Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Mexico must strengthen its weak governance structures to contain both self-defence groups and drug cartels

It is now a truism to state that violence in Latin America is due to drug trafficking and an international drug control regime in dire need of reform. However, what is said less often is that drug trafficking-related violence is also driven by profound structural causes and institutional weaknesses.

A clear example of this can be found in Mexico’s case. According to the National Institute for Statistics and Geography (INEGI), there was a 98.2% impunity rate for the 27,200 murders in 2012. One major challenge is the country’s opaque and inefficient justice system. Although subject to a profound reform some years ago, as of 2013 only three out of Mexico’s 32 states had fully implemented the transition from a written adversarial system to an oral and accusatory one.

The disheartening picture with regard to judicial prosecution is mirrored in crime prevention. Out of the 2,439 municipalities that comprise the country, only 2,022 have their own police force. The members of these highly fragmented forces tend to be badly trained, poorly equipped, underpaid and corrupt. Considering that the certainty of detection acts as a stronger deterrent than the severity of the penalty, it is not surprising that violence escalated to the point it did in Mexico. In light of this, the current administration has put a lot of emphasis on states developing stronger police forces as well as complementing this with a new federal force, the National Gendarmerie, scheduled to become operational this year.

However, the implicit signal behind these weaknesses is not only that crime goes unpunished (and pays), but that there is an institutional vacuum that needs to be filled. This is an opportunity that both drug trafficking organizations, such as the Knights Templar, and (increasing rise in) self-defence groups, such as those fanning out across the state of Michoacán to counteract them, will not hesitate to take. They are two sides of the same coin. In light of this, the emergence and growth of self-defence groups (see our earlier blog) can be more accurately described as a time bomb rather than a ‘black swan’.

This could add another dimension to the ongoing violence in Mexico. Government authorities will need to keep vigilantes in check, whilst pushing forward judicial reform and the strengthening of law enforcement institutions. There is no denying that the government is becoming increasingly effective in fighting drug cartels, but if it fails to underpin its approach by strengthening governance structures, already high levels of violence are likely to persist or even increase.

Jerónimo Mohar is an analyst on foreign affairs. He is a former Mexican government official and previously worked at the Mexican think tank Grupo COPPAN.

Benoît Gomis is an analyst on international security, drugs and counter-terrorism and a Visiting Scholar at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

They wrote earlier this year on the Rise of Self-Defense groups in Mexico for World Politics Review.

Previous blogs in Governance and Development on crime and the state:

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