Centre for Interdisciplinary Mexican-British Research

It’s nothing new that Mexico is experiencing considerably high levels of violence from organised crime. Since 2008, homicides have skyrocketed as a result of turf wars between drug trafficking organisations (DTOs) and between DTOs and government security forces. Other predatory crime such as violent theft, kidnapping and extortion, also crept up simultaneously.

Homicides however reached their zenith in mid-2011, and have been declining slowly but steadily since then. Kidnapping and violent theft also showed signs of a decline in that 2011, but the former saw a spike in 2013. Extortion reached an apparent peak in 2009, but by 2012 registered another significant rise. In 2013, recorded cases for both kidnapping and extortion displayed the highest number of cases in the country’s recent history. What explains this rise? Does it signal the prospect of Mexico’s criminal landscape?

The violent evolution of crime

Even before the frontal assault launched against DTOs by then President Felipe Calderon in late 2007, the main source of violent conflict in Mexico was the monopolistic control over strategic drug corridors, as the most lucrative criminal market was the transnational trafficking of illicit drugs, chiefly cocaine and marijuana. The spike in homicides in 2008 was due to the DTOs’ need to secure and maximise their profits from the drug trade, which was jeopardised by external threats from rival DTOs and government efforts to dismantle these organisations as a key part of Calderon’s security strategy, and later on by internal threats from power struggles within DTOs.

One of the main consequences of spiralling homicides and government efforts to target kingpins was the disintegration of these large DTOs that dominated Mexico’s criminal landscape for decades. Not all of these organisations disappeared, yet most suffered important losses on the operational level that led to significant declines in criminal capabilities.

The lucrative drug trafficking business became a game that some criminal groups could no longer play. Only organisations that maintained their transnational operational capabilities (i.e. suppliers’ contacts in South America’s cocaine producing countries, logistic networks and corruptive and coercive power) could afford and risk participating in the transnational drug trade. What resulted was an apparent shift from a focus on transactional crimes such as drug trafficking to a focus on predatory crimes such kidnapping and extortion.

The rise of predatory crime

While organised crime in Mexico was once identified almost solely with transnational drug trafficking, it slowly morphed into something more. Besides drugs, organised crime in Mexico is increasingly involved in other transactional crimes such as the trafficking of other commodities like timber, iron ore and pirated products.

Perhaps more troubling is the increasing prevalence of predatory crimes such as robbery, extortion and kidnapping, which are usually violent and affect innocent civilians disproportionately. While these types of crimes escalated alongside homicide, these did not necessarily fall concurrently. In fact, in the past two years extortion and kidnapping cases are becoming increasingly common. How come homicides began to decline steadily since 2011, while extortion and kidnapping cases shot upward? There are several possible competing hypotheses that have yet to be scrutinised, and are briefly examined below.

One possibility is that a number of Mexico’s states changed the definition of what constitutes extortion and kidnapping. In Mexico’s federal system, both crimes fall under state’s criminal jurisdiction. Hence, broadening the definition of kidnapping would likely see an increase in registered cases. A recent reform to Mexico’s criminal code seeks to standardise criminal procedures across Mexico’s 32 sub-national jurisdictions, facilitating criminal investigation and sentencing, and reducing discrepancies in crime reporting.

An alternative explanation is a rise in reporting rates, which would point to greater citizen trust in law enforcement authorities. Both kidnapping and extortion have historically high rates of unreported cases (the so-called dark figure), mainly due to fear of reprisal and lack of trust in authorities. Relying on official figures for extortion and kidnapping collected by the National Ministry of Public Security (SNSP) is therefore misleading. A look at the most comprehensive victimisation survey in Mexico elaborated by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) provides a more accurate picture on the prevalence of some types of predatory crime.

Although survey data for 2013 are still unavailable, data for the previous two years shines a light on the magnitude of uncertainty surrounding these two crimes. For extortion, not only does it estimate an actual increase in the commission of the crime (from 4,380,496 cases in 2011 to 5,994,034 in 2012), but also shows that the dark figure increased from 96.6% to 97.8% in the same time period. The survey however does not provide disaggregated data for kidnapping, so it’s harder to gauge the extent of this predatory crime.

If there indeed was an increase in the commission of both extortion and kidnapping, the most plausible explanation is the fractionalisation of large DTOs into smaller criminal enterprises dependant on predatory crime. These smaller organisations have weaker operational capabilities, which lead them to seek less risky and more local crime opportunities. The transnational trafficking of illicit drugs became an unaffordable and more complex endeavour that only a few criminal organisations with extensive operational capabilities can carry out, such as the Sinaloa Cartel which is now probably the only remaining de facto DTO, and remnants of other large DTOs that maintain part of their supplier contacts and logistic networks.

This shift in criminal violence suggests that national strategies, such as those once employed and still recurred to by the current administration for combating drug trafficking outfits are ineffective and inefficient. Mexico’s organised crime groups are slowly shifting towards more locally-based operations, relying evermore on predatory crime such as extortion and kidnapping and a myriad of transactional crimes, including retail drug trafficking, sale of pirated goods, and the theft of oil, timber, iron ore and other commodities.

The transnational trafficking of illicit drugs is still big business, considering demand for drugs remains high, and many small-scale criminal groups will still play a role in the trade. Nonetheless, the expansion of predatory crime will require Mexico’s federal government to push for change at the state- and local-level jurisdictions, which have the responsibility of tackling this type of crime but lack the capabilities to do so.

* This article was originally published on June 30, 2014 and is available here.