Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

Mexico Violence Slows, Numbers Remain Staggering

March 5, 2012 12:31 p.m.


David Shirk is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego

Related Story: USD Report Tallies Victims Of Mexican Drug-War Violence


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Read Transcript

CAVANAUGH: Anyone who has been paying attention to the use in the last several years knows that dug cartel violence in Mexico has claimed many lives. A new report says 50,000 people in Mexico have been murdered as a result of the directing wars in the last five years. The news is staggering. That number was compiled by the property institute at the university of San Diego, and it's part of a larger study about drug violence in Mexico. It traces the roots of the violence, and gives some recommendations on how to slow it down. My guest, David Shirk, is professor of political science, and director of the property institute at the university of San Diego. Welcome to the show.

SHIRK: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how did your study get this information about the number of drug violence deaths in Mexico?

SHIRK: Well, the property institute has been monitoring drug related violence in Mexico for media reports since 2007, and last year, the Mexican government released new data that we were able to corroborate, using our existing data sources from primarily Reforma newspaper in Mexico City. In January, the Mexican government released new data for 2011.

CAVANAUGH: There was some reluctance on the part of Mexican government to release this information, wasn't there?

SHIRK: You could say that. We in the past had filed four freedom of information requests from the Mexican government. They were pressured in January by a number of civic organizations based in Mexico. And finally released the data under pressure from the national transparency institute, which mandated that the federal government release the data. They have been holding onto these data and didn't even release the full data for 2011. That's why our study tried to figure out what was the approximate total for 2011 so that we can compare that to previous years.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the research of the transports institute found that drug murders in Mexico have changed in number and location over the last five years. Can you give us a feeling of how that number has changed and where those murders have been occurring?

SHIRK: Well, we saw an increase in 2011 over previous years of interest 8%, when you project out it's 11% using the official figures through the first 3/4. A 10% increase in violence, when you're talking about 15,000 killings a year is pretty significant. It's 1,500 or 1,600 killings that have increased. But the trajectory of violence is levelling off. We've seen in previous years, increasing of 140%, increases of 60%, and double and triple digit increases. So to have an increase of only about 7% or 8% is somewhat comforting because it seems like the violence is levelling off. In terms of geographic distribution, there's some good news for those of us who live in the border region, in that the levels of violence in the border region have gone down in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, we saw about a 30% prop in violence, and Tijuana was already making strides, and that's a good thing. More and more people are feeling like they can go to Tijuana for going out to restaurants. Those shifts are significant for us here in the border region. But things are getting worse in other parts of Mexico.

CAVANAUGH: The violence is shifting. Why is that?

SHIRK: That's a good question. We think that for one thing, the splintering and breakup of different organized crime groups in central Mexico and southern Mexico has led to new fighting in those areas. Meanwhile, unfortunately one of the reasons why we think there's less violence in northern Mexico in certain places, in Baja and chihuahua included, is because organized crime groups have started to get back to business as usual. Drug trafficking has increased because they have settled their differences by whatever means and have gotten back to business as usual. That's good for ordinary people, it means that they're less likely to be abducted, less likely to be exported, but it raises in my view serious questions about what it was all for. We saw thousands of people killed in Baja and chihuahua, and if at the end of the day the net result is that traffickers are just going back to trafficking drugs as they used to, that seems like an awfully cynical outcome for us to have.

CAVANAUGH: In those areas where the drug violence is still high, the people who are most at risk are -- some of them are the most vulnerable people in that population. Of tell us about that.

SHIRK: Yeah, we've noticed over the last few years an increase in the number of law enforcement personnel, are the number of military personnel that are directly taking on the drug cartels in Mexico, being caught among the casualties that we're tracking. Also we're seeing a growing number of women, of children under the age of 18, being caught up in the violence. And that's very disturbing. We've seen 13 year-old kids, girls killed at birthday parties. Things like that are very tragic because as much as the Mexican government might say that 90% of the victims are caught up in the drug trade, it's very difficult for me to believe that 13, 14 year-old kids are anything but innocent. Even if they're brain washed into working for the cartels, etc, these are innocent young people that are being caught up.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with my guest, David shirk, he's a political science professor at USD. And they've come up with a new report about the drug the cartel violence in Mexico has taken in Mexico. And the property institute, your report goes back to the roots of this, to consider what started this flare-up of drug violence in Mexico. And you find that it was a policy by Mexican president, Felipe Calderone. Tell us about that.

SHIRK: We actually traced the violence further back than that. Many people have blamed Calderon for unleashing this violence. And we look at the sort of start of the increase in violence, which really begins about two years before he even took office. So in actual fact, Calderon may be doing things that he shouldn't be doing or could be doing things better, but the reality is that the violence was beginning to pick up before he took office, and when he took office, he made a strategic decision to use massive military force and really crack down on the cartel, going after the heads of major organizations, making some pretty significant arrests, and that may have exacerbating the violence. But we think it was earlier arrests to target the heads of cartels under the fox administration, particularly, Vicente Fox who was elected in two thousand, arrested the head of the gulf cartel, the Tijuana cartel, and that is sort of what triggered this violence among drug traffickers that continues to this day. The real problem now is that these organizations have splintered and fractionalized so much that they're almost completely out of control in certain parts of the country. And it remains to be seen whether they can sort of either be totally vanquished or regain enough organizational capacity that they can get back to business as usual.

CAVANAUGH: But isn't the accepted wisdom when it comes to trying to stop illegal drug traffic to go for the big guys, to break up a big drug cartel? I mean, isn't that what elected officials do?

SHIRK: There are three aspects of conventional wisdom. One is that we should destroy the labs, destroy the crop production, and so on. That's called eradication. Of the second approach is interdiction, catching things at the border, things in transit, at the coast guard, and so on. And the third approach is breaking down the cartels, sort of destroying the organizational structure by hitting them at the top. Unfortunately, on each of those measures there are really questions about the overall effectiveness of the war on drugs, at least as it's been prosecuted for the last 40 years. At the end of the day, when those things happen, when we are successful at seizing drugs or arresting criminals, the illegal activities simply move elsewhere. You eradicate some crop production in Baja, it means to the next state over. You catch drugs at the border, you're only catching maybe 5-10% of the drugs that come into the states at the border. That's like a tax on the drug traffickers. And when you arrest these guys, it's kind of like cutting off the head of the hydra, a new head grows back, there's more blood and violence that follows in the wake of those arrests. So one of the things that we suggest in the report is that over time what we've seen is a continuation of the same outcomes, talking about Columbia, talking about Mexico, we think that now is a good time as vice president Joe Biden is beginning to consider during his trip to Latin America this month, reevaluating the war on drugs as a whole and really thinking about what are the best practices and best policies that we could adopt to deal with the massive amount of drug consumption in the United States. Nobody questions that drug consumption has many evils for society, many problems, as does alcohol, as does smoking, for example. And drugs have their very special effect on society, and many people view it as a very negative effect. But we need to figure out a better way other than locking people up or shooting at people to deal with the problem of drug consumption that we have in our society and in other parts of the world.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get a call in. Dave is calling us from Imperial County. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, how are?


NEW SPEAKER: I would just like to ask, I live in Imperial County, and Calexico, Mexicali port of entry is a major port. And I'm curious to whether or not he knows if the levels of violence that are considering in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez are also occurring in that location, if Mexicali the state capital of Baja California, I'm sure there's more federal police there.

SHIRK: Mexicali, even during the height of violence in Tijuana back in 2008, Mexicali remained relatively calm. One of the reasons for that is that the organized crime group that operates through Mexicali, the Sinaloa cartel, doesn't have any competition, for many years in that city. And it's competition between the cartels that has driven a lot of the violence. The problem in Tijuana was that the Sinaloa organization, which has operations in Mexicali, was moving into Tijuana, and by most accounts, the Sinaloa cartel was able to assert itself, push out or minimize the role of the Tijuana cartel, and has established operations in Tijuana now. We're finding tunnels, we're finding large flows of drugs coming across in Tijuana that are associated with the Sinaloa cartel. So the competition is now significantly reduced, even in Tijuana. And that has helped to reduce the violence.

CAVANAUGH: Has US policy done anything to help the drug cartel crackdown in Mexico or stem the violence?

SHIRK: Over the last four years, we've been assisting Mexico with something called Merita initiative, it's a four prong structure for the US to assist Mexico with financial support and technical assistance. We have spent about $2 billion in those four year, and it's been allocated to first of all, for example, intelligence sharing, to help talk down the cartels. Secondly, judicial reform assistance to help improve the administration of justice in Mexico, border interdiction northbound and southbound assistance to try to create what we call a 21st century border. And lastly, there's this new tranche of funding that we've been putting toward economic development issues to build what we are calling resilient communities in places that are currently affected by violence. This initiative has I think been a sea change in US/Mexican collaboration. There's a tremendous degree of appreciation between US and Mexican authorities. The problem is that the funding has been slow to arrive. The effects, the successes of the initiative have been difficult to track and document. And so there have been some criticisms of those efforts. But overall, I would say US/Mexican security relations are at a high point, despite the operation fast and curious and other scandals that we've seen recently.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mexico as I understand it has decriminalized the use of drugs by individuals, at least most drugs. Has that helped at thea you will?

SHIRK: The decriminalization has not been fully implemented in all states in Mexico. And it's very, very specific quantities of drugs that have been decriminalized for minor possession, for example, it's about five joints for marijuana if you're found with those you cannot be arrested on a first time charge. The idea behind that effort was to reduce corruption by police who would sort of ask people for bribes if they were caught with drugs. But secondly, to give people an opportunity to get help and as far as I know, there's been no serious effort to evaluate the performance of that change in Mexican legislation. By sense is that it has, if anything, created a greater tolerance for use in Mexico, which creates a larger market for drug traffickers operation in Mexico. And so decriminalization, which is to say making use of drugs legal but making the production and sale of drugs illegal, I think that's actually even worse than legalization, because it continues to create a black market where drug traffickers can make a profit. And it doesn't punish the end users who are adding to that problem. At some point, I think we need to get much more serious about reducing consumption of illicit drugs and really waging a very serious campaign, which we have not done in the United States, has not really been done in Mexico, or we have to talk more seriously about what would be the potential costs and benefits of legalizing drugs, at least certain drugs. Marijuana for example represents about 98% of what we catch at the border. It's the No. 1 cause of arrest for drug users in the United States, and it actually makes up about 6% of arrests. We spend a lot of money and law enforcement time on marijuana. And it's not clear to me that it does a lot of damage to the cartels. They only get about 20% of their profits from marijuana. So we make an awful large effort to make a very small dent in the drug trade.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much.

SHIRK: Thanks for having me, Maureen.