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Increased Competition Between Cartels Leads To More Violent Deaths, Expert Says

Dec 15, 2017

The recent surge of violence in Mexico is due to greater competition for territory between drug cartels, according to a University of Oklahoma political scientist.

Charles Kenney told KGOU’s World Views the Mexican government’s war on drug cartels weakened some drug cartels, but others have stepped up to fill the void,  creating violence.

“It is the fight between these organizations that has generated the largest number of people being dead,” Kenney said.

Homicides rates began to increase in 2006, following a government crackdown on cartels. After the homicide rate dipped somewhat in 2014 and 2015, the number of murders this year is on the rise.

Kenney says the government’s actions against the cartels also led to deaths.

“The heavy-handed approach meant significant violations of human rights, the killing of a lot of innocent people. But again it was to the extent that they were successful in diminishing the strength of particular cartels and organizations that they generated this level of competition,” Kenney said.

The United States remains the major market for illicit drugs that are trafficked through Mexico. Kenney says the illicit trade from Mexico stretches back over a century. He says the US promoted the illicit production of opium in Mexico during World War II. The 1960s brought an explosion in demand for drugs, especially marijuana. The late 1970s and 1980s saw an increase in demand for cocaine.

“Part of what we're seeing is simply the fact that Mexico lives next door to the largest drug consuming country in the world. One of the presidents of Mexico said living next to the United States is like living next to a crack house. The consumption takes place over there, but we get all of the negative consequences of that,” Kenney said.

Kenney says cocaine was previously shipped from Colombia to Florida. After that route was cut off, the cocaine trade shifted to Mexico. The demand for cocaine didn’t change, but suppliers needed to find another way to bring their product to market. Kenney refers to this as the “squeeze the balloon” phenomenon.

“You squeeze it in one place and the air simply moves to a different place. So while interdiction efforts can be successful in many different places and times, the overall flow of drugs into the United States remains more or less unchanged,” Kenney said.

To reduce the level of violence in Mexico, the demand for drugs will need to be reduced, Kenney says

“If there is no reduction in demand, it's unrealistic to expect a reduction in supply,” Kenney said. “Any policies that are designed primarily to cut off supply without really dealing with demand are not going to work.”

Interview Highlights

On the history of Mexico’s drug trade with the US

We have to remember that illicit drug trade from Mexico has been going on for well over a century, that there were times in the past when the United States actually promoted illicit drug production in Mexico, say during World War II, when we wanted the product of opium at that point. But that we have seen significant changes since the 1960s and 70s. In the 1960s in this country, and this is where we have this great complexity but there's also some very simple things. The simplest part of the drug trade is that it's about supply and demand. So what happens in the 1960s. In the 1960s the United States experiences an explosion in demand for illicit drugs. This affects marijuana particularly, which Mexico is a big provider of. And so we see a growth at that point. In the nineteen seventies, we see an explosion, late 1970s, explosion of the consumption of cocaine in the United States. And so we see a corresponding rise in drug trafficking and cocaine. So part of what we're seeing is simply the fact that Mexico lives next door to the largest drug consuming country in the world. One of the presidents of Mexico said living next to the United States is like living next to a crack house.

On Colombian cartels and Mexican violence

Colombia is the main purveyor of cocaine. All of the cocaine in the world is produced in the Andes and it was mostly the trafficking has been dominated by the Colombians and it shifts to Mexico from Florida. So they were shipping it through Florida. We haven the Miami Vice period. And that effectively constrains the transmission of drugs. And here we have a second principle in drug trafficking, which is known as the “squeeze the balloon phenomenon.” It's as if you have a balloon that's only partially filled. You squeeze it in one place and the air simply moves to a different place. So while interdiction efforts can be successful in many different places and times, the overall flow of drugs into the United States remains more or less unchanged. So we have to compare those two things, specific interdiction success with overall flow. In this case the flow moved to Mexico with its long border, and it wasn't long before the Mexicans figured out how to work that advantage to their success. And this happens significantly before the Colombian cartels were taken down. So it was not a product of the defeat of the cartels. It was a product of Mexican entrepreneurship, if you will, to work out a favorable deal from their side.

On Mexican democratization and violence

So democratization happens in Mexico from about 1988 on and takes particular strength from about 1994 on. The 1994 elections were widely recognized as free and fair by the international community and local and local activists in Mexico. By 1997 the governing party has lost its majority and by 2000 they lose the presidency. So it's a step-by-step process. From the early 1990s to 2006, homicides go down in Mexico. So if you have about 12 years of democratization, those first 12 years are diminishing levels of violence. Where violence kicks off and rises to the levels that we're seeing now is in 2006. And that's a matter of government policy. What the government decides to do is that they believe that the infiltration of the cartels is so strong in Mexico that it threatens the state. And they believe they have to really attack these organizations as best they can. And so instead of living with the drug trafficking organizations, they decide to go on all-out assault against them using military forces and others. And we have a corresponding explosion of violence in Mexico, in part by police and military forces, in part by the drug trafficking forces fighting back.

But then as the government is successful in decapitating and diminishing the capability of some cartels, it then increases the competition between cartels. And it's that competition that seems to be the most responsible for present day violence. So I would say it's government policy rather than democratization.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Suzette Grillot: Charlie Kenney welcome back to World Views.

Kenney: It's a pleasure to be here.

Grillot: It's always great having you on the show and I appreciate you coming in today to help us make some sense out of what's going on in Mexico. Now you spent last year, last academic year, in Mexico as faculty-in-residence. I've spent some time there off and on but obviously haven't spent as much time as you have in the country. But we see kind of a rapid deterioration it seems like, or it maybe it appears to be rapid, but it sounds like maybe that this deterioration in Mexican security is kind of been long coming, a long time coming and that there are some specific things perhaps that happened maybe even 20 or so years ago that have led us to kind of where we are today and Mexico.

Kenney: There is definitely a security crisis in Mexico and it affects different segments of the population in different ways. It probably affects people who have access to greater resources less because they're able to defend themselves better through private security and such and political connections and such. So they're definitely threatened by it but they also have a means to meet that threat. I think people who are not don't have those kinds of resources are much more vulnerable.

Grillot: Well, I want to get to this private security issue in a minute because it's really critical and there's been much written recently about how Mexico is really becoming a place where security is a private, more and more, of a private good. But let's let's talk about Mexico's record breaking violence. Tens of thousands of people affected by this. And so let's let's rewind and go back, maybe, like I said, about a couple of decades about what some of the decisions were made back then regarding change in political party or parties, right. So we went from a one party rule to multiple party rule about 20 years or so ago. And we had a breakdown of cartels in Colombia. And that kind of the war on drugs and drug cartels in Colombia kind of moved that competition in some ways to Mexico. And then some of the political movements that have been made political and economic and but particularly political movements and institutions that have developed have weakened the state to the extent that we're seeing such tremendous violence today. So is that fair, in a few words, what we see happening in Mexico? And can you give us some more substance about how this has really happened, how it's playing out this way?

Kenney: I think it's a good starting point. I would say this, that we have to remember that illicit drug trade from Mexico has been going on for well over a century, that there were times in the past when the United States actually promoted illicit drug production in Mexico, say during World War II, when we wanted the product of opium at that point. But that we have seen significant changes since the 1960s and 70s. In the 1960s in this country, and this is where we have this great complexity but there's also some very simple things. The simplest part of the drug trade is that it's about supply and demand. So what happens in the 1960s. In the 1960s the United States experiences an explosion in demand for illicit drugs. This affects marijuana particularly, which Mexico is a big provider of. And so we see a growth at that point. In the nineteen seventies, we see an explosion, late 1970s, explosion of the consumption of cocaine in the United States. And so we see a corresponding rise in drug trafficking and cocaine. So part of what we're seeing is simply the fact that Mexico lives next door to the largest drug consuming country in the world. One of the presidents of Mexico said living next to the United States is like living next to a crack house. The consumption takes place over there, but we get all of the negative consequences of that.

Kenney: With respect specifically to Colombia and such, so Colombia is the main purveyor of cocaine. All of the cocaine in the world is produced in the Andes and it was mostly the trafficking has been dominated by the Colombians and it shifts to Mexico from Florida. So they were shipping it through Florida. We haven the Miami Vice period. And that effectively constrains the transmission of drugs. And here we have a second principle in drug trafficking, which is known as the “squeeze the balloon phenomenon.” It's as if you have a balloon that's only partially filled. You squeeze it in one place and the air simply moves to a different place. So while interdiction efforts can be successful in many different places and times, the overall flow of drugs into the United States remains more or less unchanged. So we have to compare those two things, specific interdiction success with overall flow. In this case the flow moved to Mexico with its long border, and it wasn't long before the Mexicans figured out how to work that advantage to their success. And this happens significantly before the Colombian cartels were taken down. So it was not a product of the defeat of the cartels. It was a product of Mexican entrepreneurship, if you will, to work out a favorable deal from their side. What happened in Colombia also needs to be understood. The cartels were taken down, but they are producing more cocaine today than they ever have. All of the cocaine that comes the United States comes out of Colombia. While there is a success in the sense of the violence has been sharply reduced and the Colombian drug trafficking organizations have learned to cooperate and work together rather than to kill one another. So violence is much improved, greatly improved in Colombia. Drug trafficking is as strong as ever. So we don't want to confuse those two things. Likewise…

Grillot: But has that violence moved basically to Mexico, though, Charlie? I'm sorry to interrupt.

Kenney: No, that's fine.

Grillot: The violence has kind of moved to Mexico. I think that's what some are suggesting is that...

Kenney: I'm not sure if the violence has moved there. Certainly violence, violence has grown there. There's no question whether it moved, I'm not sure. But it has grown significantly and partly because of Colombian influence. The original Colombian drug traffickers were ruthless in a way the Mexicans hadn't been and they introduced techniques and ferocity that hadn't really been known as much before. So we do have a shift there and we have ongoing drug violence but and this now gets to a second theme, the introduction of democracy. So democratization happens in Mexico from about 1988 on and takes particular strength from about 1994 on. The 1994 elections were widely recognized as free and fair by the international community and local and local activists in Mexico. By 1997 the governing party has lost its majority and by 2000 they lose the presidency. So it's a step-by-step process. From the early 1990s to 2006, homicides go down in Mexico. So if you have about 12 years of democratization, those first 12 years are diminishing levels of violence. Where violence kicks off and rises to the levels that we're seeing now is in 2006. And that's a matter of government policy. What the government decides to do is that they believe that the infiltration of the cartels is so strong in Mexico that it threatens the state. And they believe they have to really attack these organizations as best they can. And so instead of living with the drug trafficking organizations, they decide to go on all-out assault against them using military forces and others. And we have a corresponding explosion of violence in Mexico, in part by police and military forces, in part by the drug trafficking forces fighting back.

Kenney: But then as the government is successful in decapitating and diminishing the capability of some cartels, it then increases the competition between cartels. And it's that competition that seems to be the most responsible for present day violence. So I would say it's government policy rather than democratization.

Grillot: Some have suggested that because the cartels threatened the state, so the state reacts in a way, heavy military and police presence, but they almost kind of self-fulfilling, this weakening at the state in some ways, would you would you not agree? In the sense that it was all because it became very kind of heavy top-down federal government leaving, some would suggest, local governments, local police forces, out of that mix and what filled the vacuum there were these fragmented cartels that then came in and started working with local governments and therefore affecting people in a more widespread way than they had before. Is that kind of in some ways the heavy handed approach that the government took had created its own you know weakening in some ways?

Kenney: I don't know that the heavy-handed approach of the government has weakened the state. I'm not sure if there's any direct connection. The heavy-handed approach meant significant violations of human rights, the killing of a lot of innocent people. But again it was to the extent that they were successful in diminishing the strength of particular cartels and organizations that they generated this level of competition. The penetration of drug trafficking organizations in the lowest levels of the state, municipalities and governorship and stuff, goes back decades. I don't think that that has changed greatly. What's changed is the level of violence that accompanies that. So it's not a matter of a new level of penetration or controlling where there wasn't before. It's the degree of violence that accompanies that. And again, I think that's primarily because instead of having one drug trafficking organization controlling a the region, which is the way it was before, so you just had to kill a few people and control the few people to run things, now they are contesting that territory with one or more other organizations. And it is the fight between these organizations that has generated the largest number of people being dead. That being said, we need to understand Mexico's crisis at present both in within understanding Mexico itself, it is the worst level of violence it's ever seen. At the same time, the level of violence in Mexico, the number of homicides total in 2015 was lower than that of the United States. So what we're interested in here is not the absolute number of deaths but the rate of homicide. And when one looks at the rate of homicide as recently as 2015, 2016 Mexico ranked about twenty third in the world. It ranked behind Colombia which was 15th. Brazil which was 14th. So even recently it's been significantly lower. It's now booming back up again. So we're in a very short term process of a boom of violence that followed a longer term process since 2006. It is. It is devastating but by no means is Mexico the worst in the region or the worst in the world. It's got some very difficult neighbors as well.

Grillot: Well, difficult neighbors meaning us. I mean, and you started this conversation with the tremendous demand that comes from the United States in terms of drugs. But I would also say there is a tremendous amount of supply that's coming from the U.S. to Mexico and that's in weapons. Is that right?

Kenney: That certainly has been the case in the past. I'm not sure if in the present that continues to be the case. But in the past there's lots of evidence that the vast majority of weapons used in Mexico came from the United States. Yes.

Grillot: So this, you know, just adds to this complexity of, you know, the violent nature of this interaction in Mexico. But you said short term problem. Alright. So we've set this up now to where you've very nicely explained how we can view this issue in context, not only in Mexico, but in the region and around the world. But you mentioned short term. Now we also discussed how security is becoming more and more of a private good. When you go there, you see that there are private security guards everywhere, that there are private, you know, gated neighborhoods more and more. You know, people are paying for their own security now because they can't count on the state to be able to secure them. So this is short term. You said it's a short term problem. What do what does Mexico doing? What are we doing? What needs to be done in order to make sure that this is a short term problem that these cartels will eventually, I guess, work this out? What's what do you expect to happen from here?

Kenney: Yeah I think I first need to correct myself because I did say short term, and I think that's that gives the wrong impression. I don't think it's short term. What I meant to say is that as recently as two years ago the murder rate was 16 per 100,000 and now it's 24 more recently. So there's a very recent burst if you will, something like what we see in Chicago, a very recent extreme burst. Whether that's short term or not, I don't know. It may last a long time and it is building upon things that have been happening since 2006. So it is not short term, that's really a misstatement on my part. The long term consequences, the long term issues do have to do with supply and demand. If there is no reduction in demand, it's unrealistic to expect a reduction in supply. And anything, that any policies that are designed primarily to cut off supply without really dealing with demand are not going to work. So I think that's kind of the bottom line about where we need to go.

Grillot: That's what the United States needs to deal with obviously is to work on the supply and then from the Mexican perspective what do they need to do?

Kenney: The Mexican perspective I think is a very difficult one over the long term. I think that we're dealing with in Mexico is very deep traditions of corruption that have dominated the political system. That tradition was extremely evident, very strongly evident, during the years of the PRI government. The move to democracy is not when this became a problem. This was a huge problem under the PRI and it is turned out to continue to be a huge problem under more competitive circumstances and reducing that is difficult. I don't have an easy answer as to how one really gets that.

Grillot: Well, Mexico will be having elections coming up soon next year and so we'll be watching that and I'm sure we'll be having another conversation about this Charlie. So thanks again for being here as always.

Kenney: Thank you.

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