The growing threat of kidnapping in Mexico – Part 2


Mex soldierIs there a link between the war on drugs and kidnapping in Mexico?

As noted in part one of this blog series, 2013 marked the biggest year-on-year increase in the number of kidnapping cases reported per month since 2008. There are numerous theories that attempt to explain this apparent rise in kidnappings in the country and determine whether this trend will continue or even be further accelerated in years to come. A number of these theories examine the link between ongoing ‘war on drugs’ in Mexico, including the arrests of high-value targets (HVTs), such as top cartel leaders, and increases in violence and other forms of crime, such as kidnapping. Part two of this series provides a brief overview of these theories.

The war on drugs in Mexico

In 2006, Mexico’s former president, Felipe Calderon, launched an extensive anti-narcotics strategy in an effort to combat drug trafficking in the country. Under incumbent president Enrique Pena Nieto, the so called ‘war on drugs’ is continuing with his anti-crime strategy. Although Nieto declared that his strategy would be more holistic and focus on addressing the socio-economic roots of violent crime, to date there hasn’t actually been as much of a change in strategy as was proclaimed or even anticipated. The recent arrests of high-ranking transnational criminal organisation (TCO) figures, such as the 22 February arrest of Sinaloa cartel’s highest-ranking member, Joaquin Guzman (also known as El Chapo), illustrate that Nieto has not entirely abandoned the ‘kingpin strategy’ that was utilised by his predecessor.

Government focus on kidnapping

The fight against kidnapping in Mexico also forms a central part of the war on drugs and Nieto’s holistic anti-crime strategy. Nieto has promised to halve kidnappings during his term in office; however, evidence of this has not yet been seen. The government sees the threat of kidnapping as a serious concern. In January 2014, Nieto’s government re-pledged themselves to the fight against kidnapping with the launch of the National Anti-Kidnapping Strategy (Estrategia Nacional Antisecuestros). This strategy includes a ten-step action plan focusing on technological and legal improvements, the creation of additional anti-kidnapping units, and a focus on the ten states most impacted by the crime; these include Durango, Mexico, Guerrero, Michoacan, Morelos, Tabasco, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas. According to government sources, as many as 74 percent of kidnappings occur in these states; however, it should also be noted that it is estimated that only one in ten cases of kidnapping is ever reported and all kidnapping statistics could therefore be misrepresentative of the actual threat.

To what extent the new National Anti-Kidnapping Strategy will come to fruition is still to be seen. Many have criticised the plan for being too broad and lacking specifics on exactly what is to be done to reduce the kidnapping threat in the country. However, the fact that the government has acknowledged the extent of this threat in Mexico is a positive sign as more resources will be made available to traditionally under sourced anti-kidnapping units. In recent months, increased concerns over the anti-kidnapping strategy have been raised; these include the continued use of the kingpin strategy and the effect that the ongoing war on drugs has on kidnapping in the county. The two most prominent concerns are examined below.

Diversification of cartel tactics

TCOs such as Mexico’s major drug cartels have been increasingly diversifying their operations beyond traditional drug trafficking in recent years. Cartels are expanding into new segments of the ‘criminal industry’ and also investing in business outside of the scope of its existing operations. Beyond drug trafficking, criminal groups are branching out into prostitution, piracy, human trafficking, human organ harvesting, illegal mining and logging, merchandise, oil and mineral theft, kidnapping for ransom and extortion, and various other illicit activities.

Traditionally in business, there are two dimensions of rationale for diversification in any industry; these are defensive or offensive strategies. In the case of organised crime in Mexico, it has been argued that the ongoing war on drugs has forced cartels to adopt a more defensive strategy in order to spread the risk as their traditional (drug trafficking) markets are contracting. According to this argument, the police and army crackdown on drug traffickers in recent years, including the arrest of major cartel leaders, has inadvertently forced cartels to peruse other avenues of revenue.

Although proving a direct link between the diversification of cartel operations and the war on drugs can be tenuous, this theory has received credence with various scholars and members of the Mexican government. According to this theory, the countrywide increase in kidnappings can in part be linked to this diversification.

Splintering of cartels and the rise of ‘super-powered’ street gangs

mexican-cartel-map

Another related trend contributing to escalating violence and the rise in kidnappings in the country is the fracturing of cartel networks. Since the 1980s, Mexican cartels have begun to fracture into smaller, geographically compact regional networks. This process of splintering (also referred to as ‘balkanisation’) has affected the operations of major cartels. There are various drivers for this balkanisation, including inter- and intra-cartel violence, external pressure from governments (including the arrest of cartel leaders), changes in drug production operations and the evolving global drug industry.

This balkanisation can in turn lead to the rise of what has been called super-powered street gangs. These smaller localised gangs could replace (or at least supplement) cartels as the major drivers of violence in Mexico in years to come. Hyper-local groups are able focus all their attention on a small area of operation and potentially control these areas more effectively than large cartels. They utilise an assortment of tools from social media, to contacts in government, the local community and police to spread fear and maintain control.

Tactics of these smaller street gangs often differ from that of the large cartels. Although most of these gangs are also involved to some degree in the drug industry, other forms of crime, such as kidnapping, and specifically express kidnapping, is often more lucrative for these smaller gangs. The rise of these groups can therefore be seen as a contributing factor in the ongoing increase in kidnapping.

Historically, the kingpin strategy has also been blamed as a contributing factor for the apparent splintering and decentralisation of violence. The most common critique of the strategy states that the killing or arrest of an organisation’s leader creates a void. This void in turn can lead to the internal fracturing of a cartel and allows rival groups (internally or externally) to challenge the cartel; this often results in violent conflict. Also, as mentioned above, this could provide opportunities for smaller groups to gain a foothold in the industry. Larger gangs can also split, as happened with the Gulf Cartel. This cartel was dominant in large parts of north eastern Mexico until 2010, when a split within the organisation saw its armed wing, Los Zetas, form its own cartel and subsequently supplant the Gulf Cartel as the foremost organised crime group in the north east. In turn, extensive infighting within Los Zetas occurred between 2010 and 2012 and lead to fracturing within the group. It should be noted that today this group is believed to generate about 50 percent of its revenue through traditional drug trafficking; the rest of the revnue comes from low-level criminal activities such as extortion, kidnapping, theft, piracy and other licit and illicit activities. It can be argued that this business model has been pursued due to fractioning within the group and also as a diversification strategy.

Findings and Forecast

It is important to note that although the above-mentioned theories have received strong support, proving a direct link between the war on drugs, including the arrest of cartel leaders and a change in kidnapping rates, is tenuous. Theories surrounding the diversification of cartel operations and the potential splintering of large cartels can be seen as contributing factors to the increase in crimes such as kidnapping; however, with the limited information available, the link is speculative at best. The problem lies in the dictum; correlation does not necessarily imply causation. There might be unknown lurking variables that play a crucial part in explaining and forecasting kidnapping trends in Mexico. The theories above should therefore be seen as guidelines towards the truth, but not as empirical proof in and of themselves.

However, with the information available, one can make a number of well-supported forecasts for kidnapping in Mexico. Firstly, it should be noted that the increasing focus of the government on kidnapping, and the launch of the Anti-Kidnapping Strategy, will eventually bolster anti-kidnapping units at a state level. It could also lead to a decrease in kidnappings in the long-term. However, this plan is still vague and will take time to implement. As such, the potential benefit from this plan is not expected to be seen in the coming months.

The government is also expected to continue its traditional approach to the war on drugs and use of the kingpin strategy in coming months. Most of the major heads of cartels have been arrested, but as new leadership arises, this strategy will continue. This in turn could continue to lead to increases in kidnappings countrywide, according to the theories posited above.

As noted in the introduction, Mexico already has an increasing trend in kidnapping. This trend is partially driven by the above-mentioned theories. As new kidnapping statistics are released, it will become evident to what extent these factors have impacted kidnapping trends. At present, it is anticipated that 2014 will remain consistent with previous years and see a continuation of the trend of increasing year-on-year countrywide kidnappings; there will likely be more abductions in Mexico in 2014 than in 2013. In terms of geographical area, kidnapping rates will remain high in states that have traditionally been badly affected by the crime and increase elsewhere. It is anticipated that there will not be any meaningful decrease in abductions in any particular state.

More free stuff, listen to our Mexico: Kidnapping Overview – January 2014 on SoundCloud


Part three of this series will focus  in more detail on violence and kidnapping in Mexico on a municipal level.

Article by Barend Lutz, follow him @LutzBarend

If you have thoughts and views on why kidnapping in Mexico is increasing, or have any questions about this article, please leave a comment below.

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One thought on “The growing threat of kidnapping in Mexico – Part 2

  1. […] This is part one of a three part series; part two can be found here. […]

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