Mexican Drug Cartels and the Art of Political Puppetry

When I met with former president of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo in his residence in New Haven, Connecticut I asked him to answer one question for me in all honesty: Are drug cartels going political?

It was 2011 and the violence generated by the War on Drugs had my hometown living in a constant state of terror and paranoia. Journalists and analysts had started claiming that drug cartels were funding political campaigns, backing certain political parties, and manipulating legislators. However, the convention was to assume that drug cartels were strictly criminal organizations with the sole interest of generating revenue; rational actors who operate through straight cost/benefit analysis. Mr. Zedillo answered my question along these lines, in an official tone and few words, and as if my question had been offensive.

Contrary to the official version of the Mexican government, the last five years have evidenced that Mexican drug cartels are indeed going political. Since 2011 numerous scandals exposing the collusion between politicians and drug cartels have been made public. This cases have highlighted the growing interest of cartels in influencing politics. Earlier this year, former governor of the state of Coahuila and president of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Humberto Moreira, was detained in Spain and accused of money laundering and collusion with a Mexican drug cartel. For the residents of Coahuila it was not surprising to hear the accusations against the man who is known for "bringing Los Zetas into the state." In the case of Michoacán, the documentary Narcoland exposed the deeply rooted collusion between the local police and the Michoacán cartels, while different videos emerged in 2014 exposing reunions and agreements between La Tuta, founder of La Familia Michoacana and the Caballeros Templarios, and different political figures, including a Mayor. The publication of the book Narco Juniors in 2015, in which José Luis Montenegro shares several interviews with top leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, exposes the historical agreements between politicians and authorities with the organization. And the list goes on.

In the last years, cartels have also become more aggressive in their role as political puppeteers. Mayors and local authorities that do not align with the demands of drug cartels are simply murdered. A recent case was the murder of Gisela Mota in January, 2016, only hours after she was sworn into office as the first female mayor of Temixco. In 2012, Reuters reported that drug cartels had paid at least $4.5 million in bribes "to buy protection and political favors in a state run by the country's main opposition party."

In this context, it is hard to believe that the horrifying narco-terrorist events that took place in the Casino Royal in Monterrey, where dozens of civilians were locked up while the premises where set on fire in 2011, that the massacres of Central American immigrants in the past years, and that the destruction of the town of Allende, Coahuila on 2013 do not involve a demand, a punishment or a message with political connotations. Drug cartels do have a legitimate interest in influencing Mexican politics. Most of them might not have a defined political ideology, but they do know what's best for business. And what is best for business is an entrenched complicity between the criminal groups and authorities, politicians and law enforcement agents at the local, state, and federal level. The ability to corrupt, penetrate and erode the political institutions is one of the major sources of power for these organizations nowadays, as it allows them to expand their business and to reduce the costs of their operations. Finally, a weak -but not failing- state is known to work best for the interests of organized crime groups in Latin America.

The coercive and aggressive means that cartels are employing to influence politics are part of only one of two strategies taking place today. On a different terrain, Mexican drug cartels are actually competing with the state for legitimacy and social support. A recent study on the social media activity of Mexican DTOs demonstrates that at least one third of the members of the Sinaloa Cartel, La Familia Michoacana, and the Caballeros Templarios with an active presence on Facebook use the platform to criticize the government, expose corrupt politicians, demand the resignation of the president, and even go as far as claiming that El Chapo Guzman would be a better leader for the country than any member of the political elite. Members of these cartels also use the platform to advertise their "social activities" and claim that they "serve the community" by providing services that the government is incapable of providing, including security. The narco-banner trend is now being replicated in cyberspace, where it has a magnifying effect. The echo and support that these statements find in the large network of friends of each user is unprecedented.

Today drug cartels are playing the political activism game and are increasing their support base by appealing to the hearts and minds of millions of people through the widespread social discontent and the ideal of social justice. Ironically, the government is becoming the common enemy that is uniting criminal organizations and mainstream society, while blurring the social stigmas around the drug trade industry in Mexico. In sum, cartels are speeding the process of delegitimizing the State and fueling social discontent while redefining their image as anti-system anti-heroes.

In two different and almost opposite levels, drug cartels are exposing their interest in playing with and redefining the political system to their convenience. This will have a devastating impact on the social and political structures and in the ability of the state to overcome its narco-crisis in the following years. It is urgent for Mexico and the international community to recognize drug cartels as actors with political interests and political goals, a trend which the government has resisted for more than a decade... for political reasons.