Violence In Mexico: New Research Sheds Light On A Way Forward

According to the Global Conflict tracker, the number of drug-related homicides in Mexico rose to 33,341 in 2018, a 15 percent increase from 2017. In 2019, Al Jazeera reported a record 35,000 people murdered in the country. These numbers hardly scratch the surface of the escalation in violence that Mexico has been witnessing since 2006, a disturbing trend that shows no signs of stopping.

Experts agree that the illegal drug-trafficking activity is responsible for a large portion of these homicides. In addition, murders only form a small section of drug-trafficking related violence. Other popular forms include torture, extortion, kidnapping, and disappearances. What’s more, brutality once reserved for rival cartels is increasingly affecting people unaffiliated with the drug trade.

This report addresses the issue of drug-trafficking related violence in Mexico. While new research has revealed the failings of  “decapitation” based anti-drug trafficking policies, it has also shed light on a more sophisticated and innovative approach.  

Fighting Fire with Fire: The story so far…

The escalation of violence in Mexico can be dated back to 2006 when President Felipe Calderón’s was elected to power. Although illegal drug activity did exist prior to his tenure, there was a comparatively low level of violence. The annual murder rate, according to Al Jazeera, was around 10,000 deaths per year.

With the help of the U.S., Calderón’s government launched a militarized crackdown on the drug cartels with the goal of “decapitation.” The aim was to remove leaders of drug organizations and reduce the flow of illegal drugs to the United States. While they succeeded in removing 25 of the 37 identified kingpins, this strategy did little to reduce drug flow, according to a paper released by the Congressional Research Service. It also had disastrous consequences for the civilian population in Mexico.

Critics claim that the removal of cartel leaders created unstable and unpredictable power vacuums. This led to the proliferation and fragmentation of cartels into smaller, more violent and highly competitive gangs. The increasing competition then pushed the remaining cartels to diversify their revenue streams into other illegal activities and enter new territories.

The result of this martial strategy was a sharp increase in homicides and violence in Mexico. Between 2006 and 2010, trafficking-related homicides went up by more than 80 percent while an estimated 60,000 Mexicans died in drug-related violence between 2006 and 2012, according to a paper published by UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs on Reducing Drug Violence in Mexico.

In addition, the narcos adopted new, more violent and outrageous methods of sending a message to authorities, society and rival cartels. According to Dr. Karina Garcia Reyes, an academic at the University of Bristol specializing in Mexican drug-trafficking violence, public displays of violence became part of drug cartels’ modus operandi by 2008. These displays included battered human heads thrown into plazas or placed on car rooftops, bodies hung from meat hooks, and videos involving torture, and beheadings posted on Youtube.

What went so wrong?

Until now, there has been an underlying assumption that weakening the drug cartels would reduce levels of violence. The violence experienced by Mexican civilians has always been a second-tier priority, especially for influential U.S. policymakers. The main interest of the primary financial backers of the drug war, the U.S., was the reduction of illicit drug flow across the border and the strengthening of national security. The drug war up to this point failed on both its primary and secondary objectives. It didn’t reduce the overall flow of drugs over the Mexican-American border, nor did it weaken the influence of the cartels.

The current Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO, as he is known) has promised a new pacifistic approach to the drug war that would avoid his predecessors’ mistakes by prioritizing the reduction of homicide rates over the targeting of cartel bosses. 20 years into his presidency, violence rates are again rising despite a promising start. Meanwhile, the cartels are growing in confidence, firepower and brutality. Obrador’s campaign promises, while hinting at the right approach, have lacked the political and financial commitment to be effective. Most importantly, his policies have not been based on a fundamental understanding of their target demographic: young men who choose to become narcos.

In her Ph.D. thesis, Dr. Karina Garcia Reyes interviewed 33 ex-narcos. She proposed a new approach that highlighted the human component of drug cartels. Governments and policymakers, she suggests, should do more to understand the background, logic and motivations of drug cartel members, as specifically targeting drug cartel labour pools would be more effective at reducing violence levels.

“Ni monstruos ni victimas” (neither monsters nor victims)

Considering the issue of drug-trafficking activity as a war has encouraged a binary, reductive discourse which breaks down factions into ‘us’ vs ‘them.’ Garcia Reyes highlights that the reality is much more nuanced. Narcos grow up in and form an integral part of Mexican communities. Therefore, in order to reduce violence, it is important to focus on the characteristics of these communities that produce these individuals.

Two primary factors, according to Reyes’ research, are toxic masculinity and poverty. Ex-narcos, she found, often shared history of domestic and gender violence at home, and had experienced childhood trauma. 28 out of the 33 men she interviewed said that they had dreamed of killing their fathers at some point in their lives and would often think of them when performing violent acts.

People growing up in impoverished communities often feel the future is limited. Reyes’ interviewees reported believing, even as youths, that they “were resigned to die either from a bullet or from an overdose.” Their fatalistic attitude coupled with their perceived lack of opportunities, produces the “live fast, die young” approach to life that led them to become narcos. Joining street gangs and cartels provided short-term rewards for them in the form of money, guns, women and status.

To prevent desensitization to violence, it is essential to reduce children’s exposure to domestic violence at a young age and prevent them from joining street gangs. This can only be achieved through tailored neighbourhood strategies that invest in local police forces and targeted social programs. The characteristics of gangs vary between states, says Reyes, “therefore, it is necessary that each state undertakes a thorough investigation and diagnosis of the most urgent problems in the most dangerous neighbourhoods.”

However, she goes on to stress, social programs and research alone are not enough to bring down the levels of violence. They must be accompanied by financial support and employment opportunities that could serve as credible alternatives to criminal careers for young people. These measures would form part of a larger, multi-faceted and flexible approach that addresses the institutional failings of the Mexican government, and helps stem the impunity of drug cartels.


Obrador was elected because of his campaign promises of a new approach. This demonstrates public support for a shift in strategy. The Mexican people want their government to put their safety over military triumphs. Rather than investing heavily in security forces, more steps should be taken to understand who cartels are composed of and why they are prepared to carry out these atrocities. Directly attacking cartels and their drug flow only targets the outcome of the problem, whilst ignoring the root cause. The main culprits are poverty, domestic violence and a lack of opportunities.

The Mexican population is currently living in a climate of fear and violence created by previous anti-drug war strategies. Meanwhile, the ineffectual implementation of Obrador’s new approach is doing little to alleviate the situation. Despite this, new research and thinking, propelled by a younger generation of Mexicans, provides hope for the future.

To find out more about Obrador’s approach to the war on drugs, click here 

To read Dr. Karina Garcia Reyes’ thesis, click here

Rafaela Alford
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