How Much of Mexico is Governed by Cartels?
A: None 100%. But there is a duopoly of power in chunks of the country.
Last week, a video went viral in Mexico that showed women from the Wixárika indigenous people in the state of Jalisco dressed in masks and asking the drug lord El Mencho to kill a local thug. Reading from a piece of paper, a woman at the front said the gangster called “El Rojo” was carrying out shakedowns, disappearances and “unjustified murders” that went against the “principles” of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which El Mencho commands and that dominates the state.
“We’ve never felt so insecure, so impotent, so unprotected, until this son of a whore came along,” the woman says. “Cut his head off. Kill this bandit…If we had weapons we would kill him ourselves. But sadly we don’t.”
The speech hit hard as it showed citizens appealing to a cartel boss to resolve their security problems rather than going to the police. The top comment on YouTube remarked: “How sad that the people turn to a criminal to stop another criminal because the government is incapable.”
It reminds me of an editorial by the newspaper El Diario de Juárez after a photographer was murdered on his lunch break back in 2010. With the headline, “What do you want from us?,” the editorial addressed the cartel leaders directly. “You are at this time, the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling.”
These messages zero in on a core point in Mexico’s cartel war: how much of the country, if any, is really governed by crime bosses? In 2022, a group of U.S. Senators released a resolution expressing concern about security conditions in Mexico. “Reports from the United States Northern Command indicate that Mexican cartels now control 30 to 35 percent of Mexican territory,” it said. Four years earlier, the CIA reportedly concluded that 20 percent of Mexico was under cartel control.
It’s a sensitive issue that can paint Mexico as a failed state. This in turn has a real impact on how countries deal with the Mexican government and give it aid or sell it weapons. And it can be used to bolster the argument for U.S. military intervention, which has gained steam.
It also implies that Mexico suffers from an armed conflict like the Syrian civil war, where the Islamic State took over thousands of square kilometers. Indeed in 2017, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London claimed Mexico had the world’s second deadliest armed conflict after Syria. The editor said it “classifies Mexico as an armed conflict because the national government has characterised criminal cartels as an existential threat.” Then-President Donald Trump retweeted an article on the study.
The Mexican government, however, has always been adamant that it’s facing a crime problem not an actual war. This is despite the intense level of violence and the fact most of the army has been fighting gangsters for 17 years. In response to the IISS study, Mexico’s foreign ministry released a forceful communique.
“The report irresponsibly points to the existence of an ‘(non-international) armed conflict’ in Mexico,” it said. “This is incorrect. Neither the existence of criminal groups nor the use of the Armed Forces to maintain order in the interior of the country are sufficient reason.”
While the subject is explosive and can be wielded for an agenda, we have to address it to seek the truth and find a way out of this hole. Just pretending the problem doesn’t exist, doesn’t change the reality.
I think there is a form of armed conflict in parts of Mexico but it’s sharply distinct from Syria or the 1980s civil wars in Central America. It’s a hybrid conflict that is somewhere between crime and war and similar battles are plaguing much of Latin America today. We need new language and legal norms for such violence, and so putting it in the same basket as Ukraine is a bad idea. Likewise, the gangster command of territory is different from a traditional insurgency.
Cartels certainly exert an amount of control in chunks of Mexico. This can be seen in squads of gunmen operating openly, running checkpoints, ordering curfews, dictating what journalists can report, charging quotas on sales of avocados, moving votes for candidates, and controlling (or assassinating) mayors.
Yet unlike with the Islamic State caliphate, the Mexican government still operates in those turfs. It provides electricity, sends teachers and collects garbage. And the army can still go in (while the cartel gunmen hide) and then leave (and they come out again).
In contrast with the Islamic State or the communist Shining Path in Peru, the gangsters don’t care about controlling education and creating a new society. They want to make money and eliminate their rivals and so govern the elements that allow them to do this. They tell the mayor who to appoint as police chief but don’t dictate who teaches in the school.
Political scientist Benjamin Lessing is studying what he calls “criminal governance” in Latin America and has come up with a concept that makes sense of this paradox: there’s a duopoly of power between the state and crime groups. While his best research is in Brazil, there are many parallels with Mexico.
“[Territories] are characterized by what I call a duopoly of violence. It’s not that the state can’t go in these territories, it can. It’s not that the citizens of these territories stop being citizens of the state. They vote. Many of them have formal jobs,” Lessing says. “But on a day-to-day basis, the gang is there as an armed authority structuring their everyday life.”
From La Tuna to Tijuana
La Tuna, the mountain village where El Chapo hails from, is an extreme example of where the cartel rules and the government is absent. I traveled there in 2018 for a piece on El Chapo’s trial, staying with a cousin of the drug lord and interviewing his mother. On the dirt road into La Tuna, you can see…
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