A new report argues that, far from fracturing, Mexico’s drug trafficking groups are stronger than at the beginning of Calderon’s time in office. However, this overlooks the fragile and fast-changing nature of alliances between these gangs, and the shifting nature of the power they wield.

A recent article published by Proceso argues that Calderon’s crime policy has not only coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of murders linked to organized crime, but has also had the perverse effect of strengthening the very gangs it should be weakening. Written by the longtime drug war chronicler Ricardo Ravelo, it states that:

A bit more than five years after Calderon ordered the militarization of the country, the criminal networks of five cartels — the Zetas, the Familia Michoacana, and the Sinaloa, Juarez, and Gulf Cartels — now dominate more than half of the national territory. This expansion has occurred despite the blows these organizations have suffered through arrests or deaths of their leaders.

However, this argument overlooks the most important development in Mexico’s underworld in the last few years, which is the fracturing of larger gangs into dozens of smaller groups. This shift, which has been documented on numerous occasions by InSight Crime and other analysts, triggered the emergence of dozens of new regional groups, from the Mano con Ojos to the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG). The rise of these smaller bands has almost certainly meant a decline in the relative power of the larger, transnational groups that have long dominated Mexico.

Meanwhile two of the biggest gangs three years ago — the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Juarez Cartel, both of whom are mentioned among the gangs that have grown more powerful — are a shell of their former selves today, hit by government pressure and wars with the Sinaloa Cartel.

That’s not to say that criticism of Calderon’s policy is unwarranted; the changes outlined above have contributed enormously to the violence in Mexico. But there is little evidence for the claim that the largest groups are stronger now than they were five years ago.

Ravelo’s argument rests in large part on the alliances that have supposedly grouped the industry into two large federations. On one side stand Sinaloa and its allies: the Gulf Cartel, the Familia Michoacana, a collection of smaller gangs, and, reportedly, the Caballeros Templarios. The opposing bloc is led by the Zetas, and includes the Juarez Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, and a pair of Beltran Leyva splinter groups.

But a federation of distinct groups operating over a large chunk of geography, with some degree of coordination, is quite different from a single group dominating the same swath of territory. (It’s also worth noting that Ravelo places several pairs of long-opposed gangs in the same federation, which makes his conclusions still more suspect.) Loose groupings like those described by Ravelo are held together by fragile alliances that are frequently broken, which is an important reason why organized crime groups today are less stable and more violent. A territorial expansion predicated on these alliances is not durable evidence for a strengthened group of big cartels.

The report is based on maps from Mexican government agencies and a report from the consulting firm Stratfor (see map, above, by Stratfor). Though maps of criminal influence can be useful in determining criminal trends, ultimately they represent a two-dimensional tool that inevitably glosses over important details. No map, regardless of how well sourced it is, can tell us much about the degree of control over a given territory. It doesn’t tell us if the prevailing group is run by out-of-towners who have co-opted local criminals, whether the mayor’s office is thought to support the local capos, or how likely control of a given area is to change hands from one gang to another.

Similarly, Ravelo says nothing about the type of control exercised by the Mexican gangs today. Whereas in 2005 drug smugglers operated outside of the public eye and without much contact with the legitimate Mexico, today organized crime groups have ramped up extortion, kidnapping, carjacking and other crimes that directly prey on civilians.

Ravelo’s failure to discuss this is odd, because it appears that his goal is to point out the flaws in the government policy. Nothing does so better than pointing out that the fractured criminal underworld of today, which Calderon is at least partially responsible for bringing into existence, is far more likely to bring harm to law-abiding Mexicans than the tidy landscape of four major cartels that existed five years ago.

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