Understanding why the violence in Mexico has reached such extreme proportions in the last decade should be a priority for anyone researching the country’s recent history. After all, drug trafficking organizations had a significant presence on the national scene in the last decades of the twentieth century and, although divisions and disputes were often resolved by violent means, there existed nothing like the scale of bloodshed witnessed today. Why this kind of violence is prevalent in Mexico and Central America, and why it affects to a much lesser extent the countries that consume the merchandise and services of the cartels, is a conspicuous contradiction deserving further analysis, and one that I intend to explore in posts that follow.
It is worth reiterating that the government of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) not only oversaw and produced the most extreme violence in Mexico of the last 100 years, but also allowed the country to become the theatre of one of the most hideous and sinister conflicts in the world today.
Thus, two years ago, a collection of human rights lawyers activists, journalists, lawyers, and academics presented a petition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to commence proceedings against the now ex-president. As head of the Mexican Armed Forces and Head of State, the petition alleged, Calderón and high-level officials in the administration were directly responsible for crimes against humanity. These included extra-legal executions and forced disappearances by the army, assassination of civilians in military compounds, and the abduction and sale by government officials of Mexican and Central American migrants as slave laborers to organized crime syndicates. The petition held Calderón responsible for these crimes and for his failure to investigate and punish the increased number of violent offenses.
Current president Enrique Peña Nieto fares no better than his predecessor after only a year in the presidency. Nonetheless, the likelihood of either appearing in the dock at The Hague is remote, at least for the foreseeable future. Peña and Calderón’s domestic and international allies and friends are too powerful—and too fearful of having their own complicity exposed—to tolerate the improper suggestion that their men in Mexico City be as equal before the law as their African counterparts.
A report published this week by the Tijuana weekly, Zeta, concludes that the current sexenio is and will continue to be even more catastrophic than its predecessor. The Zeta investigation notes that in the first eleven months of the Peñista government, there have been a total of 19,016 recorded extra-legal executions, as compared with 17,068 in Calderón’s last year. Yet these dramatic figures fail to give an accurate picture of the true scale of the problem. Most crimes—including murders and forced disappearances—are never reported to the authorities for the simple reason that there exists a widespread and justified mistrust of the authorities charged with maintaining public security. For example, nine out of ten crimes committed in Mexico are never reported according to the government’s own National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).
Why the state allows this expanding and intensifying climate of violence and impunity to continue might seem like an illogical contradiction. Yet it is the state itself, in its retreat from social responsibilities, its refusal to provide employment, basic services and credit, and guarantee safety, that created the vacuum now filled by legal and illegal private capital in its voracious quest for new markets. And in a context in which the state authorities have reneged on their legal obligation to protect the citizenry, it is no surprise that the most zealous capitalists exploit the vulnerability of the population to their advantage. Where the state has retreated, organized crime and private capital have seen an opportunity for competitive advantage, regardless of the destructive social consequences.
As a result, despite the increasingly desperate propaganda tactics employed by the government and obediently repeated via broadcasters like Televisa, the scale of Mexico’s current crisis is becoming challenging even for the best global PR firms (now the beneficiaries of taxpayer-funded contracts with the Peña government) to manage. A good measure of the truly disastrous nature of the current context can be found in the PR rhetoric of the camera-friendly president and his inner-circle. The more rosy, patriotic, vague, and optimistic the political talk, the more brutal, hideous, and out-of-control the reality.
The biggest challenges that the present administration refuses to address—aside from those in overstated media spectacles like the Pacto por México—are corruption and impunity. It is not that these were non-existent or insignificant in the latter half of the twentieth century; quite the contrary. But organized crime under consecutive PRI administrations in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s was just that: organized. A very different context has developed, however, since the dawn of the new millennium.
To a great extent, this is due to the fact that even corruption must be structured, controlled, and limited in scope in order to avoid descent into complete chaos and to maintain a certain level public security, as it was during the Pax Mafiosa of the PRI’s rule before 2000. Since the 1980s, however, successive governments have increasingly allowed private capital to capture large segments of the state and have been unable and unwilling to restrict and limit its power. Whether these interests represent legal or illegal commerce (or both) is irrelevant in the sense that both weaken the authority and control of government and its capacity to rein in the excesses of capital.
By way of example, consider that corruption is in a very important sense most rife in the rich countries. The majority of laundering of criminal money (some 68 percent) takes place in the “developed world” and 18.6 percent of this dirty money is washed by the banking industry in the United States alone. Recall that organized criminal syndicates could never realize national and global standing without the Manhattan, Miami, and City of London bankers. Nonetheless, the same “developed” countries have relatively low rates of violent crime, not least because it is more difficult for private interests (legal and illegal) to define the rule, or absence, of law. “In Mexico and other weakened states, however,” notes Edgardo Buscaglia, “human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of minors, kidnapping, extortion, premeditated feminicides and homicides are flourishing.”
Following Mexico’s “transition to democracy” in 2000, many of the old systems of political and judicial control that the one-party state had at its disposal were dismantled, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by both legal and illegal capital. Still, this process did not replace the older structures and failed to bolster democratic institutions of the kind that could hold private power to account, to counter corruption via peaceful legal channels, and create practicable legislation to weaken the socially damaging activities of unrestricted capitalist interests. These developments have allowed for the most ruthless and merciless capitalist institutions to rise to the top, free of the legal constraints that in another context could curb the excesses of a culture and ideology focused on accumulation and power.
Mexico requires institutions to counter corruption and impunity that act independently of governmental and elite interference. Until now, most of the mediatized anti-corruption initiatives have been those of the federal government, and therefore lack the independence and teeth to be effective. The elites have no interest in exposing their own responsibility and complicity in the current breakdown; the creation of independent bodies charged with dismantling the financial and political structures of corruption and power will ultimately have to be an enterprise propelled by the force of a sustained, popular grassroots coalition pushing for radical change. Without it, the current tragedy is set to continue.
Peter Watt teaches Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield. He is co-author of the book, Drug War Mexico: Politics, Violence and Neoliberalism in the New Narcoeconomy (Zed Books 2012).