Yet that appears to be changing, at least in the criminal realm. The past 12 months in Mexico have been marked by a more significant upsurge of previously unknown groups than at any point in recent history. Among the new gangs: the Resistance, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, the Independent Cartel of Acapulco and the Pacific South Cartel.
And while these bands were virtually unknown on a national scale a year ago, they are already capable of serious mayhem. The recent bloodshed in Acapulco
, which includes the kidnapping and murder of 20 Mexican tourists last year and the decapitation of 15 people in early January, is attributed to the latter two groups. Members of the Resistance were recently arrested outside Guadalajara with a rocket launcher in their possession, and, in a tactic new to the region, have set up blockades to impede pursuit by authorities.
The rise of the new gangs follows an unusually tumultuous year for the highest level of Mexican traffickers, the capos. After being largely spared during President Felipe Calderón's first three years in office, the capos have been caught or killed with striking regularity
since cartel leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva died in a shootout with Mexican marines in Cuernavaca in December 2009.
In the months following Beltrán Leyva's death, Teo García, Ezequiel Cárdenas, Ignacio Coronel, Sergio Villarreal and Edgar Valdez -- all major figures representing a wide spectrum of competing groups -- were either killed by government forces or taken into custody. Nazario Moreno, a leader of the pseudo-cultish gang known as La Familia Michoacana
, also died at the hands of the federal troops in December 2010. Even before his death, La Familia was in disarray, offering a truce with the government in November, and then announcing its dissolution in January. Even the ostensibly untouchable head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, has lost a couple of lieutenants in recent weeks.
According to official explanations, the emergence of new organizations is a byproduct of the turmoil at the top of the drug trade. The two groups from Acapulco, the Independent and Pacific South Cartels, are the remnants of erstwhile members of Beltrán Leyva's and Valdez's networks. A few hundred miles to the north, authorities, who have offered various and sometimes contradictory versions of the new mafias' genesis, have said that the New Generation Jalisco Cartel is connected to Guzmán as well, while the Resistance is made up of former members of the Cárdenas' Gulf Cartel and La Familia.
There are two possible explanations for the rise of the new blood: In the first, they represent the replacement of fallen heavyweights, essentially the younger generation rising up to replace the older. In this version, the growth of new organizations is the industry's natural, inevitable, and not profoundly significant response to the arrests of the past year. This is just another case of musical chairs, not qualitatively different from the process by which Guzmán came to the national fore a generation ago.
Alternatively, the increased turmoil may indicate the opening of a very different stage for Mexico's drug trade. Analyzing the significance of developments within a clandestine industry in real time lends itself to misinterpretation, but the emergence of newer, smaller gangs, especially if it were to continue in months and years to come, offers evidence of the possible atomization of the Mexican drug trade. That would not be a new round of musical chairs, but rather a brand new game.
Atomization, a long-sought-after result in which the large, hegemonic networks divide into fragments, would bring with it both benefits and drawbacks. Among the benefits, a nation full of smaller, shorter-lived gangs would eventually adopt a less confrontational stance toward Mexican authorities than we see from the largest organizations today. Endowed with less cash, less geographic reach, and consequently less influence among government officials, the smaller bands would present a diminished threat to Mexico's governing institutions.
But atomization wouldn't be a panacea for all of Mexico's ills. Colombia underwent a similar transition in the 1990s with the fall of the Medellín and Cali cartels, and the country remains both exceedingly violent -- far more so than Mexico, despite media depictions of a Colombian security miracle -- and the world's foremost producer of cocaine.
In the short term, all the turmoil makes it unlikely that any Mexican administration, whether that of Calderón or his successor, will have the political space to ease up on its aggressive pursuit of organized crime. The U.S. will also face pressure to continue supporting Mexican efforts to tamp down on drug gangs, most notably through bilateral agreements like the Mérida Initiative
Down the line, however, if the challenge becomes one of scores of smaller groups rather than a handful of very big ones, the governmental response will have to adjust as well. American support, especially in the form of the helicopters on which much of the Mérida Initiative is based, will be less important than Mexican policing capability, from the elite Federal Police units down to the local-level municipal beat cops. And while Mexico would be happy to be rid of its most powerful kingpins in such a scenario, the painstaking institutional reform required for such a transition could turn out to be just as daunting. One of the most enduring lessons of the war on drugs is that the consequences of a given policy shift are impossible to gauge ahead of time.
**Patrick Corcoran is a student of international relations at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. He lived in northern Mexico from 2005 to 2010, and blogs daily about Mexican security and politics at Gancho