Receive free Mexico updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Mexico news every morning.
Organised criminal groups in Mexico employ up to 185,000 people and draw in hundreds of new recruits every week, new research estimates, underscoring the difficulty of dismantling the cartels and reducing violence in the country.
Mexico’s crime groups, which grew out of the drug trade and have now expanded into a range of businesses from extortion to oil theft, have been a driving force behind a surge in killings and disappearances in the country since 2008.
Parts of states such as Michoacán and Guerrero are effectively controlled by the groups, with authorities often acting in collusion with crime bosses. Mexico has become a target for US politicians ahead of elections next year, claiming that the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is not doing enough to stop the violence and flow of drugs northward.
Authors of the article, published on Thursday in peer-reviewed academic journal Science, used data on homicides, missing people, imprisonment and news reports to build a dynamic model of the size of cartels.
The researchers estimated that between 160,000 and 185,000 people work for the groups in some capacity, whether occasionally or full time, with at least 350 new people recruited each week. Though far smaller than the country’s principal industries such as manufacturing and construction, that would make the groups collectively bigger employers than companies like state oil firm Pemex.
“By outlining their size, we at least realise their enormous structure, the enormous power they have and the economic challenge they represent,” said Rafael Prieto-Curiel, one of the authors. “We have a recruiting machine where people between 12 and 15 years old are seduced or forced into the group . . . in 10 years there’s a high likelihood they will be arrested or dead.”
Security experts say the groups have expanded their power during López Obrador’s presidency. The populist leader said he wanted a “hugs not bullets” strategy to tackle root causes of violence but in practice security experts say his policies have ceded territorial control.
Mexico’s lack of reliable, detailed data on illegal activities and the groups’ power make it harder to obtain an accurate picture of their criminal activities. Researchers at the Rand Corporation US think-tank said the new paper was an important attempt to capture cartel dynamics but its methodology had a number of shortcomings.
They said there was a lack of evidence to support the assumption that 10 per cent of homicide victims were cartel members, and that market shifts such as the growing US popularity of fentanyl, which requires less labour to produce and distribute, meant recruitment patterns fluctuated over time.
“Cartels are adaptive organisations often run by intelligent people who can alter behaviour in response to changing conditions,” the researchers said.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration recently estimated 26,000 people worked for the Sinaloa Cartel around the world, while another 18,800 were with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). The paper published on Thursday estimates that CJNG employs 28,764 people in Mexico while 17,825 work for the Sinaloa.
The research also looks at potential solutions to the problems and concludes that stopping recruitment would be more effective than increasing imprisonment rates. In the US, some Republican candidates and voters now support military intervention against cartels — with or without Mexico’s consent.
Within Mexico, few political leaders have proposed detailed solutions to the problem of organised crime, but security is likely to be a leading concern for voters at next year’s presidential election.
Rand said a “richer understanding of the underlying dynamics of [criminal] markets may help inform more effective policy innovation”.
Source: Financial Times