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a looK inTo WhaT’S

s e v i t o M l riMina


DriVinG Violence in MeXico Editor’s Note: The information and analysis contained herein is the sole product of the author and does not represent in any way the views of U.S. Northern Command, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.


Mexico is currently gripped by internecine violence of proportions unprecedented in recent memory. Since 2006, more than 35,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico. The killings reached their highest level so far in 2010. What is behind the levels and intensity of the violence? This article will attempt to offer some observations vis-à-vis the transnational criminal organizations — their motivations and capacity for extreme violence and the possible effects.

Blood marks a crime scene in Acapulco. Drug gangs’ capacity for violence has raised alarm.



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The criTical poinT of the threat posed by the TCOs to Mexico is resource flow. Far left: Mexican Soldiers seized gold-plated, diamond-encrusted weapons in a drug raid. The guns offer a glimpse of the vast resources of drug traffickers. Left: Mexican Special Forces Soldiers march during a drill simulating combat against organized crime and drug cartels.

motivations people are driven to violence for a variety of reasons, whether religious, political, psychological or economic. However, transnational criminal organizations, or TCos, in Mexico seem to be primarily motivated by economic concerns. They move a variety of illegal substances and engage in a variety of illegal activities for profit, and they seek freedom to pursue their lucrative illegal activities free of state interference. However, there is an ongoing debate as to the ultimate motivations of the TCos. Are they motivated purely by economic concerns? Such questions are difficult if not impossible to answer completely. It is likely, however, that whatever the ultimate motivations, economic concerns figure largely into the calculations. The fundamental TCo motivations are likely the same as other criminal organizations — a desire to profit in ways deemed illegal by the societies and states in which they operate. but the TCos in Mexico pose threats that are in a way less related to why they do what they do than to the scale involved. In other words, understanding their motives may not be the most critical point in a counterTCo strategy. caPabilities one method by which governments and armed groups ultimately dispute their differences is war, which according to Carl von Clausewitz is simply policy by other means. This definition of war is in concert with the essence of war, which is a conflict of wills. one group says things will be done a certain way and another group says it won’t. We usually don’t think of such differences of perspective by themselves in terms of war. However, the weapons and processes used to express those differences are ultimately tangential to the root differences at question. The capability factors that can raise a policy difference to the level of violence are training, organization and equipment; these factors all rest on economic issues, i.e., finance and resources. 62


Like any other group that engages in organized violence, TCos are constrained by requirements of training, organization and equipment. There has never been a war that has been successfully prosecuted without a successful attack on the opponent’s logistics system and processes for supporting that training, organization and equipment. Like other rational organizations, the TCos apply violence not as an end in itself but rather as a means to an end. To apply physical force to achieve an objective, the TCo must control personnel with the abilities and equipment to apply that force in a predictable, rational and controlled manner. Their ability to apply violence in a rational manner (that is, as a means to a further end) is directly proportional to the resources available to them to be able to train, organize and equip. effects one of the core problems stemming from chronic, widespread, organized violence is the de facto challenge to state authority. one of the foundational characteristics of a state is a monopoly of the valid use of physical force. In Western democracies there are many kinds of corporations, e.g., business, religious, philanthropic, recreational, both for-profit and nonprofit. Governments, in most ways they are measured, resemble quite closely other corporate entities in their respective countries, except for one quality — the valid use of force. Max Weber defines a government as the organization that holds a monopoly in legitimate use of violence within its territory. While there are other characteristics of a government versus a private corporation, this is one without which a corporation cannot properly be called a government. In its essence, a government is a group of people with the will to power and the resources to execute that will. The fact that humans live and breathe presupposes they have a drive to control. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “A living being wants above all else to release its strength; life itself is the will to power.” The pivotal issue then, isn’t

one of motivation. Different reasons and explanations for violence against the state can all be ultimately subsumed in manifestations of the will to power. Albert Einstein said, “Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.” organizations that can operate with impunity and de facto freedom from the laws of the state produce a corrosive effect on state power and societal respect for the law, no matter what the stated or actual intentions of the organization in question. Currently, each of these effects is experienced to a certain degree in Mexico and over time, if not effectively countered, the combined results can be a weakening of state institutions. This contention lowers the relative importance of motivation of TCo violence and raises the relative importance of the capacity of TCo violence. The effects of such well-organized violence on the state, such as exist in Mexico, are noted by Max Manwaring, professor of military strategy at the U.S. Army War College, as follows: • They strain government capacity by overwhelming police and legal systems through sheer audacity, violence and numbers. • They challenge the legitimacy of the state, particularly in regions where the culture of democracy is challenged by corruption. • They act as surrogate or alternate governments in so-called ungoverned areas. • They dominate the informal economic sector. • They infiltrate police and nongovernmental organizations to further their goals and in doing so demonstrate latent political aims. A group may find itself at odds with any particular government’s policy. That opposition may manifest as a political party, a cultural movement or a religious revival. If the opposition is deep enough and well-funded, it may grow to include an armed resistance to government attempts to enforce the law.

The ability of political opposition to turn from more mundane activities to armed resistance to government force is directly proportional to the resources available to them. Taliban leader Mullah omar may sit in an Afghan madrassa and rail against “the great Satan,” but his frustration is his own — unless he can amass enough resources to train, equip and organize forces. Granted, advances such as the Internet, smartphones and electronic miniaturization have allowed greatly increased capacities for irregular and asymmetric challenges to state power. but everything else being equal, those same advances increase the power of the state to enforce its own control. Factors such as maneuver, intelligence, air power, cyberspace, morale and a perceived “rightness” of one’s cause are critical in any conflict. However, if one side has consistently greater resources over time, this is usually a deciding factor for two major reasons. First, it allows for more operational error to be absorbed without comparative operational degradation. Second, access to greater resources allows more varied and longer running challenges to the opponent, thus weakening resolve and desire to resist. The challenge of the TCos to Mexican policy should not be taken lightly. Their actual motivations are not as time-sensitive and critically important as the suffering of the Mexican government and society. Ultimately, the TCo motivations can be described as criminal and as such are no different than other groups involved in similar actions. The critical point of the threat posed by the TCos to Mexico is the amount and size of the resource flow. The level and consistency of resource flow must be sufficiently degraded or destroyed if the TCo threat is to be successfully addressed. n About the author: Maj. Brett L. Mers is a career U.S. Air Force officer. he has several years of policy experience at both the operational and strategic levels. he holds the credential of associate professor of military strategic studies from the U.S. Air Force Academy and is currently assigned at USnoRthCoM.

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Criminal Motives  

Ágora Magazine feature on violence in Mexico

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