Mexico’s new attorney general put the number of drug cartels operating in the country at up to 80, reflecting a radical decentralization of power and profusion of smaller gangs in the Mexican underworld.

In an interview with the radio network MVS, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam discussed the changes in the drug trafficking industry over the past several years: “I would calculate between 60 and 80 [groups], including medium and small ones. They are in various areas of the country, we are identifying their exact geographic location.”

In the same interview, Murillo Karam offered pointed criticism of previous President Felipe Calderon’s approach to organized crime, stating that the just-departed administration focused disproportionately on the most powerful capos.

This brought the lieutenants into command, who were typically more violent — the most capable killers, to say it plainly. They began to take over or form their own groups and the displaced groups began shifting to other types of crimes, and that’s where we see kidnapping, extortion, and protection rackets.

In diagnosing the changes to Mexico’s crime networks, Murillo Karam gets a great deal right. Many analysts have pointed out that the model of a handful of big-time capos generating violence via territorial disputes is dated, and growing less relevant as the years pass. Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez, a Mexico City-based analyst and one of the founders of the firm Lantia Consultores, wrote in Nexos in 2011 that the six cartels at the outset of the Calderon administration had expanded into 12 four years later. Writing for Southern Pulse, Samuel Logan and James Bosworth recently predicted a future in which an even higher number of super street gangs are the most powerful criminal forces in Mexico.

InSight Crime has also noted this proliferation, detailing the surge of “upstart gangs” in 2011.  In both Jalisco and Guerrero, for example, two of the states which have seen the most dramatic increases in violence in recent years, the absence of one dominant group and the struggle of smaller groups to assert themselves and carve out a toehold is a major driver of violence.

As InSight Crime wrote in February with regard to Jalisco:

The local gangs operating in Jalisco and elsewhere also demonstrate that the model of the transnational group, controlling every step of production and transportation, is less and less relevant to today’s Mexico. Many of the gangs in Jalisco have no known connections to Colombia, nor do they control valuable plazas in the border region, nor do they have retail partners in the US. These groups, and others like them in Acapulco and elsewhere, either buy into another gang’s smuggling network in order to ship drugs northward, or they extract their profits from the local population, whether through extortion, kidnapping, car-jacking, or retail drug sales.

The previous government’s policies did not sufficiently recognize and adapt to this changing environment. For the most part, Calderon’s efforts to combat organized crime were ill-suited to a scenario where the influence of the traditional cartels was declining. As Murillo Karam indicates, the so-called “kingpin strategy” — targeting the most notorious bosses from the biggest groups — does little to address the proliferation of gangs that cause the vast majority of the violence. (The kingpin strategy didn’t really kick off until halfway through Calderon’s term, but nonetheless became synonymous with his policies.)

The deployment of the military against criminal groups is also ill-suited to the changing environment. Smaller, more local gangs would be better combated by well-trained local police who know the terrain, rather than battalions made up of troops from far-flung regions. The military’s advantages — competence, honesty, firepower — carry far less weight in this new environment.

Viewed in this light, Murillo Karam’s comments inspire optimism. The incoming administration has recognized drastic changes to Mexico’s criminal environment, putting it in a better position to design an adequate policy response. The new attorney general’s comments are even more welcome given the vagueness of the strategy released by Peña Nieto earlier this week, which is based on six planks: planning, prevention, human rights, coordination, institutional change, and evaluation.

These alone tell us virtually nothing about the administration’s objectives, or its capacity to achieve them. But if the six planks are to be pursued against a backdrop of understanding hinted at in Murillo Karam’s comments, there is reason to be more hopeful.

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