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A Phantom Line: Reflections on the Dark Side of the State-Crime Dynamic

Actualizado: 14 mar 2023

Michael Reed Hurtado

Speaking in La Paz last October, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador asserted that there is a clear division between the State and organized crime: “The line is clearly drawn: on one side are the authorities, and on the other, delinquents. When this boundary does not exist, as was the case in the past, there is chaos.”

Separating authorities from criminal activity with a bright line is one of the basic pillars of the rule of law; it is a division that any head of state would make. That this statement came in a city named “Peace” was a coincidence offered by the geography of Baja California Sur. The problem is that La Paz is not as peaceful as its name suggests, nor is the line as clear as the president wants us to think.

History shows that the configuration of the modern Mexican state is the result of a dynamic relationship between authorities and organized crime. Social science and investigative journalism have confirmed that the boundary between the two is porous. Those who insist there is an absolute demarcation between the two, not only deny an essential element of the configuration of the state, but also complicate any attempt to confront one of the greatest challenges to security in Mexico: the imbrication of state and criminal power. Rather than opposition and antagonism between the two, what exists, in practice, is their interaction and fluidity to the extent that they characterize the exercise of local authority (as it becomes tinted, to greater or lesser degree by crime, but never unpolluted).

Ending this imbrication is a pending task, and one that is necessary to restore the legitimate exercise of authority and confront the cooptation of public power by private and illegal interests. As regards security, particularly on a local level, the implication is formidable: it is not only necessary to combat organized crime, but also to disarticulate the dynamic relationship between illegality and authority. In the most extreme cases, this relationship has produced a criminal state; in other situations (with variations of intensity and degree) it structures a coercive-extortive cycle that flourishes amid corruption and the deviation of public resources, especially in areas experiencing economic booms and where violence is the principal mechanism for social control.


The Configuration of the State is Marked by Organized Crime

With increasing frequency, historians and political scientists studying various regions in Latin America have begun to emphasize that the modern state building process and the development of organized crime were intertwined. For example, Lina Britto (2022) illustrates how along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, both development and the arrival of the state occurred as a result of a booming illegal economy. This conclusion is contrary to the traditional claim that such zones, and their illegal economies, emerge and remain at the periphery of the state. Britto describes how marijuana boom of the 1970s, “completed a lengthy process in which the region and the nation took form together.”

This conclusion may appear obvious, but the implications are only beginning to be understood. If we pursue these findings, the question ceases to be whether organized crime influences or corrupts the state on a local level, but rather how much illegal markets and organized crime have determined the shape of the state in concrete territories and social spaces.

In a very different context, Javier Auyero (2007) highlights the gray zones of politics, studying acts of looting, sabotage, and other manifestations of collective violence in Argentina and defining these as “the actions and networks of violence entrepreneurs, political actors and public servants tasked with enforcing the law who secretly meet and intertwine.” He describes how in these unstable zones, the dividing lines are blurry and porous, to the point of disappearing. This concept was taken up in the Mexican context by Wil Pansters (2012) and developed further by Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley (2020).

In reconstructing the history of narcotrafficking in the northwest of Mexico, Benjamin Smith (2022) demonstrates how the state appears and takes form, not through confrontation with organized crime but by taking advantage of it, first through marijuana and later with opium and heroin. Smith recounts local histories, occurring before and after the Revolution, that reveal how arrangements between authorities and organized crime were lucrative for all involved and convenient for the consolidation of state power in regions far removed from the nation’s capital. These histories are often forgotten, but they are essential to understanding what continues to happen today: the imbrication of the state and organized crime. A century later, the same dynamics remain.


The Authority in Nayarit “with a gun on his hip”

While it was at times peculiar, the marriage of state and organized crime that flourished several years ago in Nayarit was not extraordinary. The Pacific coast state was known in the 1980s and 1990s as a producer of heroin; today, it is the site of runaway tourist development. A young politician, Roberto Sandoval, and his ally Edgar Veytia, the strongman of Nayarit’s security and justice, gained power first in the local government of the capital, Tepic, in 2008, then captured control of the state’s highest offices in 2011.

As governor, Sandoval promoted Veytia as the best of the state’s officials, and Veytia promoted himself as a tough-on-crime leader who could pacify Nayarit. This image was captured in a 2013 corrido with the lyrics “Edgar Veytia is a miracle, tranquility has returned. Risking his life, he has made it possible for people to feel safe.” Holding public office, Veytia, “the lawyer with a gun on his hip,” oversaw the transportation, security, justice sectors, and public notaries. Along with his associates, Veytia “applied the law without fear,” as the song retells. He ensured that the security forces worked to his benefit, favored allies, and worked against his rivals and those who refused to collaborate.

In Nayarit, organized crime and the state took shape through a reciprocal process. Until his downfall in 2017, Veytia appeared the consummate state official, committed to law and order. Even the day that one of his principal allies, the narcotrafficker dubbed H-2, was killed, Veytia stood alongside a federal prosecutor to declare that Nayarit was a bastion of peace and tranquility. He emphasized that the operation against his former ally was not “an act of insecurity, it was an act of security” and that along with the federal government “they formed a team against delinquency.” Veytia would be detained in the United States, a few weeks later, on charges related to a criminal conspiracy to traffic drugs, and eventually pled guilty, suggesting the existence of a messy web of pacts and agreements with federal officials and national politicians in which he was enmeshed. At present, he remains in prison in the United States. In Nayarit, everything remains shrouded in mystery and the nexus of crime and government is far from being untangled.

It is a mistake to think that Veytia is a rotten apple in an otherwise pristine bushel. Veytia is a seasoned criminal entrepreneur, who operated within a state structure characterized by organizational deviation. Personal dispositions are fundamental—characters such as Veytia provide determining factors to the dynamics—but the situational and organizational factors transcend the individual. In Nayarit, as in other states in the country, criminal activity is consubstantial with the modern state. Neither Nayarit nor Veytia are outliers; unfortunately, many of those who present themselves as tough-on-crime in other states, such as Colima or Zacatecas, are also profoundly involved in state apparatuses where the demarcation between crime and government is shady or non-existent.


The Use of Oversimplification to Build the Boundary between State and Crime

It is common practice to encapsulate organized crime as something undeniably wrong, to treat it as a cancer attempting to consume society, or an outside menace that causes harm. In this sense, the designation of a cartel, a gang, or an armed group as being ‘organized crime’ facilitates actions against it.

With the modernization of the federal state, the task of combatting organized crime is typically delegated to violence specialists (for example, the Marines or the National Guard) and state actions are focused on confronting the armed groups. These operations produce battles, casualties and detentions, and elide the complexity of what happens on local levels. In this way, the confrontation with organized crime is limited to combat (or war, by extension) between good and bad.

In places like Tepic, Culiacán, Tijuana, Ciudad Victoria, or La Paz, the very visible deployment of weaponry is only one manifestation of the power that organized crime holds. Its most effective control is through the coercive exercise of violence that has disastrous effects on community life. The confrontation with illegal armed groups is legitimate and necessary, but it does not achieve a reduction in the influence of organized crime in those communities. The reports of violence from Pinos, Zacatecas, are illustrative.

Toward the close of 2022, on November 24, news came that the state coordinator for the Guardia Nacional in Zacatecas, General José Silvestre Urzúa Padilla had been murdered. He was, by accounts, the highest-ranking military official to ever lose their life in that sort of situation. Spectacular confrontations and casualties, the result of operations launched to combat organized crime and rehabilitate the Pino municipal police, did little to alter the situation of illegal cooptation of the state and the entrenched power of organized crime in the region. That sort of state intervention to reclaim territorial control produces high levels of violence but does little to diminish the perennial fear and coercive control, which, far from being atypical, is a fact of life in those communities. The news of Urzúa Padilla’s death was reported as an extraordinary event, disconnected from the litany of death and decomposition that continues to mark life in Pino and its surroundings.

Security or insecurity in neglected municipalities is not determined by military operations or high-impact deaths. Killing as a disciplinary mechanism and the coercive exercise of violence became rooted phenomena through complex arrangements and alliances between legal and illegal powers to control territory, markets, and populations. For example, in places where illegal markets operate, such as in Sonora, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Jalisco, Durango, Zacatecas, or Nayarit, the security arrangements are not made behind the state’s back. There, organized crime either forms part of the dark side of the state, or the state becomes part of organized crime.

In public life, politicians today (from left, right, and center) stoke fear of organized crime as a form of persuasion and a strategy for governing. Panic around crime and criminals is a powerful resource that symbolically reorganizes the world, structuring it around dichotomies, good versus bad, authority versus crime. These constructions tend to “establish order in a universe that seems to have become incomprehensible” (Caldeira, 2007), and this was what López Obrador attempted when he drew the (supposed) line separating criminals from authorities, putting an end to, what he labeled, the chaos of the past.

López Obrador does not like to talk about organized crime, or at least he claims not to. He uses the expression as it suits his interests. Confronting the increase in homicides at the start of 2022, he was quick to assert that, according to La Jornada, 75% of the murders were linked to organized crime. Thus, without substantiation, he deposited responsibility for the violence on a feared and hated phenomenon and avoided acknowledging a more complex reality surrounding violence in the country.

On the other hand, López Obrador occasionally highlights successful operations against leaders of organized criminal groups to establish authority, as he did in 2018 when officially announcing that the arrest of six criminal bosses in Culiacán would put an end to a wave of violence in Tijuana. He utilized the same symbolic resource at the start of 2023 during the operation in Culiacán that resulted in the high-profile arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, suggesting that it would supposedly change everything in the region.

The formula “leaders arrested, problem solved,” as attractive as it is simple, may bring political rewards, but it fails to resolve the problem.

Organized crime in Mexico is not simply a cartel or a cinematic capo standing in opposition to the federal government. In some contexts, it is not even an opponent of the state apparatus. Currently, the most advanced organized crime is integrated into the dynamics of power, particularly in local contexts. It acts on all levels, and imperceptibly participates in the configuration of relationships and transactions in both public and private spheres.

Obviously, confronting this complex and sophisticated phenomenon is difficult, and it requires more subtle measures than simply spectacular captures. Nevertheless, it will always be easier or more convenient to reproduce television fables and combat organized crime by pursuing some hardened criminal with a corresponding alias, such as The Devil, The Beast, The Tiger, The Big One or The Chief of Chiefs (all literal translations of known monikers of members of criminal associations).


La maña (transgression or skill) at the Core of Society

The imbrication of organized crime with daily life is so complete that, for both state and society, it has become nearly imperceptible. The simultaneous manifestation of conflicting emotions relative to organized crime—rejection and admiration, for example—emerges from an ambivalent social and cultural atmosphere that has reinforced its presence at society’s core.

On a global level, this unresolved tension is evident in the media. There are few phenomena that capture as much public attention: depictions of organized crime flood both television and cinema. The broader public is entertained with the mise-en-scène of organized crime: the audience easily jumps from repulsion to fascination. Both entertainment and news media exploit the spectacular images of colorful capos and intermediaries, adorned with silver, vices, music, and queens.

As much as it produces fear, organized crime also fascinates. This ambivalence reinforces the murky relationship between rejection and its acceptance as something that is not only normal, but also powerful and attractive.

On a recent visit to Nayarit, I heard a generic reference to organized crime that is revealing: la maña. The expression, which evokes the contradictory connotations of “artfulness” and “transgression,” lays bare one of the most complex dimensions of the continuity of organized crime in society: its acceptance, or at least incorporation and tolerance in daily social life. That is the artfulness of it: silent, but powerful.

Depending on the perspective, la maña can be positive or negative. It is a common phrase to highlight a personal quality, to denote a certain capability. A person who has maña has a deft hand, they are able to do things well or with ease. Más vale maña que fuerza, artfulness over force, a proverb says. Someone who has maña often comes out ahead.

At the same time, the expression carries negative connotations. A person with much maña is not virtuous, but a person who is crafty and tends to use trickery or deception to achieve their goals. In this context, la maña represents the dark side, deceit, fraud, scams… mixed with force, la maña is power.

La Maña refers, without naming it, to that ethereal organization that is everywhere, controlling movements, schemes, disputes, celebrations, purchases, and sales. In fact, it is present in some way in almost everything. It can be more or less visible, can be represented by local mythical characters or enigmatic figures, it can demonstrate force through uniformed militias or make itself felt through the incessant presence of anonymous individuals. Whether it operates openly or in shadows, it is always there, in control. Local wisdom across the country repeats that it is better not to get involved with La Maña, yet nevertheless everyone knows that it is La Maña that influences everything and reaches everywhere.

La Maña is synonymous with organized crime in Tepic: everyone knows that it exists and that it rules, its success comes from being everywhere without being detected, or, at least, without being confronted (by, among others, the authorities).

The expression and its etymology, then, is palpable and popular evidence that the line between authorities and crime is not so clear.


The Line, Simply, is not so Clear

Nils Christie (2004), a prominent Norwegian critical criminologist wrote that organized crime could be compared to God, because its existence could not be disproved, and its invocation is used or abused for a wide range of purposes. Christie pointed out that organized crime is not a well-defined phenomenon that can be described, measured, and compared. Nevertheless, this circumstance does not mean that it ceases to exist. His perspective emphasizes the necessity of locating it (as a phenomenon), contextualizing it, understanding the cultural contours that define it, examining its activities and interaction with institutions, and studying its malleability and adaptations.

Following these guidelines, it is necessary to trace and assess the paths covered by organized crime in Mexico and its posterior transmission. In many communities in the country, it transitioned over the last few decades, from the margins to become integral to distinct social, political, and economic spheres; not as a rough interloper to exclusive circles, but as an intrinsic part of them. This source of extreme violence that was considered marginal is, today, grafted to the mechanisms of power in many parts of the country. It is no longer a degeneration, but rather an expression of dynamic power relationships.

Although it is officially considered an illegitimate source of power, its effectiveness is undisputed and its capacity to mobilize resources is utilized by most political and economic elites to pursue their interests, to greater or lesser degree, depending on needs or convenience. For example, during the electoral season, organized crime is an anonymous partner with unparalleled importance for many campaigns.

Organized crime is everywhere, and at the same time, nowhere. This insurmountable contradiction is part of its essence. On the one hand, the ubiquity of organized crime arises from the fact that there are opportunities for crime in almost every sector of society. Everything seems to indicate that crime pays, for example in politics, or construction, mining, or investment. On the other hand, the camouflaged, surreptitious manner is due to the fact that in order to be successful, it must operate imperceptibly and install itself without being disturbed. The less it is noticed, the better off it is.

The line between organized crime and the state is not as clear as López Obrador suggests; it never has been, and that is the heart of the problem. Confronting organized crime implies, also, confronting state criminality. The extensive impunity that exists around this criminal partnership solidifies the link between crime and state. The impact of not disassembling it is to ensure that everything remains the same: well camouflaged organized crime, a coopted state, and a subjugated population. A crude acronym from the English military lexicon reflects the situation in many Mexican communities: SNAFU, Situation Normal, All Fucked Up. The description is not of the past, as the current president insists, but reflects the present situation, and probably the future as well.


Michael Reed-Hurtado is the Director of Operations of The Guernica37 Centre. He is a Colombian/US lawyer and journalist with 30 years of experience in the fields of human rights, criminal justice, and humanitarian action, mainly in Latin America, with sporadic work in Asia and Africa. He, also, teaches at Georgetown University, focusing on state crime, denialism and the sociology of lying, and practical dimensions of human rights, transitional justice and negotiated peace settlements.

Note: This text was produced as part of a documentation and analysis initiative dubbed ‘Narra Nayarit’ (Narrating Nayarit), undertaken by Justicia Transicional en México and the Guernica37 Centre. Jorge Peniche, the executive director of JTMX, contributed to this text with his comments on an earlier version.


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