American migrants to leave their homes. While some researchers point to clear economic underpinnings of the mass emigration, others claim that the vast majority of people are fleeing violence and insecurity.

In the paper entitled “Headed for the Exits: An Empirical Assessment of Key Factors Driving Honduran Emigration,” Ryan Williams uses survey data collected by the Latin American Public Opinion Project to compare the relationship between economic and security factors and the individual decision to emigrate from the country of Honduras. While there is an ongoing mass emigration from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, Mr. Williams selects Honduras as his country of focus for three reasons:

  1. The country has been the starting point for recent migrant caravans, including a group of more than 7,000 that travelled to the U.S. – Mexico border in October 2018.[1]
  2. The population of immigrants from Honduras living in the United States has grown more sharply over the past decade than that from either Guatemala or El Salvador.[2]
  3. Honduras is one of the poorest and most violent countries in Latin America. This makes it a more intriguing sample population for the larger region than El Salvador, which suffers more from violence than poverty, or Guatemala, which suffers from grinding poverty but lower levels of violence relative to Honduras and El Salvador.[3]

Recent estimates suggest that approximately 200-400 people are currently leaving the country of Honduras each day.[4] Over the past five years, roughly half a million people have left the nation of 9 million. In reviewing the existing literature about what drives emigration from Honduras, Mr. Williams identifies possible factors to consider, including poverty, crime, significant issues with governance, major flaws in the justice system, rampant corruption and high levels of impunity, widespread social inequality, and serious environmental risks due to climate change.

Recent research points to two dominant explanations for why people emigrate from Honduras: either because of economic conditions or security concerns in the country. There is a disconnect, however, between those who believe the most significant factors driving people to emigrate are economic in nature and those who see the root problem as violence and insecurity faced by Hondurans. This is the question driving Mr. Williams’ research: which factor, economics or security, has a greater impact on the decision to leave Honduras?

To answer this question, Mr. Williams analyzes survey data collected from residents of Honduras as part of the Latin American Public Opinion Project’s AmericasBarometer survey, which focuses on political, economic, and quality-of-life issues in countries throughout Latin America. The most recent round of surveys took place in 2016 and 2017, and included surveys taken in 29 countries and totaling more than 43,000 interviews. The 2016 survey in Honduras was conducted among a nationally representative sample of 1,560 voting age adults through face-to-face interviews.

This analysis reveals that Hondurans are more likely to express an intention to emigrate if they have been a victim of crime. This likelihood increases by 28.6 percent for each additional crime victimization survey respondents reported. On the other hand, there appears to be a weak relationship between individual or household economic conditions and the intention to emigrate. Contrary to what may be expected, the likelihood of an individual expressing their intention to emigrate actually increases by 2.4 percent for each step up in reported monthly household income. The results were slightly different when considering an individuals’ perception of their personal economic situation. In that case, those with a perception of being worse off were more likely to express intentions to emigrate than those with a more positive perception.

Mr. Williams’ research illustrates that in the aggregate, Hondurans are more likely to express an intention to emigrate if they have been the victim of crime than they are as a result of poverty. These findings are relevant as we work to better understand and appropriately characterize the mass migration out of Central America. The research also serves as an important reminder to the United States that the children and families arriving at its Southern border should be received as potential victims fleeing crime and violence, and not merely as impoverished migrants in search of economic opportunity. Finally, based upon these findings, policy makers in the United States and elsewhere looking for ways to improve conditions in Honduras and stem the massive flow of people out of the region should make reducing crime and enhancing security their highest priorities.

 

 

Download the full report here

 

 

[1] El Colegio De La Frontera Norte. La Caravana de Migrantes Centroamericanos en Tijuana 2018: Diagnostico y Propuestas de Accion. Tijuana: 2018. Accessed February 21, 2019.

[2] D’Vera Cohn, Jeffrey S. Passel, Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “Immigration from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador Up,” Pew Research Center, June 04, 2018, http://www.pewhispanic.org/2017/12/07/rise-in-u-s-immigrants-from-el-salvador-guatemala-and-honduras-outpaces-growth-from-elsewhere/.

[3] “Honduras Profile,” InSight Crime, last modified August 29, 2018, https://www.insightcrime.org/honduras-organized-crime-news/honduras/.

[4] Azam Ahmed, Katie Rogers and Jeff Ernst. “How the Migrant Caravan Became a Trump Election Strategy.” New York Times, October 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/24/world/americas/migrant-caravan-trump.html.

 

The Role of Mexico’s Drug Cartels in the U.S. Fentanyl Crisis

 

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

05/13/19- (written by Aitanna Ferrez) The surge of opioid overdoses in the United States has killed tens of thousands of people in recent years and, according to the New York Times, has become the leading cause of death for U.S. citizens under the age of 55.  In particular, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and has been a major contributor to the crisis. Fentanyl is often used by drug traffickers and dealers as an additive to enhance the effect of other drugs, including heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and even counterfeit prescription drugs. In recent years, numerous opioid deaths have been attributed to the proliferation of fentanyl, because even small variations in quantity can lead to overdoses.

 

Historically, fentanyl has been predominantly manufactured in China and often directly shipped to the United States. Mexican drug cartels have predominantly functioned as intermediaries in the distribution of fentanyl. Following an April 1st decision by the Chinese National Narcotics Control Commission to regulate fentanyl and all chemically similar variants as a class of controlled substances, it is possible that Mexican cartels will now become more important suppliers of illicit fentanyl. According to an InSight Crime report focused on the severity of Mexico’s contribution to the deadly rise of fentanyl, Mexico has become not only a major transit country, but also a key production point for fentanyl and its chemical variants. Furthermore, Insight Crime’s investigation shows that Mexican traffickers appear to be playing a role in the distribution of fentanyl within the United States, with Mexico’s two largest criminal organizations—the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG)—being the two most prominent purveyors of the drug. According to the report, these and other Mexican criminal organizations continue to transport and distribute fentanyl using the same routes employed for other illicit drugs.

 

According to the Insight Crime report, the Mexican government “does not see fentanyl as an important issue yet and has not devoted significant resources towards finding the principal drivers of the trade inside its borders.” This is a serious concern given the degree to which fentanyl is dramatically reshaping the illicit drug trade. Simultaneously, this is having disastrous effects in Mexican drug producing regions, according to a report produced by the Wilson Center, NORIA, and Justice in Mexico. This report emphasizes that with “the upsurge in fentanyl use, the demand for Mexican heroin has sharply fallen,” causing village economies to “dry up” and “out migration” on the upward trend. Altogether, the report highlights the how a modernization of Mexico’s drug policies would solve problems to a wealth of unanswered questions and help bring marginalized regions into the country for good.

 

The new paradigm, created by the rise of fentanyl, may require Mexico and the United States to move away from past approaches dealing with drugs. As fentanyl begins to atomize the market, it will be more difficult to identify and arrest major traffickers like Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, a practice that has not been particularly effective in preventing drug use. According to Insight Crime founder Steven Dudley in a contribution to Foreign Affairs Magazine, “Dealing with illicit drugs requires a holistic approach dedicated to understanding the complexity of drug use and its ripple effects on everything from the rule of law to democracy.”

 

Sources:

Dudley, Steven, et al. “Mexico’s Role in the Deadly Rise of Fentanyl – Investigation.” InSight Crime, Wilson Center: Mexico Institute, Feb. 2019

Dudley, Steven. “The End of the Big Cartels.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 4 Mar. 2019, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/mexico/2019-02-27/end-big-cartels

Hassan, Adeel. “Deaths From Drugs and Suicide Reach a Record in the U.S.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Mar. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/07/us/deaths-drugs-suicide-record.html

Le Cour Grandmaison, Romain, et al. “The U.S. Fentanyl Boom and the Mexican Opium Crisis: Finding Opportunities Amidst Violence?” Wilson Center, 12 Feb. 2019, www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/the-us-fentanyl-boom-and-the-mexican-opium-crisis-finding-opportunities-amidst-violence.