APPG Event: Transnational Organised Crime: Mexico’s Experience and its International Implications


By kind invitation of Henry Smith MP, The All Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security was pleased to be able to host a discussion with His Excellency Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza, Ambassador of Mexico to the United Kingdom.  The only public official who has held the three top security positions in the Government, he has been Attorney-General in the Cabinet of Felipe Calderon, Secretary of Public Security and Head of the CISEN (Mexico’s National Civil Intelligence Agency) in the Fox administration, Ambassador Medina Mora’s extensive experience in matters of Mexican national security makes him one of the most distinguished voices on the subject of Mexico’s struggles and successes in its fight against organised crime as well as the implic ations for the Transatlantic community and Britain.  He offered insights on the Mexican experience, its relevance to the International Community and lessons learned.


I would like to thank you all very much for being here this afternoon. First of all I would like to thank the Henry Jackson Society for inviting me to address this distinguished audience and Henry Smith MP for chairing this meeting.

I will briefly cover some topics related to the subject of transnational and organised crime from Mexico’s experience and perspective. I will be discussing some elements of history as to how this phenomenon arose as a very visible phenomenon in our country from 2004 to the present date. I will also be discussing our strategy in terms of the aim of the struggle and the implications for our country and the region. And finally I will say something on the international community and the potential solutions that have been proposed.

First of all, the violence element, very much present in Mexico today, really started from the organised crime that arrived in 2004. Though we had violence before, the situation that arose in 2004 was a product of a particular history and geography. The shift from Colombia to Mexico as the primary supplier of drugs to the United States started when the US successfully closed the Colombian branch in the early 1990s. From this date Mexico started to play a more relevant role in transporting cocaine to the US market.

Secondly, it was seen as a very intelligent and politically wise decision to make a constitutional amendment in 1993 giving police authority to the municipalities. It was seen as very democratic to put the authority closer to the communities, but it dramatically ended the ability of the state to police the country. Today, our country has over 2,000 police entities throughout its geography, which is highly fragmented. This is not the only country with a highly fragmented police structure: The US has over 17,000 police entities, but they do not have the same problems because they are a modern, democratic, consolidated society. But in our case, the fragmentation of the police force, which was seen as a step forward in terms of democracy, was a real mistake. Our police force now lacks the critical mass required to face the challenges of organised crime.

The third element, and perhaps this is the one which really triggered violence, was the decision taken in the US not to renew the assault rifle ban, which had been in place between 1993 and 2003. President Clinton had been supportive of the ban during the 1990s, but was only able to secure his wish on the provision that it only lasted ten years. From 2003 onwards the sale of automatic weapons, assault rifles and sniper rifles expanded greatly as they were freely available. Buyers only had to provide simple forms of identification, like passports or drivers licences, to acquire these extremely powerful weapons. This has been a major factor in increasing organised crime within Mexico. Since December 2006, the Mexican government has seized over 100,000 weapons from these groups, of which 56,000 are assault rifles. This number is certainly much greater than those seized by the Colombians or in Central America during the struggles of the 1990s. In 2003, of all the guns that were seized from criminal groups in Mexico only 27 percent were assault rifles, and this number increased nine fold from 2003 to 2009, which shows the importance of the US decision to lift the ban.

Furthermore, criminal groups in Mexico were facing an income problem, particularly from the fact that the US market changed dramatically. It reduced the total volumes of cocaine a little and concentrated the demand to fewer larger suppliers, while part of the market also shifted to methamphetamines, which was not then produced by Mexican crime gangs. These groups therefore faced a sharp decline in their total income. This provoked a turf war, which was fuelled by the easy access to extreme firepower and helped by the fact that the police force was so highly fragmented.

So facing this problem in political terms could not be postponed, it needed to be faced in a bold manner. The strong Mexican response was not a decision taken to garner political support from the population, and it has indeed proven unpopular among the Mexican electorate, but the government felt there was no choice but to embark our country into the fight against organised crime. But it is important to clarify that we have not seen this as a war on drugs as the Americans like to describe it. This is not a struggle to end drug trafficking, not because that is not a good objective in itself, but because that is impossible. This is a transnational phenomenon and cannot be addressed by one single country. The objective is to end the ability of these criminal groups to challenge the state and give normal law abiding citizens the right to peace.

In order to do this we have to end the ability of these groups to acquire income at a sustainable level, and to reduce the ability of these groups to recruit new entrants into their organisations. These are the two main elements of the success of these groups, and thus must be dealt with as part of a successful strategy.

Violence needs to be seen in context. Violence in our country is very visible, but we do not have the highest indicators of violence in the region. Many countries in the region have much higher intentional homicide rates per 100,000 people than Mexico has. We had a rate of 12 this year, and this may reach 13 next year, while the US has a rate of around 5 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and Britain a much lower number. However, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have a rate of over 15, Brazil 25, and Colombia 48. So this is not about the numbers, this is about the geographical concentration of violence and the way it is performed. The way violence is performed has an objective, which is to intimidate their competitors, the police force and the general public.

Violence will behave here as it has done elsewhere when a phenomena like this has been present; it will have a normal distribution curve. We do not know if we are reaching the peak of this phenomenon, but in the last 4 months the numbers have not grown, they have remained stable. This is this first time in the last 7 years that this has happened.

Certainly the demand for cocaine coming from the huge American market is a significant problem, though other markets, particularly Europe and Brazil, are growing more rapidly than that of the US. In terms of volume, Brazil is now the second largest market for cocaine in the world, while Spain is number one in the world for per capita cocaine consumption, so the market is changing dramatically. Brazil’s close proximity to Mexico is an obvious issue, while Europe pays more than double the price America pays for cocaine, which makes it a target market for many suppliers.

The US has a major problem, not only from the consumption perspective, but also from the fact that there are over a million gang members in the US directly involved in drug distribution. This is what we call the monster in the basement. If you remember the crack wars (1984-1990), which occurred in some of the most important cities in the US, then you cannot just write off violence as an issue that will definitely not occur again in the US. Drug violence is not something inherited from Mexico, but an issue which has routes in the US system. The US very successfully ended organised crime as a national phenomenon and there are now no organisations with a geographic, horizontal presence. It is now an issue on a smaller scale, with gangs being very territorial.

In Mexico, it has been widespread in the media and in the political class to call for legalisation of drugs as the solution to the issue and this is a much needed debate internationally, but in our lifetime we will not see the twenty or so countries that are relevant to the issue taking the decision at the same time, so we have no choice but to focus on fighting organised crime. The legalisation debate is very much welcome, but of course the legalisation of drugs could produce as many problems as the violence witnessed at the moment. Violence related to organised crime would not disappear as they would find something else to diversify into.

In order to win this war in Mexico we have to recover the ability of the state to give a guarantee to the population to live in peace within their communities, and we have to use every tool at our disposal to achieve this. We also have to see this as a national cause, as they do in Colombia. However, we made the first step by President Calderon’s decision to treat the problem as the main objective of his administration. Of course, this triggered some criticism from both other political forces and the media, which shows that we need to get every Mexican citizen involved in this struggle.

We need to strengthen the federal police force. When I was the Secretary for Public Security back in 2005 we had 15,000 police officers; today we have 37,000. But we need 100,000 at least. Of course a federal police force cannot grow over night, not because we cannot get the money, but because it takes time to recruit and train people properly. We will end this administration with 50,000 federal police officers, which shows how far we have come in recent years, but there is a way to go yet.

We also have to solve the fragmentation of the police force. There is a constitutional amendment now in debate, sent as an initiative by President Calderon, which calls for the municipal entities to be incorporated into one single entity per state. To deal with the transformation into 33 police entities is certainly a challenge, but it is much less difficult than trying to deal with over 2,500 different police entities. There is an issue with critical mass. We need to get these forces to outnumber those involved in organised crime, but they also need to possess a level of training that will ensure respect for human rights and respect for the guarantees provided to every citizen by the constitution.

We also need to advance our judicial reform. Mexico has adopted a constitutional amendment to change our criminal justice system to one more similar to what you have in the UK. Mexican states in the federation have 8 years, starting from 2007, to adopt the new judicial system. This will require the police force to gather evidence in a more professional way, and to present their evidence in court.
We also need to reform our prison system. We have a tremendous over-population problem in our prisons and we are about to launch a public bidding for twelve new federal prisons. Most prisoners are currently housed in state prisons, rather than federal prisons, which has created a lot of problems in terms of corruption.

We also need to work much harder in the field of public policy. We have to deliver extremely focused public policies for the youth of the country; trying to stop the gangs in the urban areas from joining the organised crime groups. We will use the international experiences of Colombia, the US, and Britain to help tackle this problem.

We need, of course, international cooperation since organised crime is an international problem. When we talk of Mexican criminal cartels, we are really discussing criminal organisations that are located in Mexico, but people in Colombia, the US, and other countries also form part of these organisations. These organisations control the wholesale distribution of drugs in the US; but mostly through US citizens. If the US media says it is the Mexicans who are growing Marijuana in the national parks of northern California they are incorrect. It is mostly US citizens who are involved in growing Marijuana in America, which is doing us a favour since Marijuana still makes up more than half of the total income of Mexico’s drug sales to the US. All the developed OECD countries, including Europe and the US, play a role in this. Every time someone snorts cocaine in these countries it is helping to destroy the rainforest, finance the violence, and increase the number of guns in Mexico.

Finally we need to rethink legalisation as a major and much welcome debate. But we can be certain that this will not solve the problem, and could create other, potentially more destructive problems. We can discuss that if anyone wants to raise it.

As the largest market, the US plays a major role. Our proximity to the US is for the most part a blessing to Mexico, but it also provides many challenges in terms of migration, trade, and drugs. There are three areas in which the US really has to address public policy in influencing the problem in Mexico. They have quite successfully reduced the consumption of heroin and cocaine, but not in methamphetamine, which is much more critical. In fact, synthetic drug consumption is on the rise in the US.

The second area of concern is the North to South movement of cash. In 2007, we shipped back $17 billion dollars in cash to the US that was not sent through the banking system. Of course, not all of this was related to drug trafficking, but 10 to 11 billion dollars were returned to the US as excess cash from drugs operations.

But the most important area is weapons. When I was Attorney General between 2007 and 2009 I visited Washington many times and spoke with over 110 members of Congress, addressing this issue. I always said that priority number one is weapons because if we stop the ability of these groups to get access to these types of weapons, which outgun the police force, their ability to disrupt the life of law abiding citizens in Mexico will be dramatically diminished. But the response of most of my friends on Capitol Hill was ‘good luck’. The NRA is perhaps only second to the state of Israel as the most powerful lobby group in the US. President Clinton showed us that it is doable, but it is still very hard. The statistical relationship between the level of violence and the lift of the assault rifle ban is beyond any doubt. President Obama has even recognised that over 90 percent of the guns that are seized in our country come from the US. But the system prevents action being taken. The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency are banned from forming a national database on who buys the weapons. If you want to find out who bought the weapons, you have to physically go to the retailer and get the record. Moreover, there is no law preventing the person who buys the weapon from selling it on to someone else. In fact, most of the traffic of assault rifles to Mexico is done through renting peoples identities to go and buy the weapon for you. I am not seeing President Obama put much political capital into this, but it would make a major difference to Mexico and to the region.

There is cross party consensus on most of the issue of centralising the police force. There is a debate amongst some governors and some majors in the most well developed municipalities who oppose giving away their police authority, which is only natural. And most of these people come from within the party of the incumbent government, which shows that the issue is not a partisan controversy. If one police force is particularly strong, it should be grown to incorporate the smaller, weaker forces surrounding it. The example of Mexico City shows that having a single police force works. Mexico City is much larger in terms of population that most of the states, yet it has 35,000 police officers. This makes it much more difficult for organised crime to prosper than in other cities. The Mexico City police force is not particularly well trained, its average age is 45, and it suffers from corruption. But they outnumber criminals. So if someone is found with an assault rifle, within 3 minutes you have 20 police cars within one geographical spot. There is a lot of room to improve the Mexico City police force, but it shows that one large police entity is the best and easiest system. Of course, Mexico City still has organised crime, but you can lead a largely normal life within the city. But the violence rate is very close to the US average and well below Washington DC or New Orleans.

Violence is very much concentrated geographically, but the absence of violence is not necessarily an indication that things are right. It might mean that a group is in control who effectively owns the state. We have some towns, like Tijuana, which was the most violent city in Mexico 24 months ago, but today is well below the national average because the police force was reconstructed and the cartel that operated there collapsed. Our objective is not to end cartels but to fragment them in a way that prevents them challenging the state.

It was the current administration that chose to make a substantial effort against the drugs problem. This made the administration vulnerable politically to those who criticise its efforts. This is particularly so because Mexico’s population has no appetite for violence. You can link the efforts done by the government to a raise in violence, but the real issue is that if the administration had not taken measures then the criminal groups would have gained even more power and threatened to do what they had done in Colombia and seize the state. In this sense, we started our effort much later than Colombia in terms of the Gregorian calendar, but much earlier than Colombia in terms of the damage these groups had done to the state. This means it will take us a much shorter time to deal with the violence, though police reconstruction will take a generation.

The initiative from three former Latin American Presidents, Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Ernesto Zedillo (México) and César Gaviria (Colombia) arguing against a criminalisation approach to the consumption of narcotics in favour of one treating it as a public health issue is very much welcome. What we need is a very serious debate as to how to tackle this problem, and certainly it has a public health perspective, but it is tricky because consumption has never been a crime in Mexico at any point so to that extent the three former presidents have already got what they wanted. However, the criminal code has been amended to decriminalise possession up to a certain amount, as deemed by the health authorities.

There might be a case for legalising Marijuana in the sense that it is much more related to performance than to public health. It is not a good idea to drive a car or go in to surgery under the influence of marijuana because it affects you perception of time and space. I would have a greater issue with legalising methamphetamine because the level of addiction it triggers upon first consumption is very high, as is the level of violence associated with the drug. The debate needs to be international and needs to address the public health issues that legalisation would provoke. It is predicted that Mexico’s public health system will collapse because of cardiovascular problems deriving from the patterns of consumption of carbohydrates. If you add into that the kind of problems that drugs cause to people’s health, the situation is even worse.

Corruption in the police is a very important issue, and it is why critical mass is so important. You need to have the right procedures in terms of the recruitment of personnel. Every single police officer in Mexico now needs to go through a polygraph, a lot of examinations, and a background check. If the police force is highly fragmented and you face 150 drug traffickers with AK-47s, that is not a matter of corruption, but a matter of life and death. The police force is not corrupt in nature; it often has no choice because the odds are stacked against it so heavily.

We are concerned with the problem of journalists who cover these phenomena, particularly in the areas where violence is very high. There are many ways in which we can help the press to do its job, and we can learn from what has been done in other countries. For instance, in Colombia the national cause was really formed from the day that the drugs cartels put a bomb into a major newspaper. It was only then that the media shifted their approach to the problem and started backing the government in the struggle, which has not happened yet in Mexico. We need the general public and the media to build up a consensus that this is a threat to Mexico’s future and there is no option but to tackle the problem head on. In the northern part of Mexico, some papers have been formed with money that came from organised crime and the way they cover issues favours their interests. This is a very serious problem, and we have already established a special prosecutor area in the Attorney General’s office to investigate these crimes and to make sure that the responsible people face justice.


Lost your password?

Not a member? Please click here