What Should Be Done About Violent Crime in Mexico?

A reader named Rodolfo Ostolaza writes in with a most heartfelt plea about violence in Mexico. He would welcome all suggestions.

I live in Mexico City and, although the wave of violence in my country has not yet fully reached this area, I’m worried because we are living a state of terror, with bloody attacks, and a lack of humanity. That is why I am requesting your help.

What do you think we can do to change this? According to the chapter on crime reduction in Freakonomics, a judge’s decision was more influential than a change in public policy and law enforcement bodies in reducing crime in the U.S. I wish we could apply this “recipe” (allowing abortion throughout Mexico, which is currently legal only in Mexico City) to keep the hope that, in the future, things will be brighter. However, considering the Mexican idiosyncrasy, with strong influence of the Catholic Church, I believe that this measure would have, at best, a marginal impact.

I want you to share this question with your readers. Give us suggestions, ideas, different perspectives to analyze the problem. What follows are some thoughts and questions of how, I think, the problem should be analyzed.

First we must understand precisely the problem itself. It is true that the violence began to grow exponentially after President Calderón declared war. Without consulting the population, he launched a battle, first against drug cartels, and then against organized crime, in order to legitimize its mandate, because he could not fulfill his campaign proposal of more employment. It is worth emphasizing the difference between drug trafficking and organized crime, since the former gave way to other terrorist activities, which are already part of the second group.

This war has a failed strategy. The government is attacking the head of an octopus. Once it falls, the tentacles are looking to take their place. That begets more violence. We are no longer talking about 2 or 3 cartels fighting over territory. Instead we have several organizations looking to “win” the drugs market, but they are also diversifying theirs activities. It’s not just the drugs anymore; it’s rape, kidnapping, murder and plain terrorism. Those “new” markets are attractive to them. Obviously there are economic incentives for this behavior, but there must also be other kinds of incentives. What are the incentives of these criminals, these terrorists who attack us?

More importantly, how to annihilate the impact of such incentives? Currently there are several cities where the army patrols the streets. This is not contemplated as a function of the armed forces, but of local police corps, which leaves the soldiers in legal limbo, even a constitutional one. But despite this, clashes between soldiers and criminals are common. This shows that the presence of the army does not diminish criminal activity.

Two possible solutions are commonly proposed (and both are quite aberrant). The first one is drugs legalization. This would be irrelevant, since violence is not confined to this area. The kidnapping industry and terrorism attacks can be analyzed as separate from drug trafficking activities. In addition, it is unclear what benefits would be obtained with it. Maybe we would have more businessmen and fewer criminals (imagine the drug lords doing lobbying!), or maybe we would have a new tourism experience, which would not last long if violence is not reduced.

The second alternative suggests negotiating with drug lords. In addition to the enormous moral problem posed by this, it seems impractical given the number of organizations involved. It would be the State as a regulator of an oligopoly. But the incentives to break the agreement may be sufficient to start a new war between cartels. Moreover, it does not ensure that violence will decrease, because it is possible that the link has been broken.

So what to do? Should we militarize the country? Should we kill criminals at the bottom of the pyramid violently, to make the profession riskier? Should we negotiate with criminal organizations, with terrorists? Is drug legalization a solution, or a source for new problems? What can citizens do to change the situation?

Many of the previous opinions come from conventional wisdom. Therefore I beg you to help us find the right questions to analyze this problem, which will give us at least hope that something can be done

I understand that other world problems such as famine in Africa, riots in Libya, fear of U.S. recession, debt of European countries, etc., exists. But what is happening in Mexico is relevant on the world scene, given our proximity to the United States. If violence is taking over our country, who says it will not seek a larger pie?


It is not up to Mexico to solve this issue. The US shouldnt be considering marijuana possession only a misdemeanor. The US should penalize the consumption of any illegal substance consumed and make an example of a few individuals so that people stop consuming. If consumption exists, there is no solution for Mexico or any other illegal substance provider.


No matter what is done in terms of policy or punishment, it is impossible to stop the demand and consumption of drugs, specifically marijuana. In 2009 over 22 million Americans used marijuana. By making that huge market illegal it only causes the black market to be more profitable, urging large drug cartels to use more violence to secure their profits. The US should decriminalize and regulate all drugs. This would eliminate a profitable black market, and make safer an activity that people will participate in no matter what the law is.

Mike B

If the general public were allowed to own firearms then they could more easily form vigilance committees to defend their homes, businesses and communities. In a society where the police are completely corrupt restricting firearms laws serve only to take away the public's only remaining means to protect themselves and only strengthen the grip of the drug gangs and dysfunctional security forces.

Mike Hunter

Exactly! By outlawing firearms the mexican government has insured that only criminals can obtain them. The problem is made worse by the fact that the police and judicuary is in the pocket of Mexican drug gangs. If average Mexicans want to be protected, they're going to have to do it themselves.

Also obviously legalizing all drugs with in Mexico would greatly help. It wouldn't stop the enormous black market profits to be made by smuggling drugs into the U.S. and Canada. But it might at least calm things down with in Mexico with the obvious exception being the border with the U.S.


Please refer to my replay to Mike B's post, and let me argue legalization. The real market is not the mexican, but rather the US. Legalizing drugs here would cope with the real violence product of organized crime: kidnapping, extorsion, human trafficking and ilegal import of drugs to the US; that's where the real money is, and the "right" to do these activities is what generates intra-cartel violence.

On the other hand, legalizing drugs in Mexico would surely have a huge impact in our agriculture, as drug production surely represents a more profitable source of wealth than food, don't you think?.


Perhaps a democratic state is unable to deal with this kind of problems on its own (even worse for a country with weak institutions like Mexico).... do you think maybe we should reinstate a military dictatorship to deal with all this issues with an iron fist? Even when this means a setback on human rights? I think that human rights today are not enjoyable under this awful crime environment so, realistically and sadly, we wouldn't be losing too much :\


The situation in Mexico is serious and barbaric when it comes to the heinous crimes committed by the drug cartels. It is clear that the Mexican government is either ill-equipped or too corrupt to eliminate the criminals. The U.S. could well be justified in sending in our special forces and eliminating the criminals to insure our security and safety of our citizens.

Mike Hunter

Let Mexico deal with it's own problems. The instability over there isn't effecting the United States right now.


"affecting", sigh...


1 -- Pressure the US ATF to stop selling guns to your gang warlords.
2 -- Pressure the US to legalize drugs, reducing the revenue these gangs get from illegal drug traffiking.
3 -- Encourage robust self defense training and personal arms in your citizenry to increase the risk/cost to the criminals of each action.
4 -- Reduce incentives for government police to look the other way/cooperate with gangs.


Deploy the military throughout the country, providing a substantial kill fee for each substantiated terrorist/murderer/drug cartel member killed... and a 30 year prison sentence for the death of a single innocent.


The South African police have achieved success where they have gained the trust of the communities where they serve. We recently had a case of a murder that occurred on a Friday night. The police caught the suspect on Saturday, with the help of the community. He appeared in court on Monday where he was convicted and jailed.

This is a two-steps-forward-one step back process, however. Practically every week we read of civil cases against the police that add up, countrywide, to a full 20% of the police's annual budget. Of those cases covered in some detail by the media, poor training is a common theme.

Bad cops undermine community confidence in the police and need to be rooted out.

After that, without endorsing the "broken window" idea that Freakonomics poured cold water on, I would get the police to concentrate on serious crime that they can control and work up to the drug lords through improved training and intelligence gathering.



No one has mentioned that the US is the biggest party to blame in this issue. The US consumes and the US provides Mexico with firearms. Its ok when all the killing happens south of the border, but it will soon cross into the US. What will the US do then? Still smoke your asses off while your family and friends live in fear? I dont think so.

It is easy for you everyone to be selfish and want to legalize it, but when you live in fear because consumers just ¨want to have a good time" your perspective changes....

Mike B

Regarding what the government can do the criminal justice system is such a joke in Mexico that when these gang members can actually be kept in jail, being there does little to deter criminal activity. However one must not forget that when a government with any moderate degree of strength takes on criminal gangs the government will always win if it simply decides to take the gloves off. I say take a page from the Mussolini playbook and just start shooting people. The human rights people will go nuts, but the truth is that it works and end the end you'll actually save more lives than it costs. Go through the jails, grab all the gang members, line them up and shoot them. Once they know you are serious low level gangsters will be more than willing to exchange information for their lives and at that point you can begin rolling up the organizations in the same way. Mussolini used this strategy to completely eliminate the mafia from southern Italy and Sicily in the pre-war years and crime and corruption that went with it and can be considered one of the major positive accomplishments of his rule.

When criminal activity poses an existential threat to a government the government must respond using any and all means at its disposal. It should be considered no different than an invasion by another nation state. Organized crime is far worse than an authoritarian government because organized criminals have absolutely no skin in the game. Even the worst regimes are at some point accountable to their people or ruling class to maintain an economy and basic social order. Criminal organizations don't care, they thrive in anarchy because they live from day to day on brute force.


Carlos A López

Great discussion. Some comments below

1. The war on cartels as a failed strategy. I agree. Even the government have said in the past that they didn't have enough information about how powerful the cartels were. They thought 1 year was going to suffice.

2. War vs octopus. Yes. And this may explain why the cartels are becoming more violent as leaders get arrested. Think about how raw should the rules be inside a cartel. If you're in a cartel and want to climb the ladder, you have to be willing to be the toughest one in the block, capable of doing the most horrible things. If the government arrested your boss, and if you're the toughest, you take the spot.

3. I don't think legalization is aberrant nor irrelevant. I think it is the solution. The real and only solution. But I say legalization meaning in the US, not only in Mexico, just as David suggests. The size of the market is humongous. I once saw in an official US report that there were at least 30 million declared drug addicts in the US. 30 million!!! About a quarter of Mexico's population. At least. Consider per capita income, and you have an enormous source of profit (for Mexican cartels anyway). You don't have to legalize hard drugs. With cannabis could be enough, as it makes a large share of cartels' profit. If you weaken cartels taking them out of the cannabis market, maybe now you can win with old police and law enforcement strategies.

Besides, legalizing unveils drug consumption as what it is: a public health problem. You cannot treat public health criminalizing the disease. Look at the prohibition of alcohol and then its legalization. I claim it's very similar. Think of it as how the profits in a market get distributed: Cartels are powerful because they are appropriating consumer surplus by controlling the supply. If the gov't takes control of the supply, the cartels cannot profit on that. Simple. Not easy.

4.- Kidnapping as a separate business. No. I don't agree. They are the same people. This is an industry. A very profitable industry. It is like a cluster of firms gravitating around drug trafficking, but also exploring and innovating on other activities. They bundle their activities, very much like corporations. They might even have cross-subsidies among drug trafficking and kidnapping.

5.- What to do? Start with treating the problem as what it is (a public health issue). Do more economics! It is surprising how little economic analysis is done on this problem (in Mexico, anyway). The thing is to identify the important spots in the supply chain that allow cartels to appropriate consumer surplus in that way, and take control of them. This means to legalize. As an individual, if you agree with this, you can promote legalization whenever possible. And if you decide to consume drugs, be conscious about the consequences of your decisions, and be consequent with your beliefs. I know people (who doesn't?) that consume cannabis, for instance, in Mexico and in the US. Some of them don't care, but a lot of them are conscious and try to stay out of the market (consuming their own, for instance), and are active about understanding what's going on, and some of them are active about legalization.



An optimistic solution: instead of spending money on an unwinnable war with the cartels, spend money on business development and compete for their cheap workforce.


I think there are some empirical questions that the writer overlooks probably because of the emotional affectation by the problem itself. For example the statement "..This would be irrelevant, since violence is not confined to this area". Wheather legalization of drugs will reduce violence or not is a question that must be analyzed with data and support must be provided if an assertion is to be made. I believe this problem is the result of structural problems in areas ranging education, rehabilitation system (jail), social security and poberty, among others, all of these intensified by the economic coyunture. There are powerful incentives in the drug markets which can not be eliminated but aminorated or at least controlled. This means that the market can be regulated gradually and the government can change the direction of the incentives in order to move away from crminal activities. There is some knowledge that cartels operate using corruption and extortion even within the members of cartels and it is my opinion that putting the rules above the table can lead to aminorate the problem; as Steven Levitt finds, in drug markets there exists a fallacy that everyone can get rich and the truth is only the leaders perform well.
This is my solution in the short run: regulate drug markets. This is my solution in the long run: improve education and social welfare.



I share Rodolfo's concern about the state of affairs in my country (Mexico), however I disagree with his views on legalization. I don't think the drug dealing businesses should be seen separately from the other criminal activities that this organizations commit considering that drug dealing is by far their main source of income. It is what generates the enormous cash flows that allow them ti buy arsenals, cars, plains etc. but most importantly allows them to buy impunity for their other criminal activities , buying the police, judges and politicians.
Cutting that source of income would cause the a death wound. For this to happen legalization would have to occur on both sides of the border.


This one is easy: legalize drugs. Even if the number of addicts increases -- which I doubt -- it sure beats having dozens of decapitated bodies being dumped in the streets.