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Why did Mexico become so violent? A self-reinforcing violent equilibrium caused by competition and enforcement


This article explains why homicides related to drug-trafficking operations in Mexico have recently increased by exploring the mechanisms through which this type of violence tends to escalate. It is shown that drug-related violence can be understood as the result of two factors: (a) homicides caused by traffickers battling to take control of a competitive market, and (b) casualties and arrests generated by law enforcement operations against traffickers. Both sources of violence interact causing Mexico to be locked into a “self-reinforcing violent equilibrium” in which incremental increases in traffickers’ confrontations raise the incentives of the government to prosecute traffickers which promote further confrontations with traffickers when, as a result of the detention of drug lords, the remnants of the criminal organization fight each other in successive battles. This article presents quantitative evidence and case studies to assess the importance of the two mechanisms. It uses a unique dataset of recorded communications between drug traffickers and statistics on drug-related homicides.

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  1. Message left next to the body of the municipal police officer José Ángel Martínez. He was killed when waiting for the bus to go to work. Beside the message, a picture of a pig was left at the crime scene (Rios 2012a).

  2. Author interview with anonymous official of Mexico’s main intelligence agency, the Center for Research and National Security (Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional, CISEN).

  3. An important question remains as to why, if enforcement operations were conducted before 2006 (Chabat 2010), these did not generated fragmentation in the same way in which enforcement operations did during the 2006–2010 period. The answer, explored by Rios (2012b), is to be found in the way in which Mexico’s informal political institutions have changed over the course of the years, particularly on how corruption changed from being a centralized to a decentralized game. Explaining historical patterns of drug-related violence is not the goal of this article. It suffices to say that previous to 2006, cohesiveness within the criminal world was indirectly enforced because corruption was largely centralized in the hands of a single, cohesive hegemonic party. Decentralization changed the rules of corruption, allowing criminal groups to engage in criminal operations with different parties and thus, indirectly changed the incentives that criminal organizations had to remain cohesive.

  4. It is important to mention that the explanation provided within this article applies only to the period here explored (i.e. 2006 -2010) and not to previous, historical periods. For a more comprehensive understanding of the reasons behind violence escalation or containment refer to Rios (2012a, b).

  5. Note that the equilibrium here described is not a closed and steady interaction of variables but a growing tendency that is self-catalytic. “Equilibrium” as described in this piece, should be understood as a progressive state, not as a steady state.

  6. The institutions in charge of determining the nature of the homicides are: the Ministry of National Defense (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, SEDENA), the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación, SEGOB), the Ministry of Public Security (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública, SSP), the Mexican Navy (Armada de México of Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR), CISEN, the Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR), the Attorney General of Justice (Procuraduría General de Justicia, PGJ), and the National Center for the Combat of Delinquency (Centro Nacional de Planeación, Análisis e Información para el Combate a la Delincuencia, CENAPI) (CSN 2010).

  7. La Familia became publicly known as a criminal organization in late 2006 in Michoacán, and soon expanded its activities to other neighboring states. By 2010, less than four years after its first public appearance, La Familia had presence in at least 136 Mexican municipalities, about 29 % of all the 461 municipalities with identified trafficking activities, and in 18 states (Coscia and Rios 2012). La Familia went from being completely unknown to engaging in drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and assassination in 56 % of all Mexican states. The origins of La Familia can be traced to a 2001 split in the Valencia Cartel, which originally controlled Michoacán. Excellent journalistic and academic pieces on La Familia’s history and modus operandi include Ravelo 2006; Suverza 2006; Velázquez 2008; Carrasco 2009; Carrasco and Castellanos 2009; Suverza 2009; Grayson 2010; Gómez 2011.

  8. About 18.9 % of all the 34,611 drug-related homicides occurring in Mexico from December of 2006 until 2010 were concentrated in La Familia’s main areas of influence: the states of Michoacán, Guanajuato, Guerrero, and Mexico State. That is 6,536 murders. The average number of drug-related executions in La Familia states (1,635) was about 63.1 % higher than the same figure in non-La Familia states (1,003). Guerrero was the third most violent state in Mexico with 1,137 drug-related homicides in the same period. Michoacán and Mexico State (also in the top 10 most violent Mexican states) had 520 and 623 casualties respectively. Guanajuato ranked 15 among 32 Mexican states and also had the very high number of 152 drug-related homicides. Yet, the share of Mexico’s violence explained by La Familia activities reduced significantly over time. While 58 % of all the 62 drug-related homicides happening in Mexico during 2006 can be traced to La Familia (with 24 just in Michoacán), by 2007 the share had almost halved to 28 % (789 out of a total of 2,285 drug-related homicides). In 2010, La Familia accounted for only 16 % of all drug-related violence (2,432 out of 15,273). These time differences are explained more by increases in the levels of violence of other states than by diminishing tendencies in La Familia’s states.

  9. By 2010, Acapulco was the second most violent city in Mexico and a one of the top-50 most violent cities in the world (Dávila 2011; CSN 2010). The confrontation between La Barbie and BL’s brothers caused at least 5,596 casualties from December 2006 to August 2010. It was the third most violent confrontation between trafficking organizations in Mexico during the same period, after the conflict between the Sinaloa Cartel and BL’s brothers (7,813 casualties) and between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juárez Cartel (12,174). (Valdés 2011).

  10. Further research needs to be conducted in at least two directions. First, it needs to be shown why the self-reinforcing violent equilibrium caused by competition and enforcement did not happen before. During the nineties, the Mexican state conducted enforcement operations against drug trafficking organizations but the result was not violent criminal confrontations but the maintenance of a highly disciplined group of oligopolistic criminal organizations that operated without confronting each other. Preliminarily explorations (Rios 2012b) point out the importance of Mexico’s centralized institutions as the mechanism that allowed criminal groups to remain cohesive, even if facing enforcement operations. Second, the quantitative model designed in this chapter could be improved to account for time-series variations.


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Correspondence to Viridiana Rios.

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Rios, V. Why did Mexico become so violent? A self-reinforcing violent equilibrium caused by competition and enforcement. Trends Organ Crim 16, 138–155 (2013).

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  • Competition
  • Crime
  • Drugs
  • Drug-related violence
  • Drug trafficking
  • Enforcement
  • Equilibrium
  • Mexico
  • Organized crime
  • Self-reinforcing
  • Violence