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Organised Crime Research Network


A UCL-based research network on preventing and controlling organised crime


Flawed Measurements of Organised Crime Activities: The Case of Extortion in Mexico

By Patricio Estevez-Soto, on 5 April 2018


Then-President Felipe Calderón leads a guard of honour in front of the ruins of a casino torched by organised criminals, August 2011. Image courtesy Alfredo Guerrero/Gobierno Federal/CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Extortion against businesses is one of the main security challenges facing the Mexican government today. Statistics from crimes reported to the police show that extortion has increased dramatically since the country was plunged into a decade-long ‘war’ against organised crime, rising by about 81% in the past 10 years.

However, given the risk of reprisals entailed by reporting extortion incidents to the authorities, estimates from reported crimes rarely provide reliable measurements of extortion incidence.

To mitigate this shortcoming, Mexico’s national statistics agency (INEGI) conducts regular victimisation surveys that measure extortion, among other crimes. Estimates from surveys conducted with households (ENVIPE) and businesses (ENVE), suggest that extortion is, indeed, a widespread problem: it is the second most common crime against households, and the third most common crime against businesses…

Continue reading on the RUSI – ECPR SGOC Blog.

As the cartels grow deadlier, should the Mexican military be involved in law enforcement?

By Patricio Estevez-Soto, on 14 December 2017

By Patricio R. Estévez-Soto, UCL and David Perez Esparza, UCL

File 20171214 27593 10frerr.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Boots on the ground. Shutterstock

While the main mission of the Mexican Armed Forces (army, air force and navy) is to safeguard national security, Mexico is faced with very few direct foreign threats. Consequently, the armed forces instead focus most of their attention on internal threats: emergency response to natural disasters, and temporary operations for countering organised crime.

Successive Mexican presidents have continuously relied on the well-armed and highly respected armed forces to combat the large and powerful organised crime groups (colloquially known as “cartels”) that dominate the Latin American drug trade.

They have done it for two reasons. On the one hand, local and state police forces have been neglected for decades and have been unable to cope with the corruptive influence of criminal groups. On the other, federal police forces have been too weak and small to counter the national presence of powerful cartels. So when faced with a rising death toll and increasingly violent organised crime groups, presidents have had few alternatives but to turn to the military.

Until a decade ago, these interventions were rather sporadic. The most dramatic upsurge came about in 2006, when then-president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) declared an all-out war on organised crime.

While the decade-long strategy was successful in breaking apart the main organised crime groups, violence induced by splinter groups and new actors has not abated.

The strategy has plunged the country into an ongoing conflict that has cost thousands of lives. Furthermore, it has also provoked countless human rights violations by the security forces (including the military) in the form of torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, and has led to an explosion in criminality in both petty and serious crime, such as kidnapping and extortion.

President Peña Nieto (in office since 2012) has sought to scale back the focus of the Calderón government’s war on organised crime. This led to an illusory lull in homicide trends for the first couple of years of his term, only for violence to return with a vengeance: October 2017 was Mexico’s deadliest month on record.

Around the tenth anniversary of the war on organised crime, Mexico’s secretary of defence complained about the lack of a proper legal framework for the involvement of the armed forces in “matters of internal security”, including the fight against organised crime. Such criticism was echoing a 2012 statement by a minister of the Supreme Court, who said that the constitution did not empower the army to take on roles attributed to civil law enforcement agents.

The Internal Security Law

To fill this legal vacuum, legislators proposed an Internal Security Law, approved on November 30 by the Chamber of Deputies (Mexico’s lower house of congress), with support from the governing PRI party and a few PAN deputies (the largest opposition party). The bill set to now be debated (and probably approved) by the Senate seeks to regulate the involvement of the armed forces in “threats to internal security”. Such interventions would have to be requested by state governments, or could be initiated by the president if the threats are deemed to be urgent.

The police are struggling to contain a wave of violent crime. Shutterstock

Proponents of the law note that such “actions of internal security” are never supposed to substitute local law enforcement; are bound to respect human rights; are to be deployed only against specific threats for a limited time (though subject to extensions); are explicitly forbidden to be used against peaceful social and political protests; and should involve the military only if the Federal Police cannot deal with the threat.

Nevertheless, the proposed law has been met with wide opposition from civil society organisations, academics, and international organisations such as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.

Critics claim that given the country’s poor track record in punishing human rights abuses by the military, institutionalising their role in law enforcement could lead to more abuse. Furthermore, they argue that the vague definition of “threats to internal security” gives too much discretion to the president, prompting fears that the military might be deployed as a tool of political repression. They also complain that the law rolls back accountability and transparency, as all information related to such interventions would be automatically classified as state secrets.

It’s about trust

It is true that there is a legal void regarding the involvement of the armed forces in internal threats. Such participation of the military in civilian life is not exclusive to Mexico. Liberal democracies increasingly resort to the military in support of internal security missions, including in the UK and France, for example. The question is how, and to what extent.

The proposed law does attempt to regulate such involvement in principle, however it does little more than state in law what already takes place in practice. Not surprisingly, this raises legitimate fears that it will only lead to a perpetuation of the status quo at the expense of developing capable local civil law enforcement institutions.

A truly beneficial law on internal security, if any, would go to greater lengths to curb the executive’s use of the armed forces to deal with internal security problems, for example by mandating stricter mechanisms for oversight (including legislative and judicial control) and by defaulting the interventions at their most restrictive setting, rather than leaving their terms to executive discretion.

Patricio R. Estévez-Soto, PhD Candidate in Security and Crime Science, UCL and David Perez Esparza, PhD Candidate in Security and Crime Science at University College London (UCL), UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The views expressed in this blog post are the authors own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the UCL Organised Crime Research Network.

Is Mexico really the second deadliest conflict zone in the World?

By Patricio Estevez-Soto, on 11 May 2017


Source: Flickr.com – México PFP by Jesús Villaseca Pérez. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This week, a great deal of media outlets reported that Mexico was the second deadliest conflict zone in the world, just below Syria’s civil war, and ahead of war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.

The news reports drew on a newly-launched edition of the Armed Conflict Survey (ACD) published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank. The survey analyses different dimensions of on-going armed conflicts around the world, including figures on fatalities, refugees and internally displaced persons.

In a press release issued to promote the launch of the ACD, IISS makes the claim that the second deadliest conflict in the world is Mexico’s struggle against organised crime, which they claim caused 23,000 deaths in 2016. The most lethal conflict, Syria’s civil war, caused 50,000 deaths, while Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen follow Mexico. The only other countries in Latin America considered by the survey were El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—the so-called “Northern Triangle”.


Conflict related fatalities as reported by the Armed Conflict Survey 2017.

That Mexico, the 11th largest economy in the world by purchasing power parity, could be placed in the same list as countries ravaged by international conflicts involving heavy artillery caused a media frenzy, including a retweet by President Donald Trump, as well as a rebuke from the Mexican government.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 17.30.59

The survey conclusions are deeply misleading for two main reasons.

1. It compares countries with very different population sizes

When mortality or homicides are compared cross-nationally it is necessary to adjust figures by population size. For example, a hypothetical country A had 100 homicides for a population of 1 million people, while country B had 500 homicides for a population of 10 million people. In absolute terms, country B had 5 times more homicides than country A. However, once population sizes are taken into account, country A had 10 homicides per 100,000 people, while country B had 5 per 100,000 people. Thus country A can be thought of as twice as lethal than country B.

Bringing this hypothetical scenario to reality, consider the example put forth by Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in an interview with a Mexican TV network:

United States has a more than twice the number of homicides than Honduras, yet no one in their right mind would argue that the United States is twice as dangerous as Honduras.

For this reason, cross-national comparisons of homicide figures are almost always done in rates for 100,000 people, as this comparison of homicides in Latin America, or the international homicide observatory set up by the Igarapé Institute. Once the different population sizes are taken into account (USA: 321 million; Honduras: 8 million), it is evident that the United States’ roughly 12,000 homicides represent a far smaller rate per 100,000 people (3.9) than Honduras’s 6,000 homicides (84.6 per 100,000 people).

Antonio Sampaio, a security researcher at IISS, said to Reuters that the ACD did not use rates for the cross-national comparisons because many of the countries in the study do not have good quality population statistics.

However, this obstacle is hardly enough justification when comparing countries with populations so dissimilar in size as Mexico, Syria and Iraq. Mexico’s population (127 million) is one order of magnitude bigger than all of the countries in ACD’s list of the top 5 deadliest conflicts. To put that into perspective, Mexico’s population is larger than the population of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen combined (114.2 million). It is true that precise estimates of a country’s population are not always available, and that accurate statistics in fragile, conflict-torn countries are hard to come by, but the difference between the populations of the countries in the survey is too large to be ignored.

Population estimates from Google Search.

Population estimates from Google Search.

Thus, even if relying on (approximate) population estimates from the earliest available year, it is necessary to adjust the fatalities listed by the ACD by population. The plot below compares the rates per 100,000 people in the countries listed by IISS as the top 5 deadliest conflict zones, plus the countries in the Northern Triangle, using fatalities reported by the survey and population estimates from Google Search. Taking rates into account, México is not even close to being the “world’s second deadliest conflict zone,” as its rate is less than half of that of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the countries in the Northern Triangle.


Estimated rates of conflict-related fatalities per 100,000 people as reported by the armed Conflict Survey 2017, using population data found on Google Search, provided by the World Bank.

2. Not all homicides in Mexico can be attributed to organised crime violence

The other questionable assumption in the survey is that all of the 23,000 fatalities in Mexico are attributable to organised crime violence. The press release issued by IISS does not specify the data source used to estimate that figure, though an IISS blog post mentions that these correspond to intentional homicides. In response to an email, Sampaio confirmed that the figure is the total number of victims of intentional homicide as reported by Mexico’s National System of Public Security, which is based on data compiled by state prosecutors.

Precise estimates are not available, though Tom Long, Lecturer of International Relations at the University of Reading, stated to The Guardian that “probably half of Mexican homicides are not related to drug trafficking”. For example, if we took only those homicide reports involving firearms as being more likely to be related to organised crime violence, they amount to 60% of the total (around 13,000 homicide reports), a much lower figure as that cited by the survey.

It is true that Mexico has a problem of organised crime violence. And it is also true that homicides in Mexico increased in 2016, and it is likely that a sizable proportion of these homicides were related to organised crime.

However, assuming that all homicide fatalities in Mexico are related to organised crime is fallacious, even if a more precise measurement is not available. Furthermore, the qualitative nature of homicidal violence in Mexico is vastly different from the calamitous atrocities happening in Syria, Irak, Afghanistan, or Yemen.

There is much to study about Mexico’s organised crime phenomenon, but equating it to civil wars, and muddying public perception, does more harm than good.

  1. Media outlets: La Jornada, Vanguardia, Huffington Post México, Proceso, El Universal, CNN en Español, CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg, The Sun, Phoenix Business Journal, Reuters among other outlets.
  2. Northern Triangle: I only had access to the aggregated fatality figures reported by IISS for these countries.
  3. Population estimates taken from the World Bank, among other sources.
  4. Homicide reports : For this estimate, I used the number of homicide reports published by the Mexican government, since the data on homicide victims is not disaggregated by weapon use. There where 21,000 homicide reports in 2016, in contrast with the reported 23,000 homicide deaths. The disparity is explained by the fact that some incidents included more than one death.

The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the UCL Organised Crime Research Network.

A Spanish version of this article was published in PuntoDecimal.Mx.

Trump’s wall and its implications for organised crime

By uctzjdp, on 11 November 2016

Let’s be honest. We have no clue what the world will look like once Donald Trump becomes the 45th US President. If you think he has failed to present details on how to “Make America Great Again” in most policy issues, it is equally uncertain when it comes to his plans to tackle organised crime.

Trump’s plan to stop “rapists and murderers”

One of his few clear proposals was the 1,000-mile wall on the southwest border with Mexico. With an estimated cost of $25 USD billion—78% of the US Department of Justice budget—Trump proposes to stop illegal immigration, allegedly, as a way to disrupt the networks of ‘rapists, murderers, smugglers, and drug traffickers’ coming from the south.

When confronted with reality, there are reasons to believe this measure will not be effective. For instance, it fails to understand the problem. Net migration from Mexico to the US is in its lowest recorded level. Today there are more Mexicans moving back from the US to Mexico, than the other way around.

Moreover, nearly half of all the unauthorized migrants living in the US entered the country legally through an official port of entry—such as an airport—and over-stayed their visa. No matter how high, a wall would not make a difference.

Trump’s plan to stop drug traffickers

Trump’s wall won’t stop drugs entering the US either. While Mexico is the primary producer of heroin for the US,—due to logistical requirements—American citizens are obviously involved in border drug operations. Four out of five drug busts by the border patrol involve US citizens. Even when there is not an ‘American Chapo’, someone is moving the drugs once they are inside the US, and a wall will not make a difference.

Even if drugs and crime were exclusively coming from the south, Trump’s proposal seems to be quite naive. Since 1990, more than 150 secret narcotunnels have been found along the border. With the growing availability of hundreds of commercial drones creating huge situational opportunities for trafficking, a wall will be meaningless.

Drug-markets are also changing. Alongside Trump’s election last Tuesday, voters in Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, and California chosen to legalise marijuana for ‘recreational use’.

With almost 30 states allowing medical marijuana and 10 permitting some type of ‘recreational use’, it may be not surprising that domestic marijuana production has increased up to more than 10,000 metric tons/22 million pounds. Currently, half of the marijuana consumed by Americans is already produced inside the US. A wall is unlikely to change this situation.

Trump’s plan to stop illegal migrants

The President-elect also proposed to deport 11 million migrants, the largest mass-scale deportation in all American history. Due to its economic effect, it is very unlikely that this will occur, at least in the short term. What is more conceivable, however, is a steep rise of racially motivated violent assaults. As a normalisation effect, we can expect an expansion of gangs and organised criminals starting to target specific racial groups.

Unrealistic? Well, a similar phenomenon occurred some months ago after the controversial Brexit vote in the UK where hate crime increased by almost 60%.

When it comes to the US, we should not forget that some highly organised groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, were prevalent not many years ago, thus it wouldn’t be surprising if we see a rise of far-right extremist and white supremacist groups, which have been notable players in organised crime.

We should not ignore that minorities routinely suffered racial attacks during Trump rallies. Hate speech has a cost. When Trump proposed to ban Muslims, hate crimes against American Muslims increased 78%.

Should we be concerned? Probably.

Trump’s openly hostile stance against financial regulation makes it less likely that his administration will target money launderers, facilitating organised crime activity. Furthermore, his closeness to the NRA is very likely to increase gun availability, and hence lead to more violence and shootings. Lastly, his isolationist foreign policy foreshadows obstacles for international cooperation to tackle organised crime.

Difficult times are coming. More than ever, science and evidence should play a central role in our approach to preventing and disrupting organised crime.

*David Pérez Esparza holds a Master in Public Policy, a Master in Political Economy and Conflict Resolution, and a Master in Security Sciences. He is a PhD candidate at University College London (UCL) and founding member of the UCL Organised Crime Research Network (OCRN).

The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the UCL Organised Crime Research Network.