This article was published on 12 October 2014.
In Guerrero, Michoacán and Tamaulipas mafias aren’t just trafficking drugs. They also aspire to seize power at the local level.
Everything seems to suggest that the municipal government and organized crime acted in a coordinated manner in the calculated murder of six teachers-in-training and the forced disappearance of 43 fellow students from Iguala, in Mexico’s southeastern state of Guerrero. In the midst of grief, outrage and national protest the country wonders what would lead a local government dominated by organized crime to order a massacre of students belonging to one of the country’s oldest, and most combative social institutions. If the business principle behind organized crime in Mexico is U.S-bound drug trafficking, why kill students who have nothing to do with it?
To understand the motives underlying repression by organized crime it’s necessary to begin by recognizing one of the most important changes to criminal enterprise of the last few years: in states like Guerrero, Michoacán and Tamaulipas, organized crime has sought not only to monopolize drug transshipment but has now entered a new phase in which one of its great objectives is to take local control – taking over city administration and its resources in order to extract local wealth through forced taxation. To defray the cost of conflicts in those places around the country where different criminal groups fight for control over drug trafficking, organized crime slowly extended its reach over natural resource-based extractive industries – clandestine theft of gasoline, oil and gas – and over human resources, too, by using extortion and kidnapping. Within this new strategy, criminal groups uncovered a new and valuable bounty: municipal governments and their taxpayers. As Michoacán’s terrible experience demonstrates, organized crime has appropriated 30 percent of the state’s annual municipal public works budget. It has demanded public works contracts be given to contractors it controls and it has been charging 20 percent of a local bureaucracy’s public payroll. But the infiltration of city government went further still: criminal groups took control over the public coffers to obtain reliable information that allowed them to extort with greater efficiency the hotels, restaurants and small businesses of the city under its command.
To take control over a city’s administration and its taxpayers, criminal groups began by breaking local authorities. Through bribery or extortion, they subordinated city mayors in conflict areas. Although bribery and corruption of mayors are foremost in the public’s mind, there is also a long list of municipal officials, candidates and local political activists who have withered attacks or been killed at the hands of organized crime. With a team from the University of Notre Dame, my colleague Sandra Ley and I have identified more than three hundred attacks and executions of local authorities by organized crime in the last six years. The neighboring states of Michoacán and Guerrero topped the list with more than a third of the total attacks and in Guerrero there were flashpoints of violence in the northern areas of the Tierra Caliente, Costa Grande and Centro. In these townships, holding public office has turned into high-risk employment. And organized crime has begun to field its own candidates – as seems to have been the case in Iguala.
The Guerreros Unidos’ Hit Men Have Covered Themselves in the Protective Mantle of Impunity
To secure local hegemony, organized criminal groups need society to be dislocated and terrified, incapable of raising questions or disobeying the orders of the de facto authorities. That’s why criminals seek to establish themselves in places of scant social organization. But when the strategic zones for drug transshipment and production are situated in places where strong social and community movements are at work – like Iguala – those criminal groups try to break these social groups by buying off their leaders or through selective repression and exemplary executions.
The massacre of the Ayotzinapa teachers-in-training was a strategic, premeditated act to sow terror and to break civil society groups apart. In Iguala and neighboring townships these social groups were taking part in different processes of social unification – including the community police (“policías comunitarias”) – in a common cause against extortion, kidnappings and murders by organized crime and the public officials at their command. The massacre was an act to reconstitute local power; a barbaric act through which the criminal group, Guerreros Unidos, sought to make clear to the region’s social movements who was head honcho (“mandamás”). It was, in addition, an exemplary act designed with the intention of reminding the region’s citizens and small and medium-sized business owners and merchants to continue paying “ground rent.” With the massacre they consolidated their criminal command over the area.
Such despotic attempts to rebuild local power through barbaric violence are made possible through the informal protection that organized criminal groups have been ceaselessly spinning out for decades from state prosecutors’ offices, judicial police forces, public prosecutors, prisons and at the local offices of the federal attorney generals’ office (PGR). Although in today’s Mexico the municipality is seen as the weakest link in the nation’s government and has been identified as a lair for organized crime covered by a protective mantle from local authorities, in many interviews with former governors from different political parties – including the former leaders of Michoacán and Guerrero – I have heard with insistence that the judicial police are closely linked to organized crime. These police in particular make criminal impunity possible within municipalities and they facilitate the reconstitution of de facto local power.
In this new strategy, criminal groups found a new and valuable treasure chest: the municipal administration and its taxpayers
These brutal acts to reconstitute local power in Guerrero are also possible because of the long history of impunity enjoyed by its state governors, from the golden years of PRI authoritarianism down to the present. In the specific case of Guerrero, the brutality of the PRI’s dirty war against guerrilla groups and dissident students of the ‘70s reached levels of intensity equal to those of the dirty wars in Chile and Argentina. But these acts have remained unpunished and the same political class that murdered social leaders has kept itself in power under the PRI’s mantle and now that of the leftist party. Although the world has changed and Mexico and Guerrero have changed, the impunity is a constant. That impunity makes massacres like Aguas Blancas and El Charco possible and it now thrusts Iguala into ignominy.
In Guerrero, its rulers and criminals, whether separate or in collusion, know that attacking the citizenry and trying to eliminate dissident social groups are crimes that are never punished. When Iguala’s mayor or his security chief or his deputy gave the order to fire against the students and deliver the detainees to the hit men for disposal, a long history of impunity was on their side. When the hit men of the Guerreros Unidos tortured, disappeared, or killed the students, the protective mantle of impunity covered them. This impunity permits rulers and criminals alike to murder without flinching.
In the Iguala massacre the past, present and future converged. To understand the massacre as just a horrendous act by organized crime is to react to the present without understanding the past. But to interpret this abominable act as just a state crime is to look at the present through the past’s eyes. To avoid the massacre turning into a social flashpoint, the federal government and civil society must respond to criminality – in this new complex situation criminal groups now want to rebuild local politics – like state politics – but this reaction brings with it the difficulty that the state can be seen as mirroring violence. What’s certain is that Guerrero will only discover a better future when we put an end to the lengthy history of political impunity that nurtures and gives life to criminal violence in the present.
Professor Guillermo Trejo teaches comparative politics in the Political Science Department at University of Notre Dame, Indiana. His faculty biography states that “he is working on a book provisionally entitled Votes, Drugs, and Violence: Democratization and Organized Crime in Latin America.” He is a frequent contributor to El País. This article first appeared under the title, “¿Por qué el crimen organizado atenta contra la sociedad civil en México?” available at: http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/10/10/actualidad/1412970176_327641.html.
Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.