Many of us are familiar with the announcements from Mexico of yet another cartel leader being captured by the government. The presentation of the event is carefully scripted and often accompanied by a declaration that the country has taken another step towards security and peace.
But a different story is emerging through recent research by Stanford Associate Professor Beatriz Magaloni. She found that drug trade-related homicides increased by nearly 40 percent in affected municipalities after a leader was captured or killed.
It’s a shocking statistic in a time when Mexico is coming to terms with the former administration’s U.S.-backed drug war. Conservative estimates suggest that, during Felipe Calderón’s presidency, at least 70,000 people died from drug-related violence.
In a presentation hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley, Magaloni focused primarily on the impact that Calderón’s focus on cartel leaders has had.
She found that after leaders were deposed, destabilized cells dispersed, with lower-level lieutenants both fighting off rival cartels bent on expansion and seeking revenge on regional leaders suspected of government cooperation. “State actions have a paradoxical effect: they weaken cartels and opens space for other cartels to come in,” she said. In addition, after a capture, Magaloni noted an increase in extortion and kidnapping of the general population.
In early 2012, violence broke out in Guadajalara, Mexico when a leader of the New Generation Jalisco gang was arrested. The cartel blockaded all the city’s major exits with burning buses and semi-trucks in an attempt to keep the Mexican military from leaving with their leader. In the following weeks, splinter groups fought to gain territory in what is one of Mexico’s largest cities.
Contrary to popular belief, drug-related homicides do not occur randomly across Mexico. “The spread will happen where DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations] have an interest in fighting,” Magaloni said. Ports, railway lines and airports have increasingly become the focus of turf wars. “Drugs pass through those ports, and you can tax them and extort them,” she said.
The entry cost of becoming an influential drug cartel was far higher in past administrations, according to Magaloni. For example, in the early 1990s, during Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s administration, all cartels were loosely under the control of high-level, national politicians. But that changed under Calderón’s administration, which began in 2006. As a result, alliances fractured, and cartels needed only to influence state and municipal officials to begin splinter groups.
Since his election in 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration has tried to keep the drug war out of the public eye by restricting media coverage of the violence. Instead, the president has focused on promoting a positive image of the country. Updated government data on drug-related deaths has also become less accessible — making it more difficult to quantify the drug war’s impact.
Seven months into his presidency, Peña Nieto’s military captured the leader of The Zetas — one of Mexico’s most violent cartels. As a result, many expect the powerful Sinaloa cartel to attempt a takeover of the territory, which would increase violence in a city that has already largely been abandoned by its government.
So far this year, more than 12,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico. And it appears that the controversial strategy of removing cartel leaders will not change anytime soon.
Steve Fisher is a Univision News Fellow currently studying at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.