In recent years Mexico's criminal groups have diversified from drug trafficking into crimes like extortion, a business which necessarily involves the use of serious violence to build the requisite fear in victims, in a way the drug trade does not.
While they were once strictly drug trafficking organizations, groups like the Familia Michoacana and the Zetas have branched out into a number of other realms. The list of alternative crimes favored by criminal groups is lengthy, ranging from the exotic (theft of crude oil and religious artifacts) to the petty (car jackings and bank robberies). Probably the two most notorious crimes on the rise are kidnapping and extortion.
There are a few of elements of extortion that distinguish it from drug trafficking. One is that it necessarily includes the periodic employment of violence. A successful drug shipment is moved without any bloodshed; the violence that the characterizes the industry isn’t a product of the criminal act in and of itself, but rather the smugglers’ reaction to things that get in their way. While it is true that in Mexico all of the known drug gangs are highly violent, other nations’ experiences show that it is possible to run a successful drug trafficking enterprise without relying too heavily on murder.
In contrast, extortion gangs can’t make money without a fearsome reputation based on a credible threat of punishment for those business owners who refuse to pay. Therefore, from time to time, successful extortion gangs will be obligated to demonstrate their willingness to burn the businesses or take the lives of those who don’t comply. The fire that killed 52 people in a Monterrey casino last month is just the most recent illustration, but there’s been an abundant supply of less deadly examples over the past several years.
Violence stemming from extortion also targets civilians (though not exclusively) rather than just members of opposing criminal groups. As a result, extortion presents a more direct threat to citizen security than drug trafficking alone. It also has a multiplier effect that makes extortion more harmful to the society at large, beyond the direct victims, than most other common crimes. Insofar as it targets the wealthy, extortion disincentives success and acts as an illegal tax on prosperity. Consequently, extortion is a burden on free commerce to a degree that most crimes are not.
Extortion thrives against a backdrop of lawlessness; if the victims of extortion schemes had confidence that the authorities could protect them, far fewer protection payments would be made. As a result of the generalized breakdown, smaller extortion gangs (as well as gangs specializing in bank robbery, kidnapping, et cetera) can proliferate and flourish. The rise of extortion is not just the product of the biggest illegal organizations in Mexico seeking new revenue, but also demonstrates the organic growth of a new criminal industry.
The growth of extortion, also known as “illegal protection,” as a tool of the nation’s criminal groups is the subject of a new piece by Eduardo Guerrero in the Mexican magazine Nexos. The following are selected extracts translated by InSight Crime:
“Illegal protection” encompasses a series of activities that imply coercion on the part of an agent distinct from the state -- generally violent criminal organizations known as "mafias." Illegal protection can be offered against scams, against the competition, against the government or against the mafia itself. Although the mafias can extort a wide variety of actors, normally there will be a greater demand for illegal protection (or greater vulnerability to extortion) among citizens without access to the criminal justice system. As a result, among the principal targets of the mafias are the criminals themselves (i.e. networks of thieves, kidnappers, smugglers, among others). In the communities with a weak rule of law the appearance of illegal protection tends to be frequent.
To extort the population the mafias need a solid reputation regarding their capacity to use force against those who refuse to pay for their services, just as against other criminals who attempt to harm or extort their “clients.” Nevertheless, not all of the deaths related to crime are linked to illegal protection markets. The wars for control of the routes and territories between the cartels that are dedicated primarily to drug trafficking are also an important source of violence related to organized crime in contemporary Mexico.
Illegal protection presents another presents another aspect that allows us to distinguish it from the violence of drug trafficking and the violence of the [extortion] mafia: the latter relies intensively on propaganda. The mafias need to build a reputation. Therefore, to establish a monopoly on coercion they need to intensively highlight their violence and assure that wide sectors of society (at least all of their genuine and potential rivals and those that they could demand payment in exchange for protection) are conscious of their great capacity to exercise violence.
A common practice among Mexican criminal organizations in recent years has been the placement of messages to one side of the victims. These messages serve as a form of propaganda and as a mechanism to build their reputation. In general, these messages appear in the local media outlets, are signed by the organization behind the execution and even give the reason for the crime (being a member of a rival gang, a thief, a rapist or kidnapper, and not paying are some of the reasons invoked most frequently).
Drug violence and mafia violence have distinctive characteristics and are the consequence of different phenomena. Nevertheless, there can be a link between them. The increase in both types of violence has been very severe and has occurred in a relatively short period. The following three mechanisms are complementary explanations of the process that goes from wars between drug cartels to the establishment of mafias (the direction of causality of logic is supported by the fact that the violence from drug-trafficking precedes that of the mafias).
Reconversion. The government policy of indiscriminate arrests of capos starting in 2007 has provoked the fragmentation of various cartels. Some factions have been annihilated and pushed from drug trafficking. Nevertheless, they have a series of assets (among them, weapons, gunmen, and personal relationships with some local authorities) that allows them to successfully concentrate on the sale of illegal protection.
Forced relocation. Although the criminal organizations don’t actively seek expansion, they can weave together networks in new territories when the circumstances obligate some of their members to move on. This has occurred with various groups -- expelled from the regions now in the power of their rivals -- as a consequence of the conflicts between the drug-trafficking organizations and between said organizations and the government forces.
Impunity. The generalized violence increases impunity, because the police are frequently overtaken or coopted by one of the organizations fighting for conflict zones. Because the probability of punishment declines in these circumstances, illegal protection becomes a more attractive activity. Furthermore, this type of violence also provokes an increase in the demand for illegal protection.
(Photo, above: The view from a bar in Quintana Roo that was burnt down in 2010 after the management failed to make extortion payments to the Zetas.)