Nathan Jones writes in Small Wars Journal about the evolution of the Mexican drug war:
There has been a dominant narrative in the study of Mexican drug trafficking which argues that violence goes down when one dominant trafficking organization monopolizes a locale. This has been used to explain the reductions in violence in Tijuana and now Ciudad Juarez. There is just one problem with the explanation, it isn’t empirically valid. In both cities the deeply entrenched local “cartels” continue to operate, though in a more low-profile fashion, while the Sinaloa cartel has entered both cities and has been proclaimed by government officials in the US and Mexico as dominant. The dominance of the Sinaloa cartel has been credited with the relative drops in violence. There is another explanation that better fits reality.
In violent conflicts with the state and rival drug traffickers, the most violent cells of larger networks (those that focus on kidnapping and extortion) are more likely to be killed or captured because they draw state and rival trafficker attention. As they are wiped out, the remaining cells focus on trafficking, money laundering and maintaining a “low profile.” Key to maintaining a low profile is reducing violence with other organizations to avoid state attention. This requires some level of negotiation with rivals or a tacit “live and let live” policy. While we have little direct evidence of these negotiations save for statements from arrested traffickers, we have the low levels of violence and the continued presence of multiple trafficking groups in shared territories as circumstantial evidence that the monopoly of violence explanation does not explain these relative peace periods.
Recent articles, including one in Proceso by Victor Clark, have demonstrated the continued presence and operation of the Arellano Felix Organization in Tijuana. Clark points out that the AFO operates in a very different fashion following its internecine conflict with El Teo a violent lieutenant who splintered from the AFO in 2008. Following his arrest and the arrest of his top cell leaders in early 2010, violence in the city has declined, particularly as measured by kidnap rates. This is despite the fact that the Sinaloa cartel established an important presence in Tijuana by annexing cells from the AFO in the same period. Many argued the Sinaloa cartel was dominant by 2010 and that the AFO was either “a shadow of its former self” or even that it was on the verge of collapse. Yet its leadership was never captured (Fernando Sanchez Arellano AKA El Ingeniero) and cell leaders such as El Ruedas continued to be arrested, all of which stated that the AFO had regenerated and is far stronger than observers thought. What has changed for the AFO has been the business model and procedures. Former enforcer cell leaders have transitioned to low profile trafficking. In the words of Clark they are now more “entrepreneurial.”
Solving for the equilibrium:
This process suggests that there may be multiple processes at play, which will create a less violent equilibrium in Mexican trafficking. First, state institutional security capacity is increasing and is likely to continue its increase in Mexico with increased spending, democratic/rule of law norms, and training from the United States via the “new Merida Initiative” which now emphasizes capacity building over military equipment. Second, trafficking networks are experiencing changes in their internal composition. Territorial and extortion based-cells are being removed by state and rival traffickers while trafficking cells survive. Local state actors such as former Tijuana Police Chief Leyzaola (current chief of Juarez) are also targeting the most violent actors in these networks, as was the case with the El Teo faction in Tijuana. These are not rational decisions made by monolithic actors, but structurally determined strategies from illicit networks whose capabilities, skills and predispositions change based on which members and cells in their illicit networks are arrested or killed. Thus, the illicit network evolutionary process favors traffickers over extorters; which in turn allows for peaceful coexistence in cities like Tijuana.