A new report from a renowned Mexican crime analyst says that 71.5 percent of the nation’s municipalities are under criminal control. But the reality of illicit activity can hardly be described through a simple label like “control”.

As El Universal reports, the conclusions from Edgardo Buscaglia, a professor at Mexico’s ITAM university who has also served as an advisor to the World Bank and the UN, are based on his team’s observations of different criminal activities carried out in plain view in cities around the country. During the investigation, when the researchers witnessed criminal operations, from child prostitution to the selling of pirate merchandise, without any attempt by the perpetrators to hide their activities, they concluded that the local government was supporting the activities, and therefore deemed the area as under criminal control.

As Buscaglia told El Universal, “They are operating notoriously in front of the noses of the police, the politicians, and the authorities of all stripes, and for this there has to be some type of tolerance from the state and it can be at a political or a police level. This is telling us that this type of occupation is on the rise and now we are seeing greater competence between criminal groups to place themselves in these municipal jurisdictions and this competition generates violence.”

Although Bucaglia refers to a rise in 2011, the proportion of municipalities that he determined to be under criminal control actually declined this year: in 2010, his figure was 73 percent. Nonetheless, the trend in recent years has been one of significant increases; the figure was only 53 percent in 2006, and just 34 percent in 2001.

Buscaglia’s analysis reflects the extent to which the nation’s criminal groups have spread from their traditional stomping grounds to new regions relatively unfamiliar with organized crime. Examples of the various groups’ dispersion are legion, from the Zetas’ expansion far beyond their northeastern roots to the Beltran Leyvas' reconfiguration in southern Mexico.

There are a number of reasons for this shift. The one that analysts point to most frequently is the more aggressive policy of Felipe Calderon, who kicked off his administration with a substantial army deployment in his home state of Michoacan in December 2006 and has stirred up the underworld with further deployments around the country. The surge in newer, regional gangs, such like the Jalisco Cartel New Generation and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, intent on carving out a toehold in the industry, has also encouraged the expansion into previously untapped areas. Another factor is the gangs’ greater emphasis on extracting revenues from the local civilian population, through crimes like kidnapping and extortion. With these activities on the rise, every untouched municipality represents a potential source for new revenues.

But while there is no question that municipal officials are targets for Mexico’s criminal gangs in ever greater numbers, there are reasons to be skeptical of Buscaglia’s conclusions. Particularly problematic is his reasoning that if criminal activities are conducted openly, that means a particular group now controls the local government. While blatant examples of impunity suggest some degree of official collusion, there is a great deal of distance between some corrupt interaction and a gang’s total control of a city.

The reality is, of course, much more complicated. The interplay between any city’s underworld with its legitimate political leadership is a tangled mess consisting of ever-evolving alliances, corrupt officials working alongside their honest colleagues, and certain gangs colluding with the authorities while their competitors confront them. To offer but one possible scenario, a gang of pirate merchandisers may be making payoffs to the local beat officers and the director of the municipal unit in charge of investigating the crime, while simultaneously having no relationship with the mayor’s office or the federal police deployed locally.

In such a context, any notion of criminal control is a fleeting. The criminal group may feel comfortable conducting their business out in the open, but that doesn’t mean they have purchased the loyalty of the local government wholesale, much less that they are pulling the strings at city hall.

Another problem with Buscaglia’s analysis comes from the fact that they he is drawing broad conclusions regarding a shadowy industry based only on activities carried out in the light of day. A smart criminal group, especially one dedicated to hidden activities like drug smuggling, may well exert its control behind the scenes, without leaving any indication of their influence. Such a circumstance is likely not uncommon, which means that Buscaglia’s analysis is unable to account for much of the influence exerted by Mexico’s criminal gangs.

This is not to discount the relevance of Buscaglia’s report, which surely reflects very real trends in the Mexican landscape, which have also manifested themselves elsewhere in the region. But Buscaglia’s reporting oversimplifies the more tangled relationships in the criminal underworld. 

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