Back in 2010, La Familia Michoacana (aka, the Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar) was attracting a lot of attention. The reason was fairly silly. The Templarios used a lot of religious imagery and violent initiation ceremonies. This freaked out some American observers. It should not have. La Familia was trying to build internal cohesion. Moreover, it was also trying to gain the support of the communities in which they operated. Such support would let them branch out from narcotics trafficking into all sorts of protection rackets. In short, they were trying to replicate the Sicilian Mafia in western Mexico. As late as 2013, some observers thought that they were succeeding. The link goes to an article in the Financial Times, but Rodrigo Canales (Yale) made the argument more dramatically in this TED talk:
The Knights Templar realized very quickly that they couldn't face the Zetas on violence alone, and so they developed a strategy as a social enterprise. They brand themselves as representative of and protecting of the citizens of Michoacán against organized crime.Their brand of social enterprise means that they require a lot of civic engagement, so they invest heavily in providing local services, like dealing with home violence, going after petty criminals, treating addicts, and keeping drugs out of the local markets where they are, and, of course, protecting peoplefrom other criminal organizations. Now, they kill a lot of people too, but when they kill them, they provide very careful narratives and descriptions for why they did them, through newspaper insertions, YouTube videos, and billboards that explain that the people who were killed were killed because they represented a threat not to us, as an organization, of course, but to you, as citizens. And so we're actually here to protect you. They, as social enterprises do, have created a moral and ethical code that they advertise around, and they have very strict recruiting practices. And here you have the types of explanations that they provide for some of their actions. They have actually retained access to the profitable drug trade, but the way they do it is, because they control all of Michoacán, and they control the Port of Lázaro Cárdenas, they leverage that to, for example, trade copper from Michoacán that is legally created and legally extracted with illegal ephedrine from China which is a critical precursor for methamphetamines that they produce.
Professor Canales analysis of the Templarios was correct inasmuch as that was what the leadership was trying to do. We called that “Sicilianization” in back in 2010; the idea being that organized crime would move to extortion as a prime revenue source and become so integrated into the economic life of a region that it would be impossible to extirpate.
The problem was that they botched the execution. Dudley Althaus and Steven Dudley explained why in a great paper. Short version: The Knights Templar used “social enterprise” to ingratiate themselves with the locals. But for all their mythologizing, they couldn’t control their own members. Violence continued, not only between cartels, but among the Knights and between Knights and locals. Gang members committed several mass rapes and credible rumors emerged of organ trafficking. You can guess whose organs were trafficked.
Nor could the Knights calibrate the amount they extorted to something that the locals would accept. They imposed taxes on everything from avocado orchards to the square footage of buildings; when locals failed to pay, the organization simply took over their businesses. The overtaxation and inability to prevent violence kept the organization from becoming a parallel state in the manner of the Sicilian mafia.
The locals, therefore, saw resistance as preferable to cooperation.
The result was a militia movement. That movement is the subject of a simply awesome new documentary called Cartel Land, reviewed here by Alejandro Hope. (Read the article; better still, see the movie.) The militia defeated the Knights ... but they have also turned to fighting among themselves and their leadership is rumored to be linked to a new organization: the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG, for its initials in Spanish). Now violence has erupted among militias in the neighboring state of Guerrero.
The Mexican government has claimed that the Sinaloa Federation and the CJNG are the only two cartels left in Mexico, what with the government finally taking down the Zetas and the militia defeating the Caballeros. And it is true that violence is down. (Diego Valle is a national treasure.) But ... you knew there was a but ... the smaller surviving organizations can still wreak havoc and the CJNG shows every sign of becoming as powerful as the organizations that it replaced. Considering the continuing weakness of the Mexican state, the country as yet shows no sign of becoming a place where crime exists only on the margins, like, say, Canada or Chile.
The good news is that the cartels, new or old, big or small, are utterly incapable of spreading their violence into the United States. Which makes the other half of Cartel Land, the one about the idiots in the American southwest dressing up and playing soldier, even sadder.
Briefly back again to the D.F. next week!