#05 Securing Peace
David C. Martínez-Amador

An X-Ray of Mexican Organized Crime

Not all organised crime is mafia

Not long ago, the Obama administration decided to introduce several criminal organizations into the category of international cartels. Foremost among these were: Los Zetas, the Yakuza and the Neapolitan Camorra. However, these three organisations are also known as mafias.

While the term mafia refers to a certain kind of organisational structure, which is very hierarchical and usually linked to certain ethical norms, "cartel" describes drug trafficker's networks that form part of organised crime. Some mafias – as for instance the Zetas – are hugely involved in drug trafficking and therefore also figure among the category of cartels. Of course, both mafias and cartels are sociologically valid structures in the world of organized crime – as according to the so-called Bruccett principle "all mafia is organized crime but not all organized crime is mafia".[1]

This seems like a lot of theoretical pettiness, but the terminology has indeed concrete political implications. Up to date, there is no empirical evidence that any type of ethnic mafia has ever been destroyed in history. By not using the mafia nomenclature and favouring the broader "cartel" terminology, the US government has created a scenario in which the military option seems to have some form of justification. Let's shed some light on the origins of mafia structures and their evolution in the Mexican war on drugs.

What is mafia?

John Dickie, author of the book "Cosa Nostra", explains how the mafia nomenclature should be used: it only applies to organizations originating in the region of Italy because of the context in which they developed – as forms of parallel government who defend an alternative identity. The expression "Morte Alla Francia, Italia Anela" (MAFIA) evolved in the period when the mafia was nothing more than a popular form of defence against Napoleonic troops on the southern Italian battlefield.

Yet there are other criminal organizations which, even if they are not Italian, have the following mafia-like characteristics:

  1. Group cohesion
  2. Symbolism and code of ethics based on the idea of "honour"
  3. Rituals of initiation or distinctions drawn between members and non-members
  4. Criminal and group identity associated with a geographic location
  5. The business mentality is very much superior to the logic of the criminal mind
  6. Entry into pacts with local politicians, respect for entrepreneurs who are considered equals
  7. See themselves as an alternative system or parallel government

So even if, according to Dickie, criminal associations can at most resemble the Italian structures, we have to admit that some of the Latin American ones manage to emulate the structure of the Italian organizations pretty well. The original "narco-structure" – which refers to Latin American drug traffickers' organizations – was founded by Amado Carillo Fuentes and Félix Gallardo. Among farmers and cowmen from the Mexican Sinaloa area, they developed a local culture based on the concept of honour and disloyalty towards the authorities. Local people could no longer survive in the realm of legitimacy. The culture of illegality became – as for the Sicilians before them – the only way to live in the archaic, agricultural society of Sinaloa. Yet even though the organisation was illegal, strong rules and clear ethical codes were introduced into this new subculture. As with any type of classical mafia, it was supposed to function ¨from the shadows and never against its own people¨. To date the Sinaloa cartel is one of the most powerful drug cartels in the world.

Mafias are traditionally born in rural societies. Yet at some point in their structural evolution, they jump from rural to urban surroundings – as is the case of Monterrey and the deadly Zetas. Their main goal is to conquer the urban underworld at any cost. The Zetas have reached an even higher grade of mafia-like evolution than the Sinaloa cartel: Their sense of belonging, use of uniforms and gold medals to recognize one another, symbolic tattoos and even the existence of folkloric songs in exaltation of their organization show us that we are dealing with a hierarchical organization with a strong sense of group cohesion, loyalty and honour.

Mexican narco-terrorism

According to my own historiography of the Mexican "narcos" (drug traffickers), though, most of the old values of the mafias have been replaced. The new generation of capos (godfathers) has had to adapt, as they have experienced the military response of the Mexican state – a state that had always been the favourite partner of organized crime.

In the past, the mafia had a strong ethos. There were rules and regulations, such as on how and when to kill, or that women, children and civilians should never be touched. The goal of every action was making money. The infiltrated state often acted as a partner to organised crime and thus violence was kept to a limit. But because of the violent war on drugs in Mexico, the state has become an enemy. Furthermore, historical leaders were killed or extradited to the US, so that organisations grew more fragmented, less pyramidal and developed new codes. New and ever more violent groups appeared.

We are thus witnessing a guided evolution from the historical concept of mafia towards the concept of narco-terrorism. The historically well governed organized crime structures – including the Sinaloa, Pacífico, Juárez and Gulf cartels, and even the Zetas – which, in the past had clear rules like never touch innocents or the families of its members, have generated a structural output that is extremely violent. Therefore the Mexican population is today experiencing a sort of "narco-horror" – huge narco violence aggravated by the horror stories appearing in the mass media.

The terrible mutation of Mexico's war on drugs

In general, the mafias themselves are not the sickness – they are rather the symptom of a greater disease: a weak state. The so-called Mexican "war on drugs" has experienced a terrible rise in violence with the tragic figure of 51,000 people killed in only 6 years. This tragedia Mexicana (Mexican tragedy) is, basically, the sad record of a president who lacks legitimacy. President Calderón's new administration thought that by attacking the "common enemy" it would transform itself to the "president of all". However, the administration has not succeeded in cleaning up every single public prosecutor's office, or breaking the historical pacts between the Mexican municipal governments and the mafia, or even increasing the level of social welfare to reduce the incentives for young Mexicans to join the cartels. The Calderón administration thought that once the army was placed on the playing field, the narcos would run for their lives.

The result is not only that Mexican organized crime structures have defeated the army. They have also ¨exported¨ their symbolic violence to most Central American countries, including even Costa Rica. Furthermore, as criminal organizations grow more fragmented, today the satellite cells produce collateral violence that the parent organizations cannot control at all. It seems as if there will be no end to this war.

U.S. interference

Another important actor in the Mexican war on drugs is the U.S. government. It is an open secret that many of the recent arrests of major drug lords, the Boss of Bosses, Arturo Beltrán-Leyva (head of the Beltran-Leyva Clan) and the Barbie, Eduardo Valdés-Villareal, were made possible by U.S. intelligence. It is known that the U.S. uses unmanned drones for territorial reconnaissance, but information gathered this way could not be as detailed as that presented in the reports. Detailed information on the typologies of the behavioural characteristics of the mafia requires short and medium term stays on the ground where the deeds take place in order to measure reconfigurations within criminal subcultures.

Furthermore, in the reports from STRATFOR consultancy and many American think-tanks, claims about the operational size of the cartels, new routes, modes of attack, or the fragmentation of organizations have appeared recently. Such information, if it is to be considered valid, must be collected by a presence on the ground or the extraction of information through informants. And since participant observation in the Malinowsky style would be a little difficult among mafiosi, the diligent reader can't fail to ask two questions: Does the U.S. have embedded agents on Mexican soil to collect this volume of information? Or are there Mexican intelligence leaks that fall into foreign hands first? One thing is sure, though: the more the violence increases, the more American interference into Mexican public policy and Mexican territory rises.

How to stop the spiral of war?

We can argue that trying to put every single drug-related problem in the same basket is a terrible mistake: Either you decide to fight corruption, drug consumption, drug trafficking or drug violence. But you cannot fix them all together. Reducing the collateral damage would be the highest priority. But it might not be possible to sign a pax mafiosa, since we lack gentlemen of the old school. Today, we have warlords devoted to drugs trafficking, weapons trafficking and human trafficking.

From my perspective, as someone involved in the ethnography of the mafia phenomenon, the only way to reduce the collateral damage in this war is to return to a point, where the organizations acknowledge that they have lost too much money. In every criminal organization entrepreneurial interest will prevail, since to them gold weighs more than blood. There are several empirical corroborations from the history of the mafia, each in its cultural and geographical context, where conflict ended at exactly that point: the Sicilian intra-mafiosi wars (the Corleonissi against the Palermitan Cupola in Italy in 1980), the gangs of the Hells Angels against the Campires bikers in Sweden in 1990, and the Colombo family against the four remaining families – Gambino, Bonnano, Luchese, Genovese – in New York in 1980.


[1] See Luis Alfonso Bruccett: El crimen organizado : orígen, evolución, situación y configuración de la delincuencia organizada en México; Editorial Pórrua, México 2001.

Related Articles

Interview: The Past Is Not Forgotten – Nim Alae

Interview with Nim Alae, Musician and Protagonist of the Film "La Isla"

» more

The Story of Medellín: From a Drug Behemoth to a Model City

» more

Central American Youth Gangs

Highly violent Central American youth gangs spread to ever more countries

» more

Interview with Judith Torrea: How Many Deaths for One Gram of Cocaine?

Drug trafficking, one of the largest businesses of the world, causes too many deaths in Mexico.

» more

Interview: "The Whole System has Been Infiltrated"

Drug trafficking: the criminalisation of policies and politisation of crime

» more