Organized violence and protection and what to do about them: an open debate.


by Eva Magdalena Stambøl and Hans Van Der Veen

The article below was originally published in Spanish in and can also be found on Carlos Resa’s website. This is the first time that the article appears in English, translated by Eva Magdalena Stambøl and Hans Van Der Veen, who remain responsible for any mistakes in this translation.

We selected this piece as for its relevance to understanding what is actually going on, not only in what is so often called Mexico’s drug war, but also in other places of the world where illicit economies of drug trafficking are assumed to fuel levels of violence. What is the relation between drugs and violence? Might it be that the all-encompassing frame of the ‘drugs-violence nexus’ is too simplistic: that dynamics of conflict, violence and illicit economies can only be understood if one opens the eyes for their political, social and economic context – not to mention the complexity of patron-client relations? Carlos Resa’s account indicates that in Mexico there is a whole series of state and non-state organizers of violence that try to impose their protection racket over legal and illegal businesses, and extort money from these enterprises, rather than drug traffickers having the means and motivation to create such havoc. If so, what implications might this have for policy-making? Is there a way to make the Mexican police improve the services they provide to society? Is it possible to turn a patronage system into a system where economic actors are more independent from the political system? The discussion is open:


por Eva Magdalena Stambøl y Hans Van Der Veen

El siguiente artículo fue originalmente publicado en español en y puede encontrarse también en la página web de Carlos Resa. Es la primera vez que se presenta el artículo a un público anglófono.

Seleccionamos ese artículo por sú relevancia para entender lo que está pasando, no solo en lo que se suele llamar ‘la guerra contra las drogas’ en México, sino también en otros sitios del mundo dónde se supone que las economías ilícitas de narcotráfico amplifican los niveles de violencia. ¿Cual es la relación entre drogas y violencia? ¿Puede ser que el marco totalizador del ‘nexo drogas-violencia’ es demasiado simplista; que las dinámicas de conflicto, de la violencia y de las economías ilícitas sólo pueden ser entendidas si uno abre los ojos en su conexto politico, social y económico – por no mencionar la complejidad de las relaciones patrón-cliente? El artículo de Carlos Resa nos indica que en México hay una serie de organizadores de violencia estatales y non-estatales que intentan imponer su protección sobre empresas legales e ilegales, extorsionando a esas empresas para conseguir dinero. Es decir que estas entidades tienen más medios y motivaciónes para crear tales estragos que los narcotraficantes. En tal caso, ¿qué implicaciones podría tener para la formulación de políticas? ¿Hay alguna manera en la cual se podría mejorar los servicios proporcionados a la sociedad por la policía mexicana? ¿Sería posible convertir el sistema de patronato en un sistema donde los actores economicos quedaran más independientes del sistema político? La discusión sigue abierta:

Mexico: Narcoviolence or Mafia?

by Carlos Resa Nestares

Random events in Mexico

The 3rd of May 2012: Nine cadavers appear, dangling by their heads from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo. Next to them, written on a linen: it reads: “Pinches golfas, así me los voy a ir acabando a todos los pendejos que mandes a calentar la plaza” [fucking golfas – referring to the Gulf cartel – this is how I will finish off all the idiots that you will send to infringe on our franchise/ territory].

The same night fourteen decapitated heads appear at the gates of the City Hall, just some few meters from the US border. Above them, a notification is making fun of the Mayor: “Como nos quiere dar un dulcito, al salir usted declarando que aquí no pasa nada y que todo está bien, siga con lo mismo y le aseguro que van a seguir rodando cabezas. […] Yo no mato inocentes para presentar trabajo” [As if you want to give us a sweet, while going out you declared that there’s nothing going on here and that everything’s fine, continue like that and we assure you that heads will keep rolling […] I do not kill innocents to offer my work].

8th of May 2012: In two cars in Chalapa, fifty kilometers from Guadalajara, in the center of Mexico, eighteen corpses are found. The following day, in the same city of Guadalajara, eighteen mutilated bodies are discovered in a house. A group of kidnappers is detained.

13th of May 2012: Forty nine corpses without heads nor limbs appear in the gutter of the road two hours from the US border and very close to the industrial city of Monterrey. Various public communications in different forms ascribe or dissociate themselves with the massacre.

18th of May 2012: In Taxco, a tourist town in the south of Mexico, a quartered head is found with a message directed at president Felipe Calderón: “Aquí está su basura. [… ] O les ponen un alto a las ratas […] o se los ponemos nosotros. Los Guerreros Unidos” [Here’s your garbage […] either you put a stop to the rats […] or we will […] The United Warriors]. Three days later, the same scenario, this time double decapitation: “Aquí les dejo más basura” [here I leave you more garbage].

What do all these events have in common? Two things. First, with almost total certainty their assassins are never put to trial. Second, they will be ascribed by the media and politics to the general category of ‘narco-violence’ although the evidence that connects these crimes with drugs is hardly tangible.

Calavera Oaxaqueña - Posadas 1910

A strange angle: illicit drugs and violence

‘The narco’ doesn’t lobby, nor does he present demands for defamation. The whole world already takes it for granted – induced by the publicity that the security agencies and the media make in tandem – that ‘the narco’ is an evil criminal conspiracy, ruthless and predatory, not at all guided by economic rationality, although it is more a play of money than a play of lives: the drugs remain there as the ones guilty of murder. The usual suspect.

Academia has debated the relation between drugs and violence for decades: as either pharmacological violence, or acquisitive violence, or economic violence. Some of the characteristics associated with drugs overlap so as to make it a more violent enterprise than what economic rationality would recommend: the easy access to firearms with their shared characteristic of illegality, an a priori subculture of violence, the young age of the majority of the participants and the tendency of repetition of violent acts, beyond their economic functionality.

Apart from a well-articulated theory, the empirical consensus is minimal. There’s no iron law that marks the illegal markets with a string of dead. But the popular imaginary is stubborn and the relation is very commanding.

From The Godfather and Miami Vice, passing through the whole string of representations and cultural sub-products, one has come to create a homegrown sub-genre in Mexico: the narco-literature, more convincing than its own reality.

In Europe, industrial quantities of drugs are consumed, produced internally or imported, and the number of homicides is the lowest in the world, if one excludes the Arab countries. Here the drug industry works with very low levels of tension and explicit violence. Even the distributors of drugs originating from countries where the use of lethal violence is habitual modify their behavior to assimilate themselves to the native patterns.

Most commercial relations, whether in drugs or in other areas of legality, do not need the threat of violence, because they are smeared with an oil that substitutes for violence: mutual trust, without which there would be no economy, be it criminal or not.

Peru and Bolivia have historically been the largest producers of the coca leaf in the world, and apart from the period of scorched earth of Sendero Luminoso, the burden of violence associated with its cultivation and commercialization has been imperceptible.

But returning to Mexico, four decades had to pass in the drug industry of a lethargic, quiet and peaceful existence, to suddenly reach levels of violence as atrocious as the present ones. Why did it not happen before, if the relation between drugs and murders is linear and always repeated?

Democratization led to disorganization in the business of private protection

Continuing the metaphor of the movie, opening a diaphragm helps to find a solution to the dilemma: the explosion of violence in Mexico has happened in parallel to the process of democratization in Mexico. A coincidence? No causality? Yes, but not in the simplistic version of the six-year’s concessions and state-fomented monopoly of the drug business.

The one-party regime that de facto ruled Mexico for seventy years transformed itself into a very active and effective machine for selling private protection. Nothing new under the sun. In fact, the rule of law, respect for human rights and public protection are anomalies in the history and geography of the country.

Following the definition of the sociologist Diego Gambetta, “in a society where confidence is scarce and democracy weak, the Mafia (also when it is called the Institutional Revolutionary Party, an association of similarly slipshot interests, a cartel in the economic sense) sells protection, the guarantee of security in order for the economic actors to carry on with their commercial transactions”, in exchange for a fee paid privately, not in the form of tax.

Almost every member of the public sector applied this maxim wherever he or she was posted. From there comes the popular phrase, apocryphal for sure: “Yo no pido que me den, póngame donde haiga” [I’m not asking to be given something, just place me where there is some].

Sometimes people would bid for public office as they expected to earn a higher income by selling private protection: to taxi drivers, to peddlers, to teachers, to whoever was deemed decent enough to pay and not protest too much.

Everywhere where rights were most diffuse, and where convoluted and sophisticated Mexican laws put an unintended grain of sand, you could find a member of the public sector ready to facilitate the commercial transaction in exchange for a commission.

With prohibition, drugs fell under the area of protection of security agencies and the army. And there they dedicated themselves to their usual activities, with extreme caution as to not cause disturbances to the public order in order to promote not only their money, but also their bureaucratic career.

Their superiors in the institutional hierarchy accepted or remained ignorant of this lucrative business in exchange of the important: that social peace would be maintained. The few conflicts that would arise between the different bodies of police about the sale of protection would be solved through the hierarchy: The army commanded the federal police, that again commanded the state police, that again commanded the local police. A recognizable and stable world.

This scheme of peaceful, multilateral coexistence and by its division, almost cartelized, broke down with democratization. The state police would not submit to the federal police anymore, because their legal subordination would be to another political party.

In pursuit of democratic regeneration, many police officers with wide experience in selling private protection were fired and they went on to lending their services in blatant competition with other police or as private protectors to drug entrepreneurs.

The new police recruits, with the same expectation to capitalize on their badges as those that they succeeded, however without their knowledge as to how to obtain the prestige and information necessary to sell private protection and with much shorter work experience, rather dedicated themselves to a much faster business: extortion.

Drug entrepreneurs, and many others outside the drugs business, created their own capacity for violence to protect themselves against these attacks from police forces. Paradoxically, the pioneers of privatization in violence organizing enterprises in the Mexican drugs industry, the Arellano Félix brothers, had to recruit in the south of California, because all the specialists in Mexico already were committed to some police organization.

The real cause: The pre-existing mafia environment

It’s not drugs, therefore, that are the ultimate cause for the increase in violence. It’s doubtless that they work as a lubricant: drug-money oils the violence and is probably its principal buyer. But the drugs can survive without violence.

Violence is not an indispensable part of the drug industry. It is the sale of drug that produces income in drug sales, not the killing of people. Mexico has become more violent over the last years because of changes in the environment in which drugs and many other legal and illegal agents have to move.

It has been the extreme volatility that the private protection industry has entered into: federal police, state police, local police, Mafiosos, entrepreneurs of drugs and violence-organizing enterprises, acting in ephemeral coalitions, confronting each other at various levels of market where no quotas and no runners up exist, where there is only place for one, because the protection market is tending towards monopoly and the only weapon to compete is violence. Max Weber and his theory of the State or Charles Tilly and his idea of the State as a winner of mafia battles explain with ease also the behaviors of modern states.

The incremental mafiotization of Mexico, together with extortion, kidnapping, drugs and the whole trail of small and large crimes, is definitively originating in the sale of private protection. This is what lays behind the obvious and very much publicized violence in Mexico.

This latent and diffuse fight can only end with a pax mafiosa, which will conclude either with a stable division of territories, or with the triumph of one of the mafias over the others, or with the emergence of the police as the provider of a veritable public service.

Yet, none of these three scenarios will come about without more violence, whether there are drugs involved or not. There is nothing that more discourages a drug dealer than uncertainty about everything that concerns his survival. As they are normally quite mobile, this uncertainty can paradoxically over time also kill the drug industry in Mexico, rather than contribute to its persistence.


Cover image: Gran calavera eléctrica – José Guadalupe Posada (Public domain) This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsc.04468. From WikiPedia.

Inline image: Calavera Oaxaqueña – José Guadalupe Posada (1910). This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsc.03455 (from