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Southern Pulse: Mexico's Criminal Organizations

June 30, 2011


Transnational organized crime exists as a networked system that creates a high degree of resiliency. Government systems laden by a pyramid-shaped bureaucracy and sovereignty have had little effect when attacking networks of organized crime in Latin America. This uneven playing field is easily observed at the strategic level, where non-state threats appear to run circles around slower moving governments. The criminal system rapidly adapts, strengthens and increases in violence, independent of whether independent groups are fighting each other, government forces, or civilian vigilante groups. As a “counter-system,” criminality (or warlord entrepreneurs in the parlance of this volume), is inherently resilient, displacing from one territory to another and across international boundaries, as market conditions or threats to organizational structures present themselves.

However, when looking at this system from the standpoint of any individual criminal or leadership group, one quickly sees that life is nasty, brutish and short – in which most leaders find themselves in prison or dead within a few short years. The average life span for a budding warlord entrepreneur in Mexico or Central America shortens dramatically once he registers on rival or government radars. Organizations that seem strong at one point in time can quickly disintegrate once the military, police and intelligence operations, or rival groups target the top of their structure. Each individual organization is unlikely to have a long-term time horizon in which building sustainable services serves as a benefit. Any individual leader's ability to function as a warlord entrepreneur, providing government-like services to a population after his organization has displaced the government, is therefore quite limited. And the fallout – normally violence as a new leader seeks purchase – is never a benefit for the host community.

Why is this the case? A close review of criminal structures at the operational level reveals that many organizations are structured very similarly to government, albeit with different rules. They have a vertical bureaucratic structure, often with one strongman at the top supported by a tightly knit group of trusted operators, specific lines of command, and harsh penalties for stepping out of line.

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