Because there are so many big Mexican criminal organizations — at least 11 major ones — their situation is unusual:
The original cartels were in geographically distinct areas — the Gulf cartel along the south-east Texas border; the Sonora cartel on the Arizona border; the Arrelano Felix organization in Baja California; the Sinoloa cartel on the major port cities on the Pacific side such as Mazatlan. They were cartels in the true sense, dividing up non-competing territories. More recently they stopped being cartels, as they have invaded each other’s territory. The name “cartel” serves as a term of convenience, but it is inaccurate. To call them “drug cartels” involved in a “drug war” is doubly inaccurate. Popular terms are impossible to eradicate, but they hide reality. Mexican crime-orgs are less like rival businesses than rival warrior states of the pre-modern era.
Over time, the situation of territorial cartels developed into multi-sided wars. This came about by a combination of political processes.
Because there are so many players, various alliances were possible. When any one crime organization attempted territorial expansion, counter-alliances were created. Some organizations sent expeditionary forces — military aid — to their allies, thereby also expanding their territorial reach, and provoking further defensive reactions. Alliances could change when the host organization felt threatened by the outsiders and made new alliances to throw them out.
A defeat in war, or arrests by the government, would result in a power vacuum. When one organization was weakened, outsiders could move into their territory; or a split would occur within the organization, creating a power struggle among new factions that might crystallize into separate organizations if there were no clear-cut winner. Thus a multi-sided struggle became even more multi-sided as time went on.
Examples: this happened as the Arellano Felix Organization in Baja California split when its older leaders were arrested; when the Sinaloa cartel was split by the Beltrán Leyva brothers; and when Los Zetas broke from the Gulf Cartel. The government acts as a complicating factor in the multi-sided situation, bringing the total number of players to 12 or more, depending on how many independent factions there are in the Mexican government. Above all, government strategy of decapitating the most prominent cartels kept stirring the mix; far from destroying organizations, it kept creating new opportunities for local factions and rival cartels to expand.
These multi-sided conflicts and repeated power vacuums push cartel members into switching sides. Such switches of allegiance are typical in multi-sided geopolitics; the history of European diplomacy is full of them, with the English, French, Germans, Russians and others switching between friends and enemies numerous times over the centuries. The Zetas have been the most aggressively opportunistic. They began as elite airmobile Special Forces set up by the Mexican government distrustful of their own regular military and police. Their very isolation made them amenable to being recruited as bodyguards by one of the quarreling leaders of the Gulf cartel in the early 2000s. Within a few years, as the Gulf cartel was weakened by the government offensive, the Zetas broke free of their underground employers and became another crime-org in its own right. This disloyalty is typical of what happens to paramilitary forces set up by governments outside of normal bureaucratic channels — for instance in Africa and the Middle East [Schlichte 2009]. Not only are the Zetas not a cartel in the technical sense, but they lack a distinctive territorial base — being tied neither to particular drug routes nor local roots. They have expanded into anywhere in Mexico where there has been the hint of a power vacuum.
Similarly, vigilante groups set up to keep out intruders or punish criminals the weak state cannot touch, themselves can turn into crime organizations. This has been the pathway of La Familia in Michoacan (far from the major drug routes, but including the Pacific port nearest to Mexico City). It started as a religiously-based rehabilitation movement for drug addicts (not unlike the Synanon movement in California during the 1960s and 70s, which evolved from a group psychotherapy drug cure into a religious cult and eventually into a violent organization). La Famiglia Michoacana (which means “the Michoacan family”) gradually shifted from a local self-protection group, defending the region against incursions by the Zetas and others, into the business of protection/extortion and eventually into drug dealing itself. Local loyalties have remained especially strong, since La Famiglia not only maintained its public image as a protector but siphoned its criminal income back into supporting local churches and institutions. The pattern resembles the Latin American tradition of a populist revolutionary movement gone corrupt.
We now have a structural mechanism to explain a distinctive feature of the Mexican cartel wars: spectacular public violence. These are not just killings but tortures and beheadings; displaying corpses — or parts of them — in public places; leaving notes on the bodies giving warnings, insults, or explanations.
This raises a technical question in the sociology of violence. In order to torture and mutilate someone, it is necessary to capture them first. This is difficult to do. Many kinds of criminal organizations are unable to do this. American street gangs do not engage in torture and mutilation of their enemies, because their style of violence is brief confrontations or drive-by shootings. Street gangs have narrow territorial boundaries, and lack information about what happens outside their turf.
To capture an enemy requires stealth and planning; this requires information, and therefore informants. A high level of information is displayed also in extortion threats; for instance phone calls to victims telling them details of their families’ daily routines.
The structural situation of multi-sided conflicts produces much switching of sides; and this generates useful informants with information about enemies’ routines. Internal splits in an organization also creates informants, since whoever leaves one faction can tell the other details about the routines of those they have left.
The situation worsens. As the cycle of defeats and victories, power vacuums, and side-switching goes on, informants themselves are targeted. Informants are the most important weakness for an organization, therefore it tries to deter informants by using spectacular punishments — more tortures and beheadings.
Public violence has a second purpose: it can be used to send propaganda. Messages attached to bodies can proclaim that it is done to protect the local communities against terrorists, drug cartels, and criminals — as in the propaganda of La Familia Michoacana. This is propaganda to create local legitimacy. Or propaganda of violence can be used to intimidate possible enemies. But the intimidation is usually not definitive, since in a situation of multi-sided instability, side-switching inevitably happens and the cycle of spectacular violence continues.
What can we predict, using our comparisons among the political structures of crime organizations?
First: drug business is not the key determinant of what they will do. Drugs provide one source of income, and the variety of drug routes provides bases on which some — but not all — of the cartels originated. But the main resource of a crime-org is how much violence it can muster, and that depends on its political reach and strength of organizational control. Once the military/political structure exists, it can be turned to different kinds of criminal businesses, whether these involve running a drug business (or any other illegal business); or merely raking off protection money from those who run an illegal business; or extorting protection money from ordinary citizens, including kidnapping. A crime-org might start out in the drug business and shift its activities elsewhere, or vice versa. Randolfo Contreras has shown that in the 1990s when the crack cocaine business dried up in the Bronx, former street dealers went into other areas of crime. In Mexico, when increased border surveillance cut into drug deliveries to the US, crime-orgs expanded into extortion and kidnapping for ransom. The Zetas, because of their organization as Special Forces, were less directly connected with the drug business itself; when they became independent of the declining Gulf cartel, they have moved aggressively into more purely predatory use of violence against other cartels’ territories. This is not so much an effort to monopolize the drug trafficking business, as a different political strategy, leveraging their special skill, highly trained military violence.
It follows that ending the illegal drug business — whether by eradication or by legalization — would not automatically end violence. Mexican crime-orgs could intensify other types of violent extortion (and so they have, with increased pressure on the US border), as along as they still held territories out of government control; and wars between the cartels would not cease. It is a non sequitur to argue that if the US would stop drug consumption, Mexican cartels and their violence would disappear.
A second prediction comes from historical similarities. The Mexican situation from 2000 onwards resembles the Sicilian Mafia wars that took place from the 1960s through the 1980s. The Sicilian mafias also engaged in corruption of local governments, and a system of protection/extortion covering all economic activities. Surveillance was provided by a large network of informants; and spectacular violence was used when mafiosi were challenged. As in Mexico, there were a large number of Sicilian Mafia families. The wars were multi-sided, both among the different mafia coalitions, and against the Italian national government.
The situation in Sicily was precisely what the US Mafia had organized the Commission to avoid: lengthy civil wars; public violence; and attacks on government officials. After the fall of the crime regime in 1920s Chicago headed by Al Capone — who was too blatantly public about his political control, and his drive-by machine guns in the street — the New York mafia ruled by secrecy. There was no effective Peace Commission in Sicily, no centralized organization by which the top Mafia bosses exercised selective violence to keep discipline inside the organization.
The Prognosis: The Italian government won the Sicilian Mafia war; as their local war escalated into attacks on officials of the national government, the government counter-escalated until the Mafia was largely destroyed. Mexico could go the same path. It would be a long war, but winnable — it took 20-30 years for the national government to reassert control in Sicily.
An alternative pathway could be a change in government policy. Since the PAN administration of President Calderón took office in 2006, the policy has been to pursue all-out war against all the crime organizations, resulting in at least 50,000 persons killed through 2011, with the yearly number rising to 15,000. It is possible that an electoral victory by PRI, the long-time former ruling party known for its history of corruption, would result in a new policy of accommodation. Some of the more stable and least expansive cartels would be given tacit recognition in their region, while the more aggressive and territorially expansive groups — above all the Zetas — would be targeted for extermination. The result might be something like the fate of the Russian mafia of the 1990s: ending their mutual turf wars, reducing conflict among themselves, and finding acceptance by corrupt government officials sharing in their wealth. In the case of Russia, the whole process was finished in about 10 years. Given that the intense cartel wars in Mexico so far have gone on about 5 years, the Russian example suggests a decline in violence in a few years might be feasible.