The past three years have been some of the most violent in Mexico’s recorded history. It is no longer just drugs driving the violence. Cartels have turned to kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking and semi-legal enterprises with high profit margins and lower risks as part of their portfolios. This more diversified business model has proven just as deadly and it corrodes already-weak criminal justice institutions.
At the core of reimagining policies to help our Southern neighbor should be achieving robust government institutions and stronger rule of law. There are mountains of challenges in tackling these two issues. One of the criminal acts that affect the majority of Mexicans today is extortion.
There are several good reasons for shifting the focus to extortion over drugs. For starters, the war on drugs has been a failure. Focused mainly on a supply-side set of policies on both sides of the border, Mexico and the U.S. (through a foreign assistance package known as the Mérida Initiative) have militarized the fight against drug trafficking. These included the “kingpin” strategy of capturing cartel leaders and extraditing them to the U.S. This strategy led to the splintering of criminal organizations: from six in 2006 to nine large ones, approximately 24 medium-sized ones and up to 200 smaller groups today. Later versions of The Mérida Initiative recognized that providing resources to the military option (mostly equipment and hardware) did not work, but it set aside little if any funds for judiciary and law enforcement. Given that only about 10 percent of crimes get reported to law enforcement, the need to tackle organized criminal’s penchant for extortion is imperative.
Lawmakers on both sides of the border have relegated the issue of extortion to the margins, even though corrupt law enforcement collaborate with cartels in the practice. Demands for protection payments are wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of small and medium business owners in a range of locales, such as Celaya and Tijuana in Mexico. Finding little relief in law enforcement due to ineptitude, lack of resources or officers working at the behest of cartels, victims turn to each other to organize self-defense groups. In the worst-case scenario, business owners close shops and families move away. In some cases, they are killed. Mexican President López Obrador’s security cabinet has continued to neglect the growing epidemic of extortion. His administration reduced or eliminated funding to state level anti-corruption offices intended to root out law enforcement officers benefiting from extortion — this, despite the fact that he has focused a great deal of attention on national level anti-corruption initiatives. He has gone so far as to threaten to bring formal charges against former presidents. Such political gambits provide little relief to the victims of extortion.
We need to adopt a two-pronged policy to tackle extortion in Mexico. The first prong would recognize the realities of what it is like to live in an environment where many mid-tier and smaller cartels have branched into extortion and kidnapping because the two generate a quick and localized stream of money. Trafficking drugs is expensive and requires a great deal of logistics on the ground that these smaller criminal players do not have access to. They resort to extortion until they get access. U.S. officials can support López Obrador with tools to boost intelligence capabilities as his government pursues these criminals as well as equipment and training to adequately investigate and prosecute them. The second prong of such a policy recognizes that extortion is facilitated by the routine entrenchment of impunity and corruption. Officials who are complicit in or tolerate such practices at municipal, regional and federal levels of government have to be held accountable.
To address extortion, U.S. officials, along with others in the international community, should encourage the government of López Obrador to go beyond the political theatre of targeting former presidents for corruption and, instead, encourage him to set up an independent anti-corruption commission with teeth.
The playbook for such a commission is already in place in the recently defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Across its 12 years in operation, this United Nations-backed body set the benchmark for what such a commission could do to tackle impunity in highly effective ways, bringing down a slew of high-ranking Guatemalan government officials on charges of corruption. They were so effective that the Guatemalan president opted not to renew its mandate, making the CICIG victims of their own success.
A similar, even more robust body in Mexico would begin the process of transforming the culture of impunity and signaling to individuals inside and outside of government that corrupt practices, such as facilitating extortion, will no longer be tolerated.
Taking on extortion as a more of a discrete problem than wholesale organized crime focuses official efforts on more manageable and realistic targets. Yes, the longer term and less evident incentives of institution building may not have the satisfying short-term results of military options, but they are more likely to improve the security situation in Mexico and, by extension, U.S.-Mexico relations.
Dr. Gladys McCormick is an associate professor and Jay and Debe Moskowitz chair in Mexico-US Relations at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.