Gangs and Organized Crime in Mexico: An Interview with Professor Scott Decker

Scott Decker is a foundation professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University at the Downtown Campus. He is also affiliated faculty with the Center on the Future of War. He earned the Ph.D. in Criminology from Florida State University. His research interests include gangs, criminal justice policy, violence and the organizational structure of crime groups such as drug smugglers, human traffickers and terror groups. His most recent book, Confronting Gangs: Crime and Community, was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. He is co-author of Drug Smugglers on Drug Smuggling (Temple University Press, 2008) a study of the highest level drug smugglers in US prisons.

In Mexico, what is the difference between an organized criminal network, a cartel, and a gang?

The long history of smuggling drugs, guns and other commodities through Mexico makes crime groups different than in the US. There is greater segmentation among such groups with much stronger leadership and lines of authority than one finds in the US. There are also fewer constraints on the use of violence to discipline and control members of these groups. In addition, violence in Mexico frequently involves victims who are outside the trafficking network, which differs from the US. The distinction between gangs, organized criminal networks and cartels are less distinct than in the US. This reflects the far more fluid situation within and between crime groups and the state. In Mexico such groups have many more older members, use violence more wantonly and routinely, and are oriented toward profit rather than honor.

In Mexico, what kinds of crimes do gangs involve themselves in versus organized crime networks?

Gangs are more loosely organized, comprised of younger members and less focused on profit. Organized crime networks tend to be older, more tightly networked and pursue profits at the expense of all other considerations and any who would oppose them. The organized groups are most heavily involved in transactions involving drugs, guns and humans. Both groups are heavily involved in violence.

Do they overlap with each other in terms of the kinds of crimes they are involved in?

There are some crimes (car theft, gun possession and use, violence, narcotics sales) that both groups are involved in. Often gangs include subsets of members of organized crime networks. The challenge in analyzing the role and behavior of crime groups in Mexico (as well as the US and other nations for that matter) is that because the groups are fluid and definitions are not widely agreed upon, such discussions are difficult.

What kinds of policies in Mexico are helping these groups to become stronger?

All groups thrive on conflict and challenges. When government groups, whether they be the central government, army or police forces, recognizing and responding to groups has the unwanted consequence of giving such groups recognition and “respect”. Respect in the sense that among offenders, being publicly opposed by the government grants credibility to the high level of criminality among members. Fundamentally, drugs are valuable because they are illegal. This is what criminologists call the “crime tariff”, essentially the difference between what a drug would cost if it were not illegal and what its value is on the street. Criminalizing drugs (in the US and Mexico) makes them a profitable enterprise. It will be interesting to see what impact the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana has on the price and smuggling of that drug in Mexico. It is also the case that responding to large better organized criminal networks is easier and more effectively done than responding to small fragmented groups. When the cartels were broken up, their place was taken by a large number of small, less organized groups. Intelligence on these groups was less well developed and these small groups can change rapidly evading the efforts of law enforcement and the military.

Recently in a recent article in The Atlantic, it was noted that “ongoing fragmentation” of Mexican criminal groups could complicate situations and lead to the violence that is occurring now between students and gangs. Would you agree? Does the capture of leaders in these groups hurt groups or cause them to regroup and employ a different strategy?   

Yes, the more groups that participate in the distribution (wholesale and retail) of illegal goods, the more violence will accompany that distribution because of the inter-group conflict. The violence occurs over control of markets, product, workers, points of transit, and points of preparation for market. It is an impossible dilemma for law enforcement, as arrest and prosecution – particularly taking down leaders of large criminal networks – inevitably leads to smaller groups that tend to be less disciplined and less capable of resisting being taken over by law enforcement as well as rivals. One positive development in such an evolution of criminal networks is that the smaller and newer groups are less capable of bribing and corrupting law enforcement, the military and government.

How can the Mexican government better address this problem?

It is widely recognized that reducing the demand for is a more effective strategy in controlling their use than are suppression strategies. Working with broad coalition such as the Organization of American States and the United Nations is one step toward addressing this problem. Another step is adopting a consistent stance toward cartels, illegal narcotics and the violence that is associated with such practices. A third approach is to employ technology – radar, cameras, GPS trackers and the like – more exhaustively in the fight to control illegal narcotics. It is also the case that unless and until the demand for illegal narcotics in the United States is curbed significantly, drug smuggling in Mexico will remain a lucrative business. Every one of the forty plus high level drug smugglers I interviewed for our book, Drug Smugglers on Drug Smuggling, told us that they smuggled drugs into the United States because the demand for illegal narcotics was higher among US residents than any other country in the world. They all said they would go to Europe or Russia or South Africa if the demand for drugs was higher there than in the US.

What kind of influences do these groups have throughout Central and North America?

The value of illegal narcotics gives these groups their influence. Unlike American gangs which have a strong cultural component to membership, such groups in Mexico are organized strongly around profit and control of the market. However, as some narcotics still move from Central and South America through Mexico into the United States, these groups are important to transportation routes and serve as middle points in transportation routes from the production of product (such as cocaine) to its final end point in the US. Gangs in Central America (MS-13 among others) have a distinct history from organized crime groups in Mexico. Interestingly, there is very little intersection of Mexican gangs with American gangs, even in prison. That said, La Eme and the Mexican Mafia are two of the most important prison gangs in the US, each of which has roots to Mexican-American culture.

What kinds of responses should the Central America and North America have to these groups?

A consistent, coordinated and well planned response is essential. When governments change owing to elections and policy shifts, it creates space for these crime groups to operate or get a toehold. Further, the demand reduction strategy should be coordinated with the suppression strategy.

When asked why he robbed banks, the noted American outlaw John Dillinger replied that was where the money was. The same principle applies to the movement of narcotics; it goes where the demand is. Taking the large profits out of drug smuggling, either through reducing demand or reducing the crime tariff will pay dividends in the results of drug policy. But make no mistake, the smuggling of illegal goods across the US border has gone on for centuries, whether it has been guns, narcotics, people or other commodities that have been smuggled, sold and profited from. Changing this will not be easy. And whatever strategy is chosen and implemented, if it is successful smugglers will respond with new techniques. It is important to hark back to Dillinger’s idea about targets for robbery – where the money is. In the world of contemporary drug markets, the money and the product rarely intersect. That is, those who have the product rarely see the money and those who have the money rarely see or possess the product. This is to say that it is possible to interdict large amounts of illegal narcotics without ever touching the financial side of the transaction. It may make more sense for contemporary narcotics enforcement policy to focus more on the proceeds rather than the product. This means that following the money should be the number one priority in any narcotics enforcement strategy. Thus accountants and internet experts may be the linchpins to success in combatting contemporary narcotics distributions networks.