The Political Capital of Crime Groups in Mexico and the Politics of Anti-crime Measures

On April 16, Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown participated in a Woodrow Wilson Center panel discussion commenting on Professor John Bailey’s new book, The Politics of Crime in Mexico: Democratic Governance in a Security Trap. In addition to Bailey, Felbab-Brown was joined on the panel by Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue; Clare Seelke, Latin America specialist with the Congressional Research Service; and Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Felbab-Brown endorsed the book’s emphasis on a structural analysis of crime in Mexico and its focus on larger issues of rule of law, governance and state-building in the context of tackling organized crime.

Picking up on the themes of the book, Felbab-Brown argued that organized-crime groups often have political effects as well as political capital. In countries with little or no social mobility, inadequate social services and insufficient provision of public goods by the state, a crime group’s ability to provide access to jobs—even in an illicit economy—and other social opportunities increases its legitimacy. Felbab-Brown argued that in such parts of the world there is often a disjuncture between legality and legitimacy: while the participation in illicit activities might be illegal, parts of the population might not regard them as illegitimate as a result of a lack of other opportunities. Criminality subsequently is not simply an aberrant social behavior to be suppressed by the state, but should instead be conceptualized as a competition in state-making between the state and non-state actors, such as criminal groups, over the allegiance of the population.

While law enforcement remains a critical tool in addressing crime in such settings, socioeconomic factors also play a significant role. Yet the current Mexican administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto has underemphasized the need to develop a robust law enforcement strategy, focusing too narrowly on socioeconomic factors, Felbab-Brown argued. But even in this second realm, the strategy remains under-operationalized and its implementation is thus also questionable.

In addition, Felbab-Brown argued that Mexico’s struggle against organized crime can be understood as a three part rebalancing: First, the rebalancing among organized crime groups themselves, accounting to a large extent for the recent decrease in violence in northern Mexico; second, the rebalancing between the Mexican state and criminal groups, a restructuring involving Mexico’s law enforcement and justice institutions, which is still very much in flux and unfinished; and third, the rebalancing of the triangular relationship among the state, society and organized crime over the allegiance of the population and internalization of the rule of law. This last aspect of the rebalancing is a long term process, and the verdict on how it will transpire is still out.

Watch the full event video: