A new project from two online media outlets in Mexico presents a fresh view of organized crime's role in the country and its development over the course of the last several decades.
Last month El Daily Post and Animal Politico -- two media sources of Mexican news founded in recent years -- launched Narcodata, which they call an "interactive website that offers an in-depth study of the past four decades of organized crime in Mexico."
The website offers a comprehensive picture of the criminal groups operating in Mexico. Using information obtained from Mexico's attorney general's office (PGR, for its initials in Spanish) via public records requests, Narcodata has built a list of criminal cells and the larger cartels for which they work during the past three presidencies. The contents of these official reports allows viewers to compare government assessments of organized crime from the Vicente Fox Administration (2000-06) through the Felipe Calderon Administration (2006-12) and into the current Enrique Peña Nieto Administration.
In addition to its public records requests, Narcodata also borrows from a number of other open sources. It lists two books by Luis Astorga, a prominent academic whose research focuses on organized crime, and one by Guillermo Valdes, the former chief of Mexico's intelligence agency CISEN, as sources. It also says it uses information from government press releases on arrests and seizures pertaining to organized crime.
It is not clear if this reflects changes in the methods of tabulation and classification, or if it stems from a genuine change in the landscape. That is, a renewed tendency toward criminal consolidation following years of splintering.
One of Narcodata's most notable features is its mere existence, as it reflects an emerging trend: the growth of highly sophisticated civil society groups performing their own analysis on security and other key issues. These groups, such as the Instituto Mexicano de la Competitividad and Lantia Consultores, serve as a more trustworthy counterweight to government narratives. In so doing, they help hold the government to account with their own analysis, and obligate it to operate with a higher degree of transparency and competency.
While Mexico has a long had a boisterous independent press, the degree of specialization of projects like Narcodata goes beyond what a daily newspaper typically produces. This fosters a more informed civil society, and it reverses a post-Mexican Revolution tendency of a passive citizenry being fed the dictates of the government.
InSight Crime Analysis
At first glance, the most striking takeaway from the research is the sheer increase in the number of criminal organizations operating in Mexico. During the Fox administration, the PGR apparently broke the nation's criminal underworld into seven different groups, denominated by their respective leaders: the Arellano Felix family, the Carillo Fuentes family, Osiel Cardenas, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Hector Luis Palma Salazar, the Amezcua Contreras family, the Diaz Parada family, and the Valencia family.
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In the most recent government report, dated 2014, four of the above groups have essentially disappeared or been radically reshaped under different leadership, while two others are dramatically weaker. Only Chapo Guzman's organization remains largely similar to its past iteration. Furthermore, the seven main groups during the Fox tenure has been drastically expanded. Peña Nieto's team reported the existence of nine primary organizations, under which 45 different cells operate.
The atomization of Mexico's criminal landscape is a fundamental change, and one widely commented upon by InSight Crime and a multitude of other outlets. However, the picture presented by Narcodata is slightly more nuanced. There are indeed vastly more organizations on the government's radar today than there were ten years ago during the final stretch of the Fox tenure.
But current official counts of organizations operating in Mexico City are substantially less than they were under Calderon, when the government reported the presence of 80 different cells. It is not clear if this reflects changes in the methods of tabulation and classification, or if it stems from a genuine change in the landscape. That is, a renewed tendency toward criminal consolidation following years of splintering.
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Both explanations are plausible, but the implications of the two possible versions are profoundly different. If it's the former, it is merely another case of the government massaging the security narrative to suit its own ends. But if the organized crime groups have begun a process of consolidation, it means one of the foremost trends of the past decade has reversed itself, and Mexico's security challenges are in the process of evolving toward another phase.
As the analysts from Narcodata point out, the government's own analysis refers to activities by the large criminal organizations in Mexico City. Publicly, figures from different levels of government have long denied this, hewing to an image of the nation's capital as immune from the chaos of Michoacan's Tierra Caliente or the US/Mexico border region. This, together with growing evidence from on the ground, indicates that the government version is not aimed at describing the facts, but merely at assuaging the nation's most populous region.