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How Violence in Mexico is Designed to Work

- November 10, 2011

We are delighted to welcome back UCSD professor Barbara Walter and her colleague, professor Alberto Díaz-Cayeros.  Professor Díaz-Cayeros is an expert on Mexico and professor Walter is an expert on insurgency. Below they combine their respective sources of expertise and analyze the violence in Mexico as a form of insurgency.


President Obama and his Secretary of State had their first public disagreement last year – not over Iraq or Afghanistan, but Mexico.   Hillary Clinton argued that Mexico was increasingly in the midst of an “insurgency.”  President Obama argued that the drug killings in Mexico, whose numbers far exceed U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan, is not.  That’s because the drug trade organizations (DTO’s) have only financial goals, not political ones.  The Mexican government has consistently agreed with President Obama, repeatedly rejecting any suggestion that an insurgency is taking place.

The violence in Mexico may not be a classic insurgency , but it is certainly being fought like one.  Like other insurgencies, the violence in Mexico – especially the brutal killings of government officials and civilians – is being used to intimidate local populations and control territory.  The Mexican government provides health, education and other public services to most citizens and provides order and security in the vast majority of towns and cities, including Mexico City.  But the insurgents control about 7 percent of the country, including important drug distribution routes, and they have used violence to do so.

Many people, including President Obama, point out that insurgencies arise in remote, rural areas, often in failed states, and are fought by groups with very specific political goals.  Two cases in point are the Moro insurgency, which fought for years to gain political independence in the Philippines, and the Vietcong, who fought for years to topple Vietnam’s existing government.  Even the FARC in Colombia conceived of the drug business merely as a financial instrument for its ultimate goal of taking control of the central government.

Mexican drug cartels don’t usually hide in remote jungles.  They operate mainly in border cities like Ciudad Juarez, and have emerged in a country with a strong government, an effective military and well developed institutions that manage thousands of schools and health clinics.  This is not the type of insurgency most Americans are used to.

President Obama has refused to use the term “insurgency” because it may suggest that American troops might be sent to yet another struggling country.  This is something most Americans as well as most Mexicans do not want to see happen.  What Washington and Mexico City need to understand is that an insurgent strategy based around intimidation does not need to be countered with thousands of heavily armed troops.  Instead, it needs to be countered with a clear signal that the government, not the cartels, is in charge.  The best policy for the U.S. is not to send soldiers, but to help the Mexican government build more effective political and judicial institutions that make it difficult for the cartels to act with impunity.

This help is needed in Monterrey and other Northern Mexican cities along lucrative drug distribution routes.  In these places, insurgents try to eliminate or neutralize federal, state or municipal police forces. They use ruthless intimidation to convince the local population to either support them or turn a blind eye to the unimpeded movement of drugs.

Their strategy of intimidation targets mayors, police, prosecutors, journalists, and pro-regime citizens. The cartels’ objective is to demonstrate that the government is too weak to punish them or protect future victims.  In fact, violence helps elicit the tacit support of the population, which is why Mexican drug organizations now operate openly rather than in secrecy.

This intimidation strategy also thrives on uncertainty: can the government protect me? With Mexico’s two deadliest cartels employing more than 100,000 foot soldiers combined, it’s not always possible to know who is in charge in a given area.

Several previous studies have shown that the best response to an intimidation strategy is for the government to invest in better protection and prosecution.  Residents of Juarez, Monterrey and other Mexican cities need to know that they will be protected from future attack, and that if attacks do occur, the government is willing and able to capture cartel leaders and bring them to justice.  Mexicans living along the border do not need American soldiers in their towns.  All they need is to be convinced that once perpetrators are caught, that prosecutors will build solid cases, judges won’t take bribes, and jails will keep criminals off the street.  Judicial reform, not military might, is what is needed to undercut this violence.


Barbara F. Walter is a Professor of Political Science
Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies
University of California, San Diego


Alberto Díaz-Cayeros is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies
Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies
University of California, San Diego