Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley on the Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico

Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley
Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley

Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley join the podcast to discuss the politics behind Mexico’s criminal wars. Guillermo is an Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame. Sandra is an Assistant Professor at CIDE’s Political Studies Division in Mexico City. They are the authors of Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico.

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Up to today, since the Mexican government deployed the military in 2006 up to the present, Mexico has experienced close to 200,000 battle deaths. That’s roughly the number of battle deaths that took place in the civil war in Guatemala. So, the 36 year old civil war in Guatemala that produced approximately 200,000 battle deaths. That’s where Mexico is right now.

Guillermo Trejo

Key Highlights Include

  • A vivid description of the effects of the criminal wars in Mexico
  • How autocracy allows for the proliferation of organized crime
  • Why Mexico remains an ‘illiberal democracy’
  • How polarization exacerbated criminal violence in Mexico
  • The importance of deeper degrees of democratization

Podcast Transcript

Max Weber defined the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate force within a given territory.” I have a lot of problems with this definition. For starters, legitimacy is a fuzzy term. Some states lack any legitimacy, while subnational governments frequently challenge the authority of their national governments. But Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley offer a novel critique. They argue the line between legitimate force and the criminal underworld is often unclear. They refer to a gray zone of criminality where the state interacts with the criminal underworld to allow the formation of organized crime. 

Guillermo Trejo is an Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame. Sandra Ley is an Assistant Professor at CIDE’s Political Studies Division in Mexico City. They are the authors of Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico. 

Our conversation goes in-depth to explain the political dynamics that brought about the rise of the criminal wars, its escalation, and the consequences of Mexico’s incomplete process of democratization. Indeed, this is not just a conversation about Mexico or the drug cartels. This is really a conversation about democratization and how authoritarian spaces will inevitably undermine democracy.

This is a complex topic. For those unfamiliar with Mexican politics, I have written a brief primer at You will also find a full transcript, so you can read along. I’m also available through email at But for now… This is my conversation with Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley…


Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Sandra Ley

Thank you, Justin.

Guillermo Trejo

Thank you, Justin. Pleasure to be here.


Well Guillermo and Sandra, your book describes how organized criminal gangs seized actual political control in some parts of Mexico. You guys are very professional political scientists, but you tackle a topic that has very real meaning for real people. One of your examples that brings this to life was the state of Michoacán. Paint a picture for us of how criminal gangs seized political control in Michoacán and its cities.

Guillermo Trejo

Well, I think what’s important is to really put this into a very brief context. This development of de facto political powers is this really happening in the context of an actual war. The Mexican state declared the war against the cartels in 2006. The military throughout Mexico’s territory engaged into 14 military campaigns to militarily fight the drug cartels and the private militias. And what happened is that they follow one specific strategy which is called the kingpin strategy, decapitate the cartels, and that created lots of fragmentation, lots of competition. And it’s in the context of that competition among cartels and former members of cartels and private militias, private armies that control over the municipality became relevant. All of these groups are fighting over drug trafficking corridors, but soon they realized that they needed to expand. They need to move into other types of illicit activities.

So, in Michoacán in a major election cycle in 2011, they attack candidates. Many candidates gave up on the race. Others were assassinated. Following this wave of attacks, they took control over the municipalities. They demanded mayors to surrender between 10 and 20% of their budgets. They seized control over the municipal police. They also took control over key positions in the municipal governments related to taxation, related to property tax and to control over the economy, any of those activities within the municipality that related to the relation of restaurants and hotels or economic activity like the avocado production or the lime production or strawberries production, berries production in general, which is very widespread in Michoacán. Any of your viewers who goes grocery shopping realizes that many of their avocados come from Michoacán, the limes come from Michoacán, and the strawberries come from Michoacán.

Well, many of these cartels took control over the supply of the production of many of these, commodities. So, it’s taking control of governments, populations, territories. That’s what we mean by criminal governance It’s a de facto form of governance. These are not groups that try to control the country as a whole. They don’t want to take political power nationally, but they want to control , localities, towns, and municipalities in multiple parts of the country to remain competitive in the struggle for drug trafficking corridors.


Now the organized criminal gangs, they existed before the process of democratization within Mexico. They’ve existed for a very long time. You guys, make that clear within the book. But at the same time, the escalation of violence happened after democratization when the battle deaths started to dramatically increase. Sandra, how did the PRI manage criminal gangs before democratization differently?

Sandra Ley

Thanks Justin this is a crucial part of our argument and a good point of departure for the book. An essential characteristic of organized crime is its dependence on state protection networks, what we call the gray zone of criminality in which organized crime and the state coexist. And this gray zone of criminality has its origin in authoritarianism. So that authoritarian past in the PRI as a dominant party, it was crucial to have the support of armed forces, of the police. Authoritarian leaders need to strengthen security forces as a way to protect themselves from threats. And the specialists in violence, as we call them, have an advantage in violence and information gathering with impunity. That’s an essential element. But this gives them very valuable skills in the criminal underworld.

As a way to protect themselves from coups, authoritarian state leaders give this sort of freedom for security agents to keep regulation over the criminal underworld. And that is partly what happened in Mexico, as well as in Chile and Brazil among other countries. In Mexico, the PRI’s one-party regime allowed special military units fighting urban and rural realists during Mexico’s dirty war in the 1970s to run drug operations. So, under the lead of the Federal Security Directorate, Mexico’s militarized secret service agency, elite members of the military together with the federal police back then were carrying out anti-insurgency operations and were playing also a fundamental role in anti-drug operations.

As historians, like Adela Cedillo have shown, this coercive power and impunity that they had during the Dirty War and the War on Drugs back then enabled these forces to regroup the country’s main traffickers in the Guadalajara cartel back then, as well as regulate, protect, and profit from the drug industry. So that enabled an organization of the criminal underworld in a way that was relatively peaceful, without meaning at all that violence was absent in some episodes, but that allowed it to regulate. And this is part of that authoritarian past which actually led to many more consequences in that process of democratization.


So, before we go on, I want to get something clear. And this was a point that I drew from your book that I thought was absolutely astounding. My gut would have said that the reason why the criminal gangs were more controlled in an authoritarian context was because of some form of mano dura. A set of just draconian laws that they were able to impose order upon society. But your research actually shows the opposite. That rather than having a sense of mano dura, I mean, they did. But it’s not what we think of. They were actually participating with these criminal gangs so, there was a sense of peace because they had drawn a sense of coexistence between the state and these criminal gangs.

There’s a quote in your book that caught my attention where you write, “Something specific about autocracies, which we associate with how coercion is used and the role and status of state specialists in violence turns these types of political regimes into a germane political space where the nexus between state coercive actors and criminals is more likely to develop.” Why is it that we associate mano dura with these authoritarian regimes? Why is it that mano dura did not crack down on these criminal organizations, but rather allowed them to proliferate before democratization?

Guillermo Trejo

I think a crucial point is that it is members of the military and the multiple police forces that Mexico had and members of the secret service who, on the one hand, they were repressing political dissidents. But, on the other hand, they were allowed to profit from the criminal underworld as Sandra explained. It was a loyalty payback to keep specialists in violence away from thinking of engaging in a coup d’état. One way to buy off their loyalties is to allow them to engage into the criminal underworld. So, it’s actually crucial to understand, I think for our book, and in general, if you want to understand dynamics of organized crime and criminal wars in Mexico and Latin America, is that we cannot see the government as a homogenous entity.

The idea of the gray zone is that some members of the military and the police are actually colluded with organized criminal groups and they enable organized crime. But others are not. And often the ones who are not engaged since they come from the same authoritarian rule, they use iron fist policies to fight their comrades who have defected to the criminal underworld or who have engaged in coalitions with them.

So, it is a situation that we have in many countries in Latin America from El Salvador, in Brazil. That it’s members of the military fighting other members of the military or those defected from the military. And I think that the case that really brings the point home is the case of the Zetas, or the Zetas, members of elite forces of the Mexican military who defected from the military and became the armed branch, the private military, of the Gulf Cartel. And that’s why these are not cases of irregular warfare. These are cases of symmetric warfare, because it’s people who had similar training, have similar weapons, many of them coming from the U.S., that, fight each other.

So, I think it’s crucial to understand that both things can coexist: Specialists in violence who corrupt themselves and engage in the criminal underworld and those who stay in power who use iron fist policies to fight them. I think what’s crucial here, and this would be sort of my takeaway point on this issue, is the question of accountability. To the extent that specialists in violence commit atrocities during authoritarian rule and they go on punished, they usually use this force and cartel-related tension and violence for many purposes, to repress it or to corrupt themselves. And this is crucial to understand both how the criminal underworld flourishes, but also how states fight and by fighting they generate more violence rather than create conditions of peace.


I think this brings up a very important point. So, Guillermo, you didn’t say it explicitly, but the process of democratization is not just about political democratization. It’s not just about bringing in elections. It’s not simply saying that there’s political competition now. You have a great passage where you write, “Opposition governors did not necessarily democratize their police forces and their judicial systems. They simply appointed their loyalists to the new positions.” Most of us don’t think of the process of democratization to include both law enforcement and the judicial branch, but it does. So, Sandra, can you help explain, help clarify a little bit more how is Mexico’s process of democratization still incomplete?

Sandra Ley

Yes, in the case of Mexico, we argue Mexico is a textbook case of an illiberal democracy. It is a country that experienced an electoral transition to a multi-party democracy in 2000, but without a corresponding development of democratic rule of law. In Mexico, the PRI lost power after seven decades of uninterrupted hegemonic rule, but a key element here is that post-authoritarian elites failed to introduce any meaningful reform, particularly in terms of the role of the military, the police, the justice system, all of which were able to continue to operate as authoritarian spaces that were able to reproduce and enable their regeneration of safe protection networks, for example, of that gray zone of criminality and the continuation of organized crime.

So, electoral democracy in that very minimal definition did not enable that, authoritarian past to be erased or to understand that that didn’t have a space anymore in this new phase of the political system. Instead, it was able just to reconfigure itself and to continue proliferating, enabling organized crime perhaps on a different format and in different ways. But it was present. So, when opposition governors were just replacing police forces this meant that the state protection networks were initially breaking apart, leading to a lot of uncertainty within the criminal underworld, but that meant that they had to do something about it.

They had to respond to that threat that democratization was posing to them. But in no way in that process is meant that police couldn’t be corrupted or that they could not find other ways to find that protection and information. And in that case, what we see is that they were able to produce their own private militias. And this goes back to what Guillermo was talking about, the Zetas, by producing their own military forces privately to create that security for themselves. And in that sense, democracy only opened the door for the proliferation of many more nonstate armed actors that had a space in that political system because those security forces and the incentives for the rest of the political actors had not changed.


I find it interesting how you refer to it as an illiberal democracy, because the country that we think of most often as illiberal today is Hungry whose Viktor Orbán has truly embraced the idea of illiberal democracy. And it often refers to a sense of taking away those liberal rights and guarantees, but in Mexico when we see illiberalism, people are losing their civil rights, losing their civil liberties, but not necessarily always because the state has taken them away. But because these private military forces are seizing them and leaving people in a poor state.

There was a quote from a scholar, Andreas Schedler who wrote an article called, “The Criminal Subversion of Mexican Democracy.” And let me just read that to you, “When societal actors build private organizations of violence and wage private wars against rival organizations, against the state, and against non-combatant citizens, we are forcefully reminded that the liberal agenda requires more than just the taming of the state. It also requires the pacification of society. Otherwise, the formal democratic promise of individual liberty risks suffocation, not by authoritarian state agents, but by authoritarian citizens.” So, I find it fascinating the way that the illiberalism is actually brought forth, not just by the state, but actually by criminal agents that are not directly linked to the state.

Guillermo Trejo

So, I think it’s actually fascinating the comparison you’re making with Hungry and we are experiencing in several parts of the world, Latin America, Eastern Europe, central Europe, even in the U.S., processes of democratic erosion and processes of autocratization. So, you go from democracy when you start undermining some liberal rights and liberties, and then you eventually moved to autocracy. I think it might be important to think about the reverse. We almost took it for granted in the nineties if you can institute free and fair elections and market economies, both economic and political competition, would create prosperous and peaceful societies. Now what we’ve discovered in the past 20 years is that the process is far more complex. And it often doesn’t lead to prosperity, because if we just think in terms of minimalist measures, minimalist economic reforms, minimalist political reforms.

If we think in terms of minimalist democracy, which became the mantra in 1990s, just free and fair elections, and then voters would take care of all of that. Well, it so happens that voters did not take care of reforming the military and the police and the judiciary and that down the road voters are actually electing autocrats. So, I think it’s very important to realize for countries that are about to engage into, I believe, processes of democratization like Venezuela, hopefully that it’s not just about having free and fair elections, as Sandra was saying, if you keep up on many of the other reforms. And here’s where it’s absolutely crucial to not give up on the past, because often people would say forget about what happened in the past just adopt market economies free and fair elections and prosperity is in the future.

That’s really not the case. And what we’ve known is that when civil society, groups of victims, human rights NGOs, and the international community, and by this, I don’t mean foreign countries, but specifically the United Nations or the Organization of American States. If they support local forces in specific countries to actually push for the second and third wave of democratization or these reforms of the institutions that Sandra was referring to. Those countries, and we can think of Chile or we can think of, surprisingly, other countries like Peru, you know, the countries that had transitional justice processes, countries that engage into major reforms. Those countries do not experience the levels of violence that countries that gave up on those before including El Salvador or Mexico, partially Guatemala.

So, it’s crucial to keep in mind, illiberal democracy can come from undermining democratic rights, but it’s also a problem of period. Mexico was born not as a democracy. It was born as a minimalist or an illiberal democracy and that has consequences for peace and for violence.


One of the challenges when we depend on voters in a minimalist democracy to be able to make those reforms of the military and the judicial branch is that the politicians that they’re voting for may be acting in bad faith. They may claim to have a mano dura policy agenda and then when they get elected, they’ve really been coopted by the organized criminal gangs all along. They’ve really been just a man of the cartel. So, the voters can be taken advantage of in the process of elections. So, Sandra, you’ve done far more research on this than I have, obviously. How did organized criminal gangs continue to corrupt Mexican politics after democratization?

Sandra Ley

Yeah, taking this point of departure that we’ve been discussing now on this electronic transition from one party rule to multi-party democracy without the judicial and police reforms and a transitional justice process that could dismantle networks of criminality, state specialists in violence that had forged under the PRI’s long period of authoritarian rule. This meant that in this new democratic era networks were being reconfigured. As we have said, that there was the chance of, most importantly, as I mentioned before, the possibility of private militias. These organized crime groups were able to use as a way to gather information and as a way to protect themselves. But once a cartel does this, this means that other cartels have to do the same. And that’s the first stage that we were seeing in the 1990s.

Which let’s recall, and perhaps we haven’t made enough emphasis on this, is that Mexico’s transition to democracy, it’s not that it starts in 2000 and that’s how we end up in a democracy. There’s a bottom-up process from the subnational units. So, we see that in the 1980s and the 1990s, we see party alternation in states. And this means, as we have said before that there are changes within police and key security positions within the states. This shapes protection networks locally and this democratization process, bottom-up right at the subnational level, this means several adjustments within the criminal underworld. First of all, trying to find a way to protect themselves, to gather information, creating private militias, that led to sort of a competition process across cartels, trying to arm themselves in that way.

First of all, but at the same time, I think that we want to make an important emphasis on this element that was missing within the democratization process in Mexico on the lack of transitional justice mechanisms that were able to dismantle protection networks and that were able to reconfigure the specialists in violence. So, that I would say is one first element on how they were able to corrupt Mexican politics. It has to do again with the character of democratization. And second, it has to do with, as a strategy, is that organized crime groups were following as a way to protect themselves.

And unlike other views focusing on 2000 being the point in which the national democratization was shaking everything in general, what our approach is to think about the subnational level politics and that level of democratization in which this changes within some national politics were only introducing new forms of corruption, new forms of state protection networks, initially shaking the criminal underworld generating violence. But at the same time, being able to find certain stability in terms of being able, as you say, to buy security forces, to being able to corrupt the judiciary too, and that is part of how organized crime is able not only to gather information, but eventually also, operate with impunity and overall carry out all this process later on in 2006, when we are facing, then a whole new face of violence in Mexico.


So, Guillermo, as subnational politics in Mexico started to open up political liberalization, where different parties could actually control governorships, different parties could control cities. It sounds like the organized criminal gangs, the cartels, began to feel insecure. And out of that insecurity, they began to dramatically arm themselves and take their own security into their own hands. Am I reading that right?

Guillermo Trejo

That’s absolutely correct. And that’s a crucial point in Mexico’s contemporary history. The moment when cartels no longer relied exclusively on police protection, because by the late 1980s, early 90s, there was no longer the military, but the subnational police, the state police providing their protection. When they could not take it for granted, because parties were elected and parties were removed. Because the transition process that Sandra just explained, the bottom-up process, created all this uncertainty, they took the historical decision to take their security in their own hands and to do that. They recruited members of the police and members of the military. This happened first in Baja California, in Mexico’s Northwest, and then it happened in Chihuahua and then it happened in Jalisco and then it happened in Nuevo León.

And every time a state experienced the breakdown of one party rule and you had opposition parties coming into office and this uncertainty was created, that’s when the cartels created their own private militias. To make the long story short, there was a very intense in the nineties and early 2000s an arms race by which every new cartel whose home state or their place of residence experienced democratization decided they could not rely on the state police for protection. They had to create their own private militia. But the guys next door had just done that a few years ago. And farther west, the other guys had done it.

So, by the time the Gulf Cartel, which is the last of the five major cartels, created their own private militia. They knew that they had five dogs coming after their turf. So, that’s when they said we have to put our act together and we cannot just afford recruiting members of the police, but we have to go for the military and we have to go for the highest trained members of the military. And that’s when Mexico entered into a new era when the most highly trained members of the military, some of whom had received their training in Guatemala by the caudillos who fought the civil war in Guatemala. Others have come here from the U.S. They were fighting indigenous groups in the South. They had kept them on the control. They were for all practical purposes, not unemployed, but they were not busy.

And the Gulf Cartel was able to recruit them. And that’s when Mexico, entering a new era of atrocities, because many of the atrocities that were used in Guatemala during the genocide, those are the practices that the Zetas used. The practices of gross human rights violations that were conducted in Mexico in the seventies that survive, the level of brutality that you see in Mexico in some of the more civil wars in places like Guatemala then were brought into Mexico.

And that’s why the levels of brutality that you see in Mexico in these wars are very much like some of the more civil wars of the second half of the 20th century in terms of forced disappearances, in terms of clandestine massacres, in terms of extra judicial executions, in terms of the local control that the Zetas began taking in Northeastern Mexico, criminal extortion, killing anyone who didn’t want to pay taxes. And this is all linked to populations who are leaving. That’s when Mexico starts having these massive waves of political asylum petitions. Similar dynamics are leading people from Central America, from El Salvador, from Honduras escaping from similar realities to apply for political asylum.

So, the Mexican government and the U.S. government, when they think that these are economic refugees trying to get into the U.S., they are getting a big part of the story wrong. Because they’re escaping from realities that are very similar to civil wars. And to a great extent, some of these are war refugees, but we don’t want to call them like that. Some of these folks are escaping from criminal governance, but we don’t call that politics. Because U.S. authorities or international authorities, they have this conception of politics that has to do with the Second World War. So, if you are escaping Nazism and communism, you can take refuge in this country. And if you’re escaping from a World War, you can take refuge in this country.

But to the extent that we don’t call the realities that they are leaving countries, like El Salvador and Mexico, wars. And these are wars, different types of wars. We call them criminal wars. And to the extent that we’re not prepared to call these de facto power as political power, people are escaping from these small autocracies that the cartels in coalition with subnational government officials are creating, but we don’t want to call those political dynamics. And to the extent that we fail to do that, we’re undermining all the rights of many of these people who are escaping their countries to safeguard their children, their daughters, their sons, and future generations.


Guillermo, I want to ask you a follow-up question to that. In your book, you actually refer to battle deaths. It’s not something we normally think of when we’re talking about cartel violence. Can you give us some idea of how large these battle deaths were between the different cartels and compare them maybe to some of the civil wars that exist?

Guillermo Trejo

So, very succinctly, up to today, since the Mexican government deployed the military in 2006 up to the present, Mexico has experienced close to 200,000 battle deaths. That’s roughly the number of battle deaths that took place in the civil war in Guatemala. So, the 36 year old civil war in Guatemala that produced approximately 200,000 battle deaths. That’s where Mexico is right now. And at the pace we’re going, by the end of the current López Obrador administration, Mexico will be around 350,000 battle deaths which is very much what Columbia experiencing in half a century of civil war. Let me emphasize. These are not civil wars, because these are not cartels and organized groups that want like the FARC in Colombia to become national rulers.

But in the multiple conflicts in which they are engaged, they are trying to seize local controls. In these wars of the state against these groups, and these turf wars among these groups, the death toll is significantly higher. Between seven and 10 times higher than the median battle death of the typical civil war of the second half of the 20th century. And there is much more than that. There’s also 90,000 people missing in Mexico right now. You know, you take all the South American countries under dictatorship and Mexico to this day has more cases of disappearance than all the Southern Cone countries together in the 1970s, clandestine mass graves, femicides, and so on and so forth. We grossly underestimate, because we don’t have the categories to understand that this is not just private violence. These are private groups. This is the nexus. And this is why the concept of the gray zone is so important. It’s the nexus between private actors and state actors that are producing these levels of violence.


So, Sandra cities and states that were controlled or governed by leftist politicians actually faced significantly higher violence within their jurisdiction. Can you help us understand why organized criminal gangs targeted cities and states governed by leftist politicians?

Sandra Ley

Thanks, Justin. That’s a very long answer that I will have to share because it has important background in Mexican politics that I think it’s important to recall. Iit is important to go back right to 2000 when Vicente Fox was the first opposition president that came to power in Mexico. But something that we saw during his administration is a conflict between the left and the right. It started back then between Vicente Fox and current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, back then part of the PRD left party. Vicente Fox part of the right party, the PAN. And there was a confrontation that reached a peak when president Fox accused Lopez Obrador of violating a court order that halted the construction of a hospital access over private property.

And this confrontation escalated and became subject to impeachment by the Mexican Congress in April of 2005 just as the parties were preparing for the 2006 election. This would mean that Lopez Obrador would have to face trial and would no longer be eligible for the presidential office.


When we talk about Lopez Obrador that’s the current president now of Mexico, just to clarify. Right?

Sandra Ley

That’s right. So, current President Lopez Obrador, back then part of the PRD, the left party, not part of MORENA. He was about to face trial. He would no longer be eligible to run for president or office in 2006, despite leading the polls back then. So, after a major protest President Fox had to drop all the charges and Lopez Obrador, also known as AMLO, was able to run for president in 2006. The 2006 presidential campaign took place in a highly polarized environment between the left and the right and the victory of the conservative president Felipe Calderon from the PAN, rightist party in Mexico. He won by a razor thin margin of 0.6%. So, it was a very close election and this also led to further polarization and protests in the streets where López Obrador did not concede defeat actually.

The PRD, his party back then, they announced major electoral fraud. There was contestation in the streets and in the courts, and facing this major post-electoral crisis and a rise of inter cartel violence that we had already been seeing, because of all this process that we have described before about private militias and multiplication of private arm actors that were already fighting. Well, President Calderon began his administration in that context, both polarization and rising violence. And that’s when in his inauguration speech, he announces this new strategy which has become known as a War on Drugs. It was launched in a context of acute political polarization with a conservative federal government that was facing a leftist position. And that intervention characterized the military was reflecting such political biases.


So, what you’re saying is that they politicized the War on Drugs right out the gate.

Sandra Ley

Exactly. That’s exactly what happened. There were electoral incentives for playing a role in this militarized strategy against organized crime. So, as you point, Justin, our evidence reveals that the intervention succeeded to contain drug violence in those municipalities and states led by the PAN, the party that was governing at the national level. But actually, we’re seeing more intense levels of violence in those states that were being governed by the left, the PRD party. So, this points to a politicization process, but it was happening at different levels. What’s happening is when violence was occurring in PAN led states, there was coordination, there were daily meetings, there was a media strategy for managing any kind of electoral consequences that it would have for the electorate. Whereas in PRD led states, there was no coordination. There were no daily meetings.

Instead, there was intervention by the federal government without consultation or coordination with local level officials. There was also a role for the communication strategy in front of the media by the federal government pointing to the corruption that was happening in left led states which, of course, as we have discussed in this conversation before. It wasn’t that corruption was just present in PRD states and not in PAN. This was more of a systemic characteristic, but that was sort of underplayed in PAN led states and overplayed in PRD led states. Mexican cartels took the advantage of seeing that political vulnerability of leftist authorities and were able to take advantage of bad circumstances to threaten and attack mayors and party candidates.

This meant that not only mayors and party candidates were being threatened. But that there was also more intense competition to go over those territories because they knew that those territories that were vulnerable. But also going against the civilian population because there was no one that was going to come out and help and provide that federal intervention social assistance. So, this is happening or playing up at different levels. At the military level, providing the intervention that was necessary in a coordinated way with local level authorities. At an economic level, providing social assistance which through security funds that were able to better professionalize and equip local security forces. And at the same time provide the protection that civilian population and mayors needed to keep on going despite the threats that they were facing.


So, let me just clarify something. As criminal violence escalated within these areas of jurisdiction that the PRD governed, the PAN actually had an incentive to see that violence escalate. Because if the violence escalated, they could say, ‘Oh , see how poorly the PRD governs these areas.’ So, not only did they just allow it to happen, but they benefited politically as well.

Guillermo Trejo

Yeah, that was the intention. Whether they did or not is a different question because they lost power in 2012. But I think what’s crucial here in this story that Sandra outlined is that not only did the Mexican President have an incentive to cooperate with his party in a sense and to punish his political enemies. But also, that he was able to do it. And I think this takes us back to the nature of the transition, to the minimalist nature of the transition by which the President could control the military and the military was only responsible to the President to the extent that the President would politicize the use of the military, could politicize the use of the federal police without accountability.

The number one minister of security of Calderón, who’s now in prison awaiting a trial in New York city, and we know by now was deeply corrupted and engage into multiple forms of corruption with different cartels, specifically the Sinaloa Cartel. All that could happen because there was no accountability, no external accountability. So, Sandra was also saying the President could use the Attorney General’s office to persecute those mayors. He said, ‘Well, they’re possibly colluded with organized crime.’ Well, maybe they’re unprotected. They’re vulnerable. Maybe they have no other choice. But to the extent that the President politicized this it creates again incentives for cartels to attack leftist areas which seem to be vulnerable.

So, I would emphasize both the incentives that they had and the possibility of doing it and now just for your audience in the U.S. what I would say is that this is not just a phenomenon that is Mexico specific. This is something that we see in federations in times of polarization. Think about under President Trump during the pandemic. One image that really comes to mind, when there was this abduction attempt against the Governor of Michigan that the President very much said you’re on your own. That’s exactly what happened in the context of the War on Drugs in Mexico. That President Calderon basically said to leftist governors, ‘You’re on your own.’ And to mayors regardless of party in those states, states like Michoacán, or states like Zacatecas, or states like Guerrero, the President said, you’re on your own.

And that’s when it’s not just about the cartels. It’s not just the private. It’s also the political incentives. And this is what we mean when, democracy, electrical mechanisms, and drug violence become intertwined. This is what happens. This is the setting. Sandra just explained a vivid example of that happening. The intertwining of the narcopolitics of violence that it’s not just about El Chapo Guzmán and the drug lords. It’s also about the President and the governors and the mayors and the members of the military and the police.


So, Guillermo just brought up the fact that the PAN didn’t hold on to power. And that’s because there’s a third party in all of this, which was the PRI which is an authoritarian successor party. And we haven’t even mentioned them. A lot of the polarization was between the PAN and the PRD. And to be honest, it’s always puzzled me the fact that the PRI as an authoritarian successor party is almost a centrist middle of the road party. It’s very bizarre. Normally an authoritarian successor party is either very conservative in Latin America or it’s very liberal such as in Eastern Europe or the former communist states. So, Sandra, can you help explain what was the role of the PRI during this massive phase of polarization between the PRD and the PAN?

Sandra Ley

Yeah, it’s important to know that this could have been a story in which this is Calderon facing the opposition in general just trying to make sure, as you say Justin, that his party was able to win against the opposition in general. But that’s not the case here, as you know. The fact is that this was about a confrontation, an open confrontation with the left. And what we find in those municipalities led by the PRI, in PRI states, is that we don’t see that spike of violence as it was the case of the PRD led states. So, in those cases of subnational regions that were ruled by the PRI, we saw increasing violence, but not this increase that we were seeing in left led states.

That’s an important piece of information in terms of the evidence that we’re able to gather first of all, so that already tells us that this is not about the PAN against the opposition. This is about a confrontation between the left and the right. Second, we have to analyze what was happening as you say, Justin, about the other politics that were taking place for the PAN. So, Felipe Calderon was also engaging in a series of reform, including labor reform, for example, for which he needed legislative support for it to pass through Congress. And the PRI became that legislative ally to make sure that part of his agenda, of his policy agenda, was able to have a future within his administration.

And so, the PRI was that legislative ally that he had to count on for governance to take place otherwise with that open confrontation with the left it would not have happened. So that was also part of the politicization in a different way to make sure that he was able to govern at another level. And so what we see in places, for example, like Chihuahua, which back then was governed by the PRI, they were able to find a strategy in terms of economic funds that were able to be channeled after that spike in violence in 2010 into that fight. For example, social assistance, economic assistance, financial assistance, to make sure that they were able to go through right at a reconfiguration of social institutions, a new professionalization and equipment for local security forces.

That was something that was available for PRI authorities in Chihuahua, which is not what happened in Michoacán which was led by the PRD. The strategy was to argue about the corruption that Michoacán was facing, not coordinating at all. And that meant also a very distinct path in violence whereas those PRI led states and municipalities were able to have the resources to face and confront crime. That wasn’t the case in PRD led states. So, let’s say that there are two levels of the game here. At the national level politics and that there’s a subnational level.


So, your research focuses on a time in Mexico when the PAN controlled the presidency. A lot has changed in Mexico. The PRI won the next administration and after that AMLO, he is now president. So, we now have a president of the left. How has the dynamics of criminal violence changed under AMLO’s presidency? And maybe for the future, how should he approach it differently than it has been done in the past?

Guillermo Trejo

So, what I would say is that it’s crucial to understand that after the transition to democracy, the PRI did not completely deflate. The PRI became that third Whig party until it was brought back to power. It was never really a centrist party. It was a center right party. And that’s why Sandra was saying the PAN and PRI were these strange bedfellows, who could actually get together, not the left, the PRD. And that’s why under Peña Nieto when the PRI was brought back to power in 2012, the PAN and the PRI really came together in a very important policy push.

And you can fast forward to 2018 and to today, what you really have is a bipolar order in which, at one extreme you have AMLO on the left who left the PRD and created his own political force, MORENA, his own political party, a movement party. And then on the other extreme, the PAN and the PRI and the PRD, so it’s two extremes left and right. It’s the new politics of polarization in Mexico. AMLO was elected very much under an anti-corruption and anti-crime ticket. Someone who would do things differently. It’s been quite a surprise. There’s been a great turn around. AMLO did not turn out to be the leftist populist president everyone was expecting.

He’s more neoliberal on macroeconomic policy than any of his predecessors. He’s very stingy with money. He’s like an old-fashioned monetarist. Margaret Thatcher would be proud of him, the way he’s managed the fiscal expenditure in times of crisis. So, that’s on the one hand. What’s quite surprising under AMLO is that he established rather than reform, rather than move Mexico beyond illiberal democracy to expand rights and create a liberal democracy with leftist policies. He’ very much reinforced many of the old politics. He’s established a strategic coalition with the military. No president has had such a strong relation with the military. So, he’s created his own National Guards under the command of the military and the military has been deployed. It’s present. It’s not… he declared officially that the war was over, but levels of violence are as high if not higher than in the past.

AMLO is adopting social policies that are perhaps good to deal with ordinary crime, but not with a country that faces more than 200 organized criminal groups fighting for turf. Levels of violence that are higher than any other civil war. AMLO is in denial. He doesn’t accept the level of atrocities, the level of crisis that Mexico is experiencing. He believes that by adopting strategic social policies here that young males, that this is basically an economic issue. A few selective policies on human rights issues, but no fundamental reform of the judiciary, of the police, of the military. So, we don’t see much change, because the structural features are still there. The president famously has said, ‘I’m not declaring war. I’m all for talks rather than fighting.’ But that hasn’t led us very far.

The final point I would emphasize is that there’s ways out. Indeed, I would say I agree with AMLO. We don’t need Rambo. We need Sherlock Holmes. Countries have shown that through intelligence and judicial prosecution often with a very active civil involvement and international support, that’s example of Guatemala, countries can overcome the levels of violence that Mexico is experiencing. Just with social policy and having a strong military presence throughout the country that’s not sufficient and reality’s proving that that’s not enough.


Well, thank you both so much for joining me. When I picked up your book, Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico, I really did not realize how much this book was really going to be about democratization. I really did not have any idea how insightful and how much theory you were going to introduce into this work. I knew it was going to be a lot about the drug war and I knew it was going to be a lot about cartels in Mexico, but your book is so much more than that. It’s one of the most impressive reads I’ve had in the past year. Just thank you so much for writing it. This just such a brilliant book. Thank you.

Guillermo Trejo

Thank you, Justin.

Sandra Ley

Thank you for reading so closely. Thank you for your kind words, Justin.

Key Links

Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico by Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley

Follow Guillermo Trejo on Twitter @Gtrejo29

Follow Sandra Ley on Twitter @sjleyg

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