A State of Illegitimacy: The Dynamics of Criminal and State Legitimacy in Mexico

By Benjamin J. Mackey
2018, Vol. 10 No. 10 | pg. 1/1


The following paper seeks to elucidate the complex processes involved in the Mexican State’s loss of authority and the subsequent acquisition of this authority by armed criminal groups operating in that country. In theoretical terms, this authority is termed the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, and its transfer from the State to criminal groups carries profound implications - both quantifiable and otherwise - that are explored here. In order to detail the first half of this process, wherein the Mexican State has lost its authority, this paper presents a framework based on the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. Secondary sources are then used to populate the various components of this framework. Secondary sources are also utilized to detail the latter half of the State-criminal transfer of authority, in which criminal groups in Mexico have managed to legitimize themselves in the eyes of some portions of the populace. In conclusion, this paper discusses how this theoretical transfer of authority translates into certain strategic and tactical advantages that benefit the criminal groups who manage to achieve it.

The security crisis in Mexico is marked, among other things, by disagreement. The very nature of the crisis seemingly cannot be agreed upon, with those dedicated to its study referring to it as either a “drug war,” a “criminal insurgency” (Bunker & Sullivan, 2010), or a “civil war” (Correa-Cabrera, 2017). Even the characteristics of the criminal groups responsible are called into question, with fairly ubiquitous terms such as “cartel” and “drug trafficking organization” slowly being replaced by “transnational criminal organization” and even Jones’ (2016) aptly descriptive - yet still frustratingly nebulous - “profit-seeking illicit networks.” One aspect of this security crisis that has managed to achieve some level of agreement is the egregiousness of violence produced by it - although even here there is some variance in regards to its extent. While the victims of this violence deserve a precise accounting of the human toll, this paper will rely on some fairly well-established figures. Namely, that roughly 200,000 to 268,000 people were murdered between 2007 and 2017 - with the latter representing the most violent year on record with over 29,000 killings (Agren, 2017; Molloy, 2018). While this epidemic of violence is superficially caused by the quasi-warfare waged between transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), their rivals, and the Mexican State, its root causes are far more profound; indeed, they lie in the breakdown of social order in Mexico.

The increasing levels of violence in Mexico, coupled with the State failure to mitigate them, signify an issue that affects the very foundation of the State: its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. This monopoly, an intellectual creation of early 20th-century political theorist Max Weber, is an essential characteristic of a modern State as it allows the State to legitimately enforce the rule of law - an inherently violent task. The ability of the State to legitimately use violence is requisite to its very being; should it lose its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, that State would cease to hold the power that grants it authority over its populace. However, in order for its power to be considered legitimate, the State itself must first be considered legitimate. An entity that is considered illegitimate cannot hold power and use legitimate violence. Theorists such as twentieth-century political scientist Hannah Arendt take this connection between power and legitimacy a step further. Indeed, according to Arendt (1969),

[n]o government exclusively based upon the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler needs a power basis...Only the development of robot soldiers, which would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a pushbutton at his disposal to destroy whomever he pleases could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence. (para. 42)

Having conceptually differentiated power from violence, Arendt (1969) goes on to describe the one essential characteristic of power: “[p]ower needs no justification...what, however, it does need is legitimacy” (para. 45). Essentially, Arendt (1969) holds that the power and authority held by a State is derived not from raw violence, but from the support of its population, which, in turn, is measured in the perceived legitimacy of the State itself. When applied to the security crisis in Mexico, these theories indicate that any power held by the Mexican State is owed entirely to the legitimacy that it maintains in the eyes of its populace. When this legitimacy is undermined, the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence begins to slip from the grasp of the State, leading the TCOs that operate in large portions of the country to seize the monopoly by legitimizing themselves in the eyes of the people.

The concept of the Mexican State’s loss of the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is not unique to this paper. Indeed, since the Mexican security crisis was in its infancy, academics have asserted that the Mexican State has lost - either wholly, partially, or only in certain geographic locations - its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence (see generally Bunker & Sullivan, 2010; Correa-Cabrera, 2014; Correa-Cabrera, 2017; Correa-Cabrera, Keck, & Nava, 2015; Dizikes, 2010; Payan & Correa-Cabrera, 2016; Sullivan, 2012/2009; Sullivan & Elkus, 2012/2008; Tope, 2013). While they have received a fair amount of attention, this paper holds that the processes entailed in the transfer of this monopoly from State to criminal groups are more complex than previously mentioned in the literature. Indeed, these actions did not occur instantaneously; for TCOs to seize the monopoly, the Mexican State first had to lose it. As such, this paper will examine both of these processes in turn.

The Delegitimization of the Mexican State

To detail this first process - the Mexican State’s loss of its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence - this paper will utilize a framework based on the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. This convention, an essential theoretical treatise of international relations, held that a State is defined by four distinct components: “(a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other States.”1 These components are intrinsic facets of the State and, by extension, represent its legitimacy on a domestic and international level. However, to reflect the modern and purely domestic focus of this paper, these components must be modified slightly. As such, according to the State Delegitimization framework created for and used in this paper, a State is considered legitimate based on the following components: (1) a functional government; (2) governable territory; (3) the capacity to enter into trade relations; and (4) a permanently settled population. It is important to note that, in addition to several structural changes, the four components of this framework have been rearranged from their original form in the Montevideo Convention.

This rearrangement is purposeful; since these components do not exist in a vacuum, and are affected by the status of the others, it is prudent to examine them in an order that highlights each of these effects. Before proceeding further, two important caveats must be addressed. First, this paper does not claim that the security crisis in Mexico threatens to eradicate the Mexican government, its territory, or its population. Nor does it claim that this crisis will permanently and irrevocable prevent the Mexican State from engaging in trade relations. Instead, this paper will seek to show that the crisis has caused these four qualities to be undermined, corrupted, threatened, or otherwise incapacitated. The second caveat that deserves mention here is that these qualities have not been undermined solely by TCOs. Indeed, the Mexican State is responsible for a fair amount of its own delegitimization due to its actions: its increasing use of violence to suppress journalistic opinion, its history of collusion with drug traffickers, and the continued human rights abuses perpetrated by its military (see generally Albaladejo, 2018; Magaloni, Matanock, Romero, & Díaz-Cayeros, 2015, p. 5; U.S. Department of State, 2017). As such, it is important to understand that, while they may ultimately benefit from the Mexican State’s loss of the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, TCOs are not the only piece in this greater puzzle.

Functional Government

The qualities of functional government have been debated throughout history; however, a recurrent theme in these debates is care of the citizenry. Indeed, classic western philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have all held that a government must “provide for the general well-being of its people” (Jennings et al., 2011, p. 1006). To provide for this well-being, a functional government must maintain a criminal justice system to keep its citizenry safe from the predatory activities of criminal offenders. In Mexico, this criminal justice system has lost the majority of its functionality, thereby leaving citizens without sufficient government protection from the criminal element. As such, according to a 2017 Pew Research poll, 84% of Mexican report that crime is a top concern - an increase from 2015, when 74% of Mexican placed crime as a top concern (Vice & Chwe, 2017). By themselves, these numbers are not necessarily an indicator that the Mexican criminal justice system is failing; therefore, the following section will provide evidence of each of these failings in turn.

Overarchingly, some indication of the failings of the Mexican criminal justice system arises from the fact that, according to the 2016 Global Impunity Index, only seven out of 100 crimes are reported in Mexico (as cited in Woody, 2018). This figure likely leads to two conclusions: (1) the vast majority of the Mexican populace does not believe that the criminal justice system will remediate their concerns, and (2) the criminal element has sufficiently coerced the people into silence. As a result, criminal offenders in Mexico enjoy astronomical rates of impunity. Indeed, according to Meade (2017):

a suspect is detained and charged in fewer than 2 percent of reported homicides in Mexico. In two states, Hidalgo and Tlaxcala, there wasn’t a single suspect indicted for the 148 murders committed there in 2012. In the states with the most murders that year - Guerrero, Estado de México, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa - more than 98 percent of reported homicides did not produce an indictment. (pp. 20-21)

This impunity rate is corroborated by the 2017 Global Impunity Index, which asserts that Mexico has the highest rate of impunity throughout the Americas, with only three countries with available data registering a higher rate of impunity throughout the world (Le Clercq Ortega & Sánchez Lara, 2017).

With such high rates of impunity, it is clear that relatively few criminal offenders are brought to trial in Mexico. However, those who are arrested and processed in the criminal justice system rarely receive punishment. Indeed, the 2016 Global Impunity Index also established that only 4.46% of trials result in convictions - thereby leaving the rate of punished crimes at roughly 1% (as cited in Woody, 2018). Yet the failings of the Mexican criminal justice system do not end here, as the more powerful members of this 1% are unable to be contained by the correctional component of the Mexican criminal justice system. A well-known example can be found in the case of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, who managed to escape from prison on two separate occasions - both of which necessitated some level of complicity from correctional personnel (Meade, 2017). Even if they do not escape, TCO leaders are often able to conduct their illicit business while incarcerated. Indeed, both Guzmán Loera and his counterpart, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén - the former leader of the Gulf Cartel - were able to actively run their vast criminal networks from the confines of a prison cell (Grayson, 2010b; Meade, 2017).

Because of its inability to properly incarcerate its most dangerous criminal leaders, the Mexican State has been forced to extradite many of them to the U.S. Indeed, as Rodriguez (2015) adroitly describes: “Mexico’s only option for dismantling drug trafficking organizations is through extradition. The country, while it is progressing, still does not have an adequate judicial apparatus in place to investigate, prosecute, and dismantle [TCOs]” (p. 179). Mexican extraditions to the U.S. have undergone a great deal of fluctuation, with the four extraditions recorded in 1995 rising to 115 in 2012, before falling to 79 in 2016 (Seelke & Finklea, 2017). While this may indicate that the Mexican criminal justice system is currently in a successful process of reform, its previous reliance on extradition has already severely damaged its legitimacy. The failure of the Mexican criminal justice system is also reflected in its security apparatus, which often answers to TCOs instead of the Mexican State - thereby leading the State to essentially lose territory to the criminal organizations. This loss of territory will be fully examined in the following section.

Governable Territory

In the context of the security crisis in Mexico, lost territory may take a variety of differing forms - none of which fit the traditional concept of territory that is seized by a foreign power. Indeed, when the Mexican State loses territory to TCOs, maps are not redrawn nor are official border demarcated. Instead, territory is lost by the Mexican State when TCOs are able to create what Bunker and Sullivan (2010) refer to as “‘lawless zones’ or criminal enclaves” (p. 31). These enclaves are categorized by a lack of State control, thereby enabling TCOs to become the de facto central power in the area. For this to happen, TCOs must be militarily dominant in that area. While it is possible for a TCO to simply outnumber and outgun the State security apparatus, TCOs often choose to heighten their advantage over the State by co-opting municipal or state police forces in the area, thereby absorbing them into the criminal structure. In this scenario, territory can be regarded as “lost” by the Mexican State when the security forces in it respond to TCOs instead of the State.

The co-option of municipal and state police forces has been well-documented throughout the Mexican security crisis. Indeed, according to the U.S. Department of State (2017), Mexican TCOs have been “implicated in numerous killings, often acting with impunity and at times in league with corrupt state, local, and security officials” (p. 2). Academic sources corroborate this assessment, with Sabet (2010) confirming that TCOs have employed municipal police to impede the efforts of federal forces. Perhaps as result of this pervasive collusion between TCOs and police forces, the latter is viewed as the most corrupt institution in Mexico according to Transparency International (as cited in Flores, 2017), a non-governmental organization that tracks corruption by nation. Other measures of societal attitudes toward the police in Mexico reveal similar results, with polls from the Pew Research Center reporting that 79% of Mexican citizens see corrupt police as a top concern in 2017 - an increase of nine points since 2015 (Vice & Chwe, 2017). The implications of municipal and state police corruption are severe as these forces comprise around 90% of police in Mexico (Magaloni et al., 2015). Therefore, should TCOs manage to co-opt a preponderance of these officers, the Mexican State will face an uphill battle to reclaim its lost territory.

While municipal and state police are often relied upon by TCOs, federal police forces are also corruptible. In the past, TCOs have bribed high ranking members of the now-defunct Federal Judicial Police up to $10 million to protect criminal interests (Jones, 2016). However, while federal police are clearly not immune to corruption, municipal and state police appear to be the primary vehicle by which TCOs infiltrate the State security apparatus. The reasons for this are likely twofold. First, municipal police often find themselves unprepared for the threat posed by heavily-armed TCOs (Gallegos, 2018), leaving them with the choice to flee or be co-opted by these criminal groups. Second, municipal and state police are poorly paid and do not receive the same level of State protection as federal forces, making them susceptible to the enormous bribes offered by TCOs (Sabet, 2010). Officers who turn down these lucrative bribes are subject to extreme violence directed towards themselves, or even their families. For example, in Tijuana, the Arellano-Félix TCO has not only killed police officers, but even executed the wife and daughter of a police commander who refused their advances (Sabet, 2010).

Once co-opted by TCOs, police provide many important functions that serve to impede State efforts to reclaim lost territory. Some of these functions can be classified as support capacities - such as guarding safehouses; serving as lookouts; providing intelligence, security, weapons, and uniforms to TCO members; and releasing convicted offenders from custody (Correa-Cabrera, 2017; Sabet, 2010). However, co-opted police sometimes take this support a step further by actively participating in violent crime with TCO members. For example, in 2009, municipal police in Nuevo León, a northeastern Mexican state, aided in the escape of a TCO member - even engaging the Mexican Army in a firefight to do so (Grayson, 2010b). In addition to directly attacking uncorrupted State security forces, co-opted police can also serve as “another enforcement arm of the cartel, carrying out kidnappings and murders on behalf of the organizations” (Flores, 2017, para. 5).

When serving as enforcers for TCOs, the violence perpetrated by co-opted police forces affects multiple segments of society. Indeed, sometimes this violence is directed at the Mexican government - as illustrated by the early-2018 arrest of municipal policemen for active participation in the kidnapping and murder of two SEIDO (Mexico’s organized crime investigations agency) officers (Otis B Fly-Wheel, 20182). Violence is even directed at foreigners, such as U.S. citizens or consulate staff (Beittel, 2017; Correa-Cabrera, 2017). However, perhaps the most egregious - and damaging to the Mexican State’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence - example of the threat posed by co-opted police forces reveals itself when Mexican civilians, the very population that the police are sworn to protect, are targeted. Examples of this are myriad, such as the mass killings perpetrated by Los Zetas with the support of police in Piedras Negras, Nava, and Allende (all located in the northern state of Coahuila) from 2009-2012 (U.S. Department of State, 2017). In the Allende Massacre, which took place in March, 2011, some 38 people were kidnapped and likely murdered by members of Los Zetas, who acted with “the support of elements of the Public Security Secretariat of the municipality of Allende” (as cited in El Profe, 2018).

Perhaps the most well-known example of police-TCO collusive violence can be seen in the Ayotzinapa Massacre, during which 43 students were killed. While details of the event are still somewhat murky, the known facts are as follows:

On September 26, 2014, police and unidentified armed people opened fire on three buses filled with students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ School as they were traveling from the city of Iguala back to Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, where the school was located. More than 15 people were injured and 6 were killed. After throwing teargas into one of the buses, police ordered the students out of the vehicle. They beat an unknown number of students from this bus and took them away in police cars. The whereabouts of 43 students remain unknown, although the DNA of one student was later identified among remains that the Mexican government said were those of the students. (Human Rights Watch, 2018b, para. 31)

In the aftermath of the massacre, federal officials sent to investigate were threatened and even kidnapped by the same local police who likely played a role in the massacre (Flores, 2017). While various police officials in Iguala, including the police chief, have been arrested for their participation in the Ayotzinapa Massacre, the Mexican federal government has been accused of fabricating evidence in the investigation (Beittel, 2017; Salomón, 2018). This has likely been done in order to satisfy public demands for action whilst ignoring the fact that police forces in the area have essential made the territory ungovernable.

When police in a territory such as Iguala - or the northeastern state of Nuevo Laredo, where “nearly 90 percent of the municipal police were allegedly on [Los] Zetas’ payroll at one point” (as cited in Correa-Cabrera, 2017, p. 94) - respond to TCO commands while ignoring or outright impeding State efforts, the latter has essentially lost this territory. In response, the State is forced to send in military forces - thereby confirming that the territory in question has been lost and must now be reclaimed. This is further illustrated by the fact that the first step taken by military forces is often to disarm the municipal police (Sabet, 2010), who are now considered an enemy combatant opposed to the State. While the loss of any swath of territory damages the legitimacy of the Mexican State, certain portions of territory are more valuable than others. Indeed, when territories rich in natural resources are seized by TCOs, the Mexican State’s capacity to enter into trade relations becomes threatened.

Capacity to Enter Into Trade Relations

In Mexico, TCOs are able to disrupt the State’s capacity to enter into trade relations by using two differing methods: (1) disruption through the seizure of territory and (2) disruption through supersession. The first of these methods of disruption occurs when TCOs seize territory that is essential for the State to maintain trade relations with international entities - whether they be fellow States or transnational corporations. In some instances, this is accomplished through the obstruction or seizure of valuable ports of entry. For example, Correa-Cabrera (2017) has detailed how TCO activities have shut down Altamira airport in 2014 and The Knights Templar, a quasi-religious TCO, even managed to gain control over the seaport of Lázaro Cárdenas in Michoacán (Correa-Cabrera, 2017). This latter development had the potential to significantly disrupt the State’s trade relations due to the sheer size of the port. Indeed, in 2013, when it was finally liberated from The Knights Templar, Lázaro Cárdenas was the largest Pacific port in Mexico, receiving 1302 commercial cargo vessels (H.T., 2014; Administración Portuaria Integral de Lázaro Cárdenas, 2013). TCOs are also able to disrupt the State’s trade relations by moving further down the supply chain, targeting the manufacturing process directly. This is accomplished through the seizure of territories rich in hydrocarbons, such as Mexico’s northeastern Burgos Basin - which caused PEMEX, Mexico’s State-controlled petroleum company, to lose access the the area (Correa-Cabrera, 2017). PEMEX has also lost valuable infrastructure to TCO incursion, such as the Gigante-1 oil well in 2010 (Correa-Cabrera, 2017).

When TCOs gain control of PEMEX infrastructure, they are able to further disrupt the State’s capacity to enter into trade relations by superseding the State as a vendor of hydrocarbons. Indeed, when the Knights Templar Cartel held control of Lázaro Cárdenas, they used the port to sell coal to the Chinese (Correa-Cabrera, 2017), thereby undercutting the Mexican State’s trade relations with that country. TCOs are able to achieve this by taking control of State-built hydrocarbon infrastructure, allowing them to mine hydrocarbons at a fraction of the cost incurred by the State. As a result, it is estimated that TCOs control roughly 20% of Mexico’s fuel industry by “virtually [taking] over the pipeline system of [PEMEX]” (as cited in Correa-Cabrera, 2017, p. 217) - causing the company an estimated $1.15 billion in losses during 2014 alone (Beittel, 2017).

The implications of TCO interference with the Mexican State’s capacity to enter into trade relations are severe - particularly when Mexico’s growing role in the hydrocarbon industry is considered. Indeed, according to Correa-Cabrera (2017), Mexico is poised to become “a world leader in natural gas production” (p. 181). This leadership position could be threatened if TCOs should continue to disrupt, or even seize control of, the industry. This scenario continues to be a serious possibility; in the first two months of 2018, PEMEX’s pipelines were tapped 38% more than during the same period in 2017, with a 352% increase compared to 2014 (Garciá, 2018). Should Mexico’s burgeoning presence in the international hydrocarbon market be threatened by TCO activity, the State will be delegitimized to a severe extent as a result of its inability to maintain its capacity to enter into trade relations.

Permanently Settled Population

When considered in conjunction, these factors - the impunity produced by a crippled criminal justice system, the areas of territory that are wholly or partially controlled by TCOs, and the ongoing struggle for dominance in international trade relations - equate to a clear danger to the Mexican population. Generally speaking, this danger comes in the form of violence: of running the risk of being swept up in a roving gun battle, of being kidnapped by criminal groups who operate with impunity, or of being caught in a massacre such those in Allende or Ayotzinapa. By itself, this violence costs the State a severe penalty in terms of legitimacy; however, the population displacement generated by this violence represents another facet of this delegitimization that has received less attention. By the numbers, this displacement is severe, with an estimated 1.65 million displaced due to the violence between 2006-2011 and another 280,000 between 2011-2014 (Cantor, 2014; Correa-Cabrera, 2017).

Instead of being limited to one particular area, this displacement seems to shift as different TCOs escalate conflict amongst themselves and the Mexican government. Indeed, beginning in 2010, much of this displacement affected Mexico’s northeast regions, with the state of Tamaulipas losing half of its population; entire cities in the region had to be evacuated to escape the raging conflict between the Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel (Correa-Cabrera, 2017). Other areas near the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua, have also seen massive displacement. Indeed, it is estimated that, despite only providing residence to around 1% of the Mexican population, Ciudad Juárez has suffered roughly 15% of the total displaced population in Mexico - losing 230,000 residents from 2007-2010 alone (Beittel, 2017; Cantor, 2014). Possibly due to the fight between multiple TCOs in the area, Pacific coastal states such as Sinaloa and Guerrero have also seen a fair amount of displacement - with the total displaced population of the former estimated to reach 30,000 (Correa-Cabrera, 2017; Valdez Cárdenas, 2017).

The reasons for population displacement are myriad and go beyond individuals trying to escape violence. While this certainly is a factor in the displacement - referred to by Cantor (2014) as “a pre-emptive strategy...to avoid [a violent] fate” (p. 46) - individuals are also sometimes forcibly removed from their land by TCOs. Indeed, TCOs often rely on these forced displacements to gain territory for drug cultivation/manufacturing, or even for the valuable hydrocarbons that exist there (Cantor, 2014; Correa-Cabrera, 2017). Alternatively, these forced displacements sometimes serve the strategic interests of various TCOs seeking to gain the upper-hand over their rivals. For example, Los Zetas have been known to displace “whole towns assumed to support the Gulf Cartel along the drug-trafficking corridor running through Nuevo Leon state on the US border” (Cantor, 2014, p. 51). This development is particularly troubling as it showcases the extreme degree to which the Mexican population can be affected by the ongoing conflict between rival TCOs.

One further aspect of this displacement that deserves mention is its characteristics. While Cantor (2014) has found that the displacement of the Mexican population appears to be largely internal (the displaced population relocates to another area of Mexico) this does not mean that external displacement (the displaced population relocates to another country) is unheard of. Indeed, it is estimated that half of the aforementioned 230,000 individuals who fled Ciudad Juárez from 2007-2011 migrated to the U.S. - with those who could afford to moving their businesses with them (Cantor, 2014). External displacement poses a severe threat to State legitimacy for both practical and theoretical reasons. Practically, when individuals move their businesses with them, the State loses valuable, legal productivity. Theoretically, external displacement due to violence reveals that the State ultimately has no control over its own population’s security - thereby causing the State to incur a severe penalty to its legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

Consequences and Implications of State Delegitimization

In combination, the inability of the Mexican State to stem the tide of criminal impunity, its loss of territory to TCOs, its dwindling capacity to enter into trade relations, and the forced displacement of its population equate to a severe loss of legitimacy by the State. When it loses its legitimacy, the State loses its authority and, by extension, its power. Indeed, according to Sharp (1990), “[a]ll rulers require an acceptance of their authority: their right to rule, command and be obeyed” (p. 31). When this acceptance is lost through a crisis of legitimacy, the State’s authority is undermined. Sharp (1990) further elaborates that this loss of authority is directly related to the power of the State to enforce its laws: “[t]he loss of authority sets in motion the disintegration of the rulers’ power. Their power is reduced to the degree that their authority is repudiated” (p. 31). The practical dimensions of this loss of power are profound. When the State is unable to properly exercise its authority, the criminal groups that operate there are allowed to devote an increasing portion of their resources toward self-legitimation. As a result, when the Mexican State can no longer lay claim to the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, TCOs find themselves in a prime position to seize it for themselves.

The Legitimization of Mexican TCOs

Once the Mexican State has lost legitimacy - and thereby its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence - in the eyes of some segment of its population, TCOs are able seize the monopoly. By the time that the State has lost its legitimacy, TCOs are poised to seize the monopoly as, during the process of State delegitimization, they have slowly been legitimizing themselves to the Mexican population. Indeed, when the population observes the State fight against these TCOs without success, they are forced to begin to accept the latter as a legitimate entity. However, in addition to this conspicuous aspect, TCOs are also able to legitimize themselves through more subtle means. Generally, these means will fall into one of the following categories: (1) media; (2) security; (3) social welfare; or (4) culture.


In order to provide the Mexican population with propagandistic media, TCOs must first silence existing media sources. When attempting this, TCOs rely on the tried and true method of Plata o Plomo. Literally translating to “silver or lead,” Plata o Plomo offers its recipient a choice: either accept a bribe in exchange for service to the criminal group, or die in a hail of gunfire. Indeed, TCOs often offer journalists this choice between violence inflicted upon themselves and their colleagues, or the chance to join the organization’s payroll (Grillo, 2012). If the former choice is selected, TCOs will target journalists with extreme violence that includes intimidation, targeted assassination, and even grenade attacks (Jones, 2016). As a result of this grim ultimatum, Reporters Without Borders (2018), describes the situation for journalists in Mexico as one of “[c]onstant violence and fear…[w]hen journalists cover subjects linked to organized crime or political corruption (especially at the local level), they are the targets of intimidation and physical violence and are often executed in cold blood” (para. 1). This overview is supported by concrete figures regarding the violence faced by journalists. Specifically the international Human Right Watch (2018a) has found that an astonishing 104 journalists have been killed and 25 have gone missing in the period between 2000 and 2017. As such, 75% of journalists responding to surveys state that they “do not have faith in the mechanisms created to protect them” (Seelke & Finklea, 2017, p. 28). This lack of faith leads many journalists to submit to the demands of TCOs, thereby allowing the latter to dictate what is published and what is ignored by the media.

In silencing the media and promoting their own agenda, TCOs are able to accomplish two goals that serve to legitimize themselves: (1) to engender resentment toward their rivals and (2) to garner public support for themselves. In this first scenario, TCOs will often blame their crimes on a rival criminal group (Beittel, 2017); without a free media to disprove these lies, the public can struggle to delineate truth from propaganda. However, TCOs also turn this propaganda against the Mexican State by charging the State with collusion with other criminal groups, or by portraying federal forces as outsiders and invaders in the local community (Correa-Cabrera, 2017; Grayson, 2010a). In this scenario, TCOs engage in what Jones (2016) refers to as “branding” by attempting to portray themselves as a benign force in the community.

While portraying their enemies in a negative light, TCOs often simultaneously use their co-opted media sources to reinforce their position in the community - often by professing an overarching community orientation that motivates their enterprises (Grayson, 2010a). Other times, TCOs achieve this effect by appealing to regional identity - a tactic frequently employed by the Michoacán Family TCO and their more-fanatical offshoot, the Knights Templar. For example, in 2014, after several violent incidents marred its public image, the Knights Templar published the following message:

Right now the Caballeros Templarios [Knights Templar] cartel, is not at its best. We’ve suffered painful casualties, and yet we’re still standing, and facing the enemy… Now it’s up to us to come back and return order in Michoacán. We know it will be difficult but not impossible. We get pissed off seeing the suffering of our people… We’d give our lives for any of you. We understand your confusion. Why you turned your backs to us. We are human and we made mistakes… [But we] will never let our young people consume the filthy crystal meth… Gradually, all will return to peace. Little by little, you will see… SINCERELY, CABALLEROS TEMPLARIOS, MICHOACÁN GUARD” (as translated in Martínez, 2014)

This type of public relations “cleanup” effort highlights the importance of community support in TCO community-level operation. Indeed, according to Campbell (2009), the use of media allows TCOs to showcase the weaknesses of the their rivals while asserting that only they “can restore order…[as] a legitimate political and social entity” (p. 270). However, words alone cannot inveigle the community to support TCOs. As such, these criminal groups often attempt to convince the community that they can successfully restore order by providing certain security functions; these will be discussed in detail in the following section.


Perhaps due to the fact that Mexico suffers from tremendous rates of impunity (detailed above), the provision of security presents an extremely attractive method for TCOs to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the general population. In providing security, TCOs are able the legitimize themselves in several ways: they show the populace that they are the only entity able to guarantee safety, and they become analogous to a traditional State when they charge a “tax” for these security functions. Indeed, this quid pro quo strongly resembles security functions provided by the State - wherein a tax is levied and, in return, the taxed population enjoys the protection of a police force. Similarly, in return for payment, TCOs will protect individuals and even businesses from the predatory efforts of other groups. This arrangement is quite prevalent in Mexican society, with at least ⅓ of businesses paying protection money to criminal groups according to some estimates (Magaloni et al., 2015).

In certain regions of Mexico, where violence is high and the State’s ability to mitigate it is low, TCOs take on a more proactive approach to community security. Indeed, in these regions TCOs act as a traditional police force, apprehending and punishing criminal offenders or even maintaining hourly patrols (Magaloni et al., 2015; Valdez Cárdenas, 2017) - ostensibly to protect the local population. However, it is also possible to observe a certain level of conflict in the general public when examining these extreme security provisions. Indeed, according to academics Aguirre Ochoa and Herrera Torres (2012) in their study of public perceptions regarding TCOs in the violent southern state of Michoacán, around 90% of those interviewed desired to see security restored to the region. However, these respondents displayed no preference in regards to whether this security is provided by the State or by TCOs (Aguirre Ochoa & Herrera Torres, 2012). This indicates that, should TCOs succeed in guaranteeing lasting, effective security to local residents, they could enjoy a level of legitimacy akin to that of an established State.

Social Welfare

While there is not an abundance of information in the literature regarding TCO-run social welfare programs, this aspect of TCO legitimization still deserves mention here. In some respects, these social welfare programs garner TCOs a considerable level of legitimacy because they showcase the State’s inability to do the same for its populace (Grayson, 2010b). The manners in which this social welfare is provided vary greatly, however they always entail reference to the TCO sponsoring them - thereby garnering that organization some level of gratitude from the community. For example, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, a former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, is respected by community members in certain areas of Sinaloa for his philanthropy to public works projects, and for the economic uptick seen as a result of the drug-cultivation jobs he created (Grayson, 2010b). Guzman’s counterpart and former leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, is similarly venerated for the elaborate “Children’s Day” celebrations that he has sponsored - with the largest of these celebrations drawing over 18,000 people (Grayson, 2010b).

Some TCO leaders have even moved their philanthropy to deeply-rooted institutions in Mexico - namely, the Catholic Church. According to Cave (2011), “the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico has been forced to publicly grapple with its “historic ties to drug traffickers” (para. 3) - ties which have helped TCOs to latch on to some measure of the legitimacy enjoyed by the Church. Before his death at the hands of the Mexican military, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the leader of Los Zetas at the height of their power, took full advantage of these ties by financing the construction of churches in the state of Hidalgo (Cave, 2011). In addition to the positive acknowledgement from the community gained through these religious-philanthropic efforts, TCOs are also able to marginally relate themselves to the culture of the Church. This cultural relation is an essential aspect of TCO legitimization that will be further explicated in the following section.


When TCOs provide a shared culture, known as narcocultura, it is important to acknowledge the inclusiveness of this culture. Members of society who feel alienated from or disillusioned by the State find in narcocultura a community that will accept them as they are. In providing this inclusive culture, Campbell (2009) asserts that “narco has become a powerful, multivalent social identity [in Mexico]” (p. 18), with the primary source of its power stemming from the fact that it is indiscriminate in its acceptance. As the power of this identity grows, so does the legitimacy that it provides to TCOs. This legitimacy is further amplified by the fact that many aspects of narcocultura have been appropriated by TCOs from historic aspects of traditional Mexican culture - thereby allowing TCOs to “piggyback” on the established legitimacy of these traditions. This is perhaps most apparent through an examination of narcocorridos - musical ballads that venerate the deeds of powerful TCO leaders. While the narcocorrido is a relatively new musical development, the antecedents of these ballads are far older. Indeed, the traditional Mexican corrido - a ballad with similar musical composition as the narcocorrido, with the conspicuous lack of criminal and drug-related overtones - can be traced back to the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century (Burgos Dávila, 2013). These antecedents are extremely important to note; indeed, in commandeering these traditional musical expressions, TCOs are able to draw similarities between themselves and the esteemed revolutionaries of old.

TCOs have also incorporated various folkloric figures into their narcocultura, thereby corrupting these previously-benign entities. The foremost example of this is the case of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. Representing a medley of several different Mexican traditions, Santa Muerte is a renowned figure in Mexico as “one of the fastest growing folk saint movements” (Bromley, 2016, p. 1). To some, the concept of death personified may carry sinister connotations; however, as Bromley (2016) points out, it is important to bear in mind the traditional celebrations and even venerations of death that have been an essential aspect of Mexican culture since the pre-Columbian era. Indeed, it appears that Santa Muerte only began to adopt certain odious characteristics after it became associated with drug traffickers. While it is difficult to determine the exact point when Santa Muerte became an integral part of narcocultura, it is clear that she has since been adopted by multiple TCOs - particularly groups deeply ensconced in Mexico’s northeastern regions, such as Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel (Bunker & Bunker, 2012/2010). By incorporating quasi-religious figures such as Santa Muerte into their culture, TCOs legitimize themselves in the eyes of those who accept these figures as numinous entities. Overarchingly, according to Burgos Dávila (2013), through narcocultura TCOs and their criminal enterprises have “been made visible, instituted and legitimized as a historical, social and political phenomenon” (p. 176). This is done by “piggybacking” off the established legitimacy of historic Mexican traditions such as corridos or Santa Muerte, causing connections to be drawn between these accepted concepts and TCOs in the minds of some observers.

Consequences and Implications of TCO Legitimacy

By establishing themselves as a legitimate entity, TCOs are able to seize the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence lost by the State. The benefits associated with this seizure are not merely theoretical; when studying “dark networks” such as TCOs, Bakker, Raab, and Milward (2012) found that legitimacy is one of the most important factors correlating to the resilience of the organization. The reasons for this correlation are likely multifaceted. Initially, legitimacy helps TCOs garner recruits by allowing it to present itself as an authentic entity in the community. Following recruitment and establishment of a criminal organization, legitimacy benefits the organization by providing it with some measure of support from the local population. This is evidenced by the aforementioned study conducted by Aguirre Ochoa and Herrera Torres (2012), which found that 40% of respondents knew a member of a criminal group but would not turn them in to authorities. Perhaps even more importantly, the same study (Aguirre Ochoa & Herrera Torres, 2012) also found that 60% of respondents believed that these groups “establish certain conditions of order in the community” (p. 83); with 70% stating that they would seek out a criminal group to resolve a “situation in which they could not recur the law” (p. 83).

It is no coincidence that the above figures were recorded in Michoacán, where TCOs such as The Michoacán Family and The Knights Templar operate. These groups have placed an extreme emphasis on their legitimacy as perceived by the general public, temporarily granting them a certain level of tacit support from the community. In some cases, however, this legitimacy translates into direct action by the community in support of a TCO. Indeed, after the reported death of Nazario “El Mas Loco” Moreno González, the leader of The Michoacán Family, in late 2010, members of the local communities held protests with signs that read “Long Live La Familia Michoacana” (Magaloni et al., 2015). Ultimately, this is the variety of strategic legitimacy that TCOs strive for - with members of the population not only passively supporting them, but actively rallying to their support.


The process entailed in a State’s loss of its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is not a simple one; similarly, the steps taken by TCOs to seize this lost monopoly carry a equivalent level of complexity that must be studied carefully in order to be understood. In the case of Mexico, it is also important to note that, although they are the primary beneficiaries, TCOs are not solely responsible for the State’s loss of legitimacy and monopoly. When the State is no longer able to provide protection to its citizens through essential functions of government; when its territory is continually encroached upon by paramilitary TCOs; when its capacity to enter into trade relations is threatened; and when its own population suffers violence and forced displacements, the State loses much of its legitimacy.

As such, it begins to become an illegitimate entity in the eyes of its population - thereby causing it to lose its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Consequently, TCOs are able to assume the legitimacy previously held by the State by providing this disillusioned population with a source of media, certain security functions, community-oriented social welfare programs, and a culture that provides sanctuary to those who feel alienated by the State. In sum, this represents a grave situation in Mexico as the TCOs who manage to seize the State’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence do so not to benefit the community, but to preserve the continuity of their criminal activities.


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1.) Article I (p. 25) of the Montevideo Convention. See full document at https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/LON/Volume%20165/v165.pdf

2.) While it is not customary to use personal blogs as a source in an academic paper such as this, certain allowances must be made given the media blackout that continues to affect certain portions of Mexico (see generally Correa-Cabrera, 2017, p. 7)

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