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Why Are Mexico’s Elections Likely to Produce Violence?

The first month of 2018 has been a dismal one for Mexico: more than 200 murders in under two weeks, a continuation of bloodshed that steadily intensified throughout last year. This crisis of public security is not the result of sudden shifts in the criminal landscape, but rather the product of several longer-term processes. Unfortunately, all of these point toward a grim outlook for Mexico’s immediate future.

Over the next six months, as the country approaches the largest elections in its history, three interrelated factors—all connected to the localization of crime—are likely to result in increased violence:

First, over the past decade, as the transnational drug war reached unprecedented levels of violence, local crime also become more predatory. As the balance of power tipped away from state authorities, smaller bands—affiliated to greater or lesser degrees with transnational trafficking organizations—aggressively expanded into kidnapping, extortion, and oil theft.

Second, criminal groups have begun to extract rents from local authorities, using coercive tactics to capture a portion of local budgets. This is a new layer on traditional political protection arrangements between corrupt officials and local organized crime operators, and a development that has proven very destabilizing.

Third, recent violence is increasingly connected to local drug dealing. As the domestic market for narcotics has grown, trafficking organizations have violently colonized local retail operations. And as Noroeste reported, the multiplication of small drug dealing cells has tended to produce unchecked violence. Moreover, in areas where DTOs dispute both the shipment routes and retail markets for drugs, such as Tijuana, the combination has proven explosive.

Ultimately, the emphasis here is that understanding Mexico’s near future requires a careful monitoring of localized trends and patterns, rather than narco narratives protagonized by cartels and capos. From this perspective, furthermore, the importance of the presidential election and NAFTA renegotiations is also much less clear. Though much recent punditry on Mexico has focused on those two themes, and particularly the possible victory of Andres Manuel López Obrador, much more attention is due the municipal elections, which will be held in 25 states. It is these elections that stand to be most affected by violence, and it is their process and context—rather than the outcomes—that matter. Because Mexico’s security strategy does not effectively address the three trends discussed above, there much reason for concern.

Most worrisome is the possibility that these local elections will encourage widespread violence as criminal gangs seek to set the terms for candidates. While there has been, in past years, a great deal of handwringing about “narco-candidates”—that is, candidates who are actively supported and sponsored by organized crime groups—the central problem is not the potential (pre)corruption of elected officials, but the risk that local politics become a sort of plaza, disputed by competing groups. There is ample evidence that mayors and other officials are at risk, whether because they refuse the advances of organized crime (perhaps most famously in recent years, Gisela Mota) or because they break the terms of an agreement (such as Jorge Toledo Bustamante, who was captured on video being extorted by members of the Los Rojos organization; his personal secretary was subsequently murdered). And as the Toledo Bustamante case makes clear, this violence is not always about whether or not elected officials provide cover for criminal organizations, turning a blind eye to their activities and perhaps putting police at their service, in the traditional formulation of narco corruption. Rather, it now appears that local groups regularly demand a percentage of municipal budgets: in one case, it was revealed that members of a DTO in Michoacán were demanding 10% cuts. Beyond such payouts, criminal groups have also tapped public resources through construction contracts or by placing members on municipal payrolls. This wholesale criminal predation on the state means that officials themselves—and therefore candidates and elections—are targets. Most significantly, this extends beyond mayors to candidates, city councilors, and others whose role in public administration would not necessarily suggest a connection to organized crime. And as administrations change, it would seem violence is likely both before and after the elections as the terms of these understandings are negotiated.

The stakes are substantial. For the first time, mayors will be eligible for reelection at the end of their three-year term. As domestic extortion of businesses, kidnapping, oil theft, and drug dealing become increasingly valuable, local control matters. Criminal groups violently defend these activities not simply because they are lucrative, but because they provide a safer and more stable source of revenue than international narcotics trafficking. For local gangsters who might only receive retainers or sporadic commissions from DTOs, predatory activities are more than side businesses.

Unfortunately, the policy response to these developments has been primarily to further militarize the conflict by regularizing the participation of the armed forces in law enforcement. While the passage of the controversial Internal Security Law primarily provides legal grounding for a de facto reality, it also represents the continuation of a strategy that is wholly inappropriate for addressing the fundamentally local problems described here. Where the military has proven most effective in combatting narcotrafficking has been in targeted, intelligence-driven operations to capture criminal leaders. When tasked with policing, it has largely failed, unsurprising considering that many soldiers are poorly trained for patrol operations. Even more importantly, the military’s operations have produced serious human rights abuses, often covered up and protected by the military court system. Furthermore, militarized patrols are a poor response to predatory local criminal activity. Federal military activity does not strengthen the local state against predation, nor does it efficiently protect citizens from extortion or investigate crimes against them. Neither does it address the addiction issues that fuel domestic drug dealing.

Solutions are possible. Smaller criminal groups have less capacity to corrupt, and their reliance on violence may be unsustainable. Meaningful police reform, development programs targeting young men, and addiction treatment programs would all go a long way toward addressing the issue. Because until security strategies address these local issues, violence will remain difficult to contain and local elections will continue to be reasons for concern.

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