Mexican cartels are fifth-largest employers in the country, study finds

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

Organised crime groups in Mexico have about 175,000 members – making them the fifth-biggest employer in the country, according to new research published in the journal Science.

Related: Son of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman extradited to the US for drug trafficking

Using a decade of data on homicides, missing persons and incarcerations, as well as information about interactions between rival factions, the paper published on Thursday mathematically modeled overall cartel membership, and how levels of violence would respond to a range of policies.

The authors argue that the best way to reduce the bloodshed would be to cut cartel recruitment – whereas locking up more members would actually increase the murder rate.

“More than 1.7 million people in Latin America are incarcerated, and adding more people to saturated jails will not solve the insecurity problem,” wrote the authors.

The number of homicides in Mexico more than tripled between 2007 and 2021 – when the government reported 34,000 victims, or nearly 27 victims for every 100,000 inhabitants – making it one of the deadliest countries in Latin America.

At a national level, two organised crime groups – the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation cartel – battle for domination. But analysts have identified 198 armed groups in Mexico, many of which are subcontractors to bigger players but also undertake local turf disputes.

The paper, titled Reducing cartel recruitment is the only way to lower violence in Mexico, was cautiously welcomed by security analysts in the field. “It is a first of its kind,” said Victoria Dittmar, a researcher for the Insight Crime thinktank, who did not take part in the study. “I haven’t seen any other estimates of how many people we believe are somehow related to criminal groups.”

But Dittmar said the figure would depend on the definition of a cartel and what constitutes membership, since working for a crime faction is very different to being formally employed.

“It can be very difficult to say who is a member of a criminal organisation, and who isn’t,” said Dittmar. “What about a politician that receives money? Or someone who cooperates with the group just once?”

The idea of targeting cartel recruitment to reduce violence is itself not new, said Valentin Pereda, a professor at the University of Montreal who also was not involved in the study.

Related: As Mexico’s epidemic of violence rages on, authorities seem powerless to stop it

“If cartels cannot recruit, then they cannot replace their losses, then they cannot keep fighting each other,” said Pereda. “It makes sense. But until now no one had provided a data-based assessment of how it would work in practice.”

But it is one thing to say recruitment should be reduced, and another to come up with policies to make that happen.

Not every member of an organised crime group is involved in violent activities, which means specific subgroups must be targeted separately.

These include the typical profile of the young, working-class man who might be recruited as a sicario – or gunman – or to enforce territorial control. But they also include highly trained deserters from the Mexican police and the militaries across Latin America.

Pereda added that reducing recruitment is also far from the only way to reduce violence, arguing that disarming the cartels must be a central part of any strategy.

“One thing that is missing from this study is that violence in Mexico is also a product of the weaponry that is used,” said Pereda. “We’re not talking about people with knives going at each other in a bar. We’re talking about paramilitary units with military-grade weapons.”

The paper enters a debate across Latin America as to how best to reduce violence, encapsulated by two starkly different approaches in Mexico and El Salvador.

Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador’s “hugs, not bullets” policy makes a similar case to that of the new paper: that by offering economic alternatives to young people, they would be less tempted to join cartels, and violence would fall.

Calderón sends in the army

Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops on to the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.

Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counterproductive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count skyrocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.

Kingpin strategy

Simultaneously, Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.

That policy resulted in some high-profile successes – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva, who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.

Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.

But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.

'Hugs not bullets'

The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo, as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.

“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.

Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong national guard. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.

Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders a day.

As implemented, however, the strategy has failed to reduce overall violence, which has increased during this administration.

In El Salvador, meanwhile, President Nayib Bukele has drastically reduced violence by doing precisely the opposite of what the paper prescribes: around 2% of the country’s population has been jailed in a mass incarceration spree that has prompted accusations of systematic human rights violations.

Related: El Salvador crackdown breaks the gangs – at huge cost to human rights

“The logic behind Bukele’s strategy is not to incarcerate all gang members, but to use those who are incarcerated as hostages and make their safety behind bars conditional to the behaviour of their associates who are not imprisoned,” said Pereda.

Pereda doubts such a strategy would work in Mexico, where it would imply an even more draconian policy of incarceration – and human rights abuses.

“But the experience of El Salvador shows that organised crime groups are political entities – and that you can devise ways to manipulate their behaviour by treating them as such.”