Mexico's Cartel Violence: A Case Study in the Logic of Mass Atrocities
Last week, a caravan arrived in Washington, DC. The nation’s capital was the last stop of the caravan, which has visited more than 25 cities over the past month. The caravan carried a corps of Mexican atrocities survivors, who, following the death of Juanelo Sicilia, the 24-year old son of one of Mexico’s most celebrated poets, last year, have drawn popular attention to the country’s cartel conflict. The third of its kind, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD)’s Caravan for Peace has united Mexican survivors with American communities, in order to call for the rapid demilitarization of persistent political violence between Mexico’s U.S.-supported security forces and transnational drug cartels.
Amidst the remarkable human cost of Mexico’s conflict--between 2006 and early 2012, security forces and cartel organizations have killed approximately 50,000 civilians--it’s difficult to untangle the political context in which mass atrocities occur. Mexico’s transnational cartels have emerged as complex networks of political coercion, whose corrupt influence have eroded weakened political institutions in Mexico and abroad. Meanwhile, former President Felipe Calderon’s security forces, in attempting to consolidate control over cartel-occupied areas, have conducted extrajudicial killings and torture with impunity. Successive Mexican administrations have chipped away at the institutional strength, influence, and impact of accountability initiatives, including the National Human Rights Commission, leaving few opportunities for legal redress.
In spite of increased popular attention surrounding Mexico’s mass atrocities, the civil conflict has remained largely intractable. As in many complex conflicts, various strategic, operational, and tactical logics drive atrocities’ continued occurrence. In order to identify entry points for conflict resolution, it may be useful to probe the ways in which atrocities manifest these political logics:
Mass atrocities as performative signaling: Mexico’s cartel organizations are an amalgam of inconsistent, evolving alliances between local gangs, trafficking supply chains, and national organizations. Cartel cells may emerge as community-based operations, business relationships, or collective security initiatives; however, more likely than not, localized organizations will rub up against national-level illicit activity. For example, Los Zetas, the border-based, elite cartel whose criminal violence has become infamously intertwined with international perceptions of Mexico’s cartel conflict, emerged as an enforcer network for the well-established Gulf Cartel. Los Zetas has perpetrated spectacular atrocities, which competitor cartels have countered with equally horrific violence against cartel members and civilian populations. We can think of these actions as “political performances”: with full knowledge that Los Zetas’ leadership will be “watching,” Sinaloa cartel leaders seeking to restrict Zetas activity, for example, may ratchet up the scale and spectacle of mass atrocities.
Mass atrocities as counterinsurgency: While Mexican security forces have countered smaller, localized gang networks, much of the country’s criminal and political violence occurs as a result of large, transnational cartel organizations. As Mexico’s cartel conflict has escalated, cartel organizations have developed consolidated bureaucracies, which allow for the successful trafficking of illicit goods--consumer narcotics, especially--and the management of disaggregated networks of local, national, and, in some circumstances, cross-border corruption. Cartel influence over civilian governance, the mounting intensity of political violence, and cartel trafficking efforts have prompted policymakers and military analysts to view Mexico’s larger cartels as emergent “commercial insurgencies.” While the scale of security-force atrocities has differed from the cartels’ massacres, Mexican security forces have increasingly used a “drain the sea” approach to countering cartel operations in civilian environments; that is, conducting broad-based, indiscriminate, and extrajudicial killings in hopes of “catching” cartel leadership. From an operational perspective, Mexico’s security-force atrocities mirror similar approaches in Nigeria, Colombia, and Sri Lanka, among many others.
Given the diversity of U.S. institutions engaged in Mexico, particularly in the context of multinational counter-narcotic operations, it’s difficult to identify opportunities for conflict resolution. Beyond “ending the drug war,” how would you go about addressing Mexico’s mass atrocities?