Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review: "Mexico’s Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction"

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 12:39am

SWJ Book Review: Mexico’s Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction


Alma Keshavarz




Nathan P. Jones, Mexico’s Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction. Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2016 [ISBN: 9781626162952, paper, 194 pages]


What makes illicit networks resilient and why do states choose to attack some more aggressively over others? These are the questions the author—Nathan P. Jones—investigates and attempts to answer in Mexico’s Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction. Dr. Jones is a non-resident scholar in drug policy and Mexico studies at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Texas and an Assistant Professor in Security Studies, Sam Houston State University. While a student he was awarded an Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation dissertation fellowship while studying at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) to conduct a year of fieldwork in Mexico. He spent that year in Mexico City and Tijuana and developed a dissertation that was later turned into this book on the resiliency and illicit structure of the Tijuana cartel. The book is a quick, yet informative read with an introduction, lists of illustrations and abbreviations, four chapters each ending with notes, a conclusion, appendix, bibliography, and an index.


Jones’ introduction establishes a background to his research question and outlines the chapters. He uses the Arellano Félix Organization (AFO)—also known as the Tijuana Cartel—as the historical case study to illustrate his state reaction argument. The author later uses George and Bennett’s method (Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences, 2005) of structured focus comparison on three smaller cases: Los Zetas, Los Caballeros Templarios (also known as the Knights Templar), and the Sinaloa Cartel to test his theory. He defines key variables for the reader early on because they are frequently used throughout the book. For instance, Jones explains that drug networks can be either transactional or territorial. The first, transactional, are trafficking-oriented drug networks that focus on ‘transaction’ activities like the “trafficking of drugs and the logistics involved in moving commodities from point A to point B” (p. 1). These targets are less important to a state and are even likely to form “alliances with states through corruption” and other illicit networks. The second, territorial, focuses on “the control and taxation of territory” (p. 1). These groups tend to be more violent and therefore, higher priority for the state.


In Chapter 1 (“The State Reaction and Illicit-Network Resilience”), Jones addresses three types of illicit networks that threaten the security of states: (1) insurgent, (2) transactional or trafficking-oriented, and (3) territorial. Insurgent is defined as “a political movement attempting to overthrow a state through the unconventional use of force” (p. 20). This applies to groups such as al-Qaeda (AQ) or the Islamic State (IS). They challenge the state and want to overthrow the government through violence. Transactional or trafficking-oriented drug networks use violence in defense; that is, violence is used against rival groups but not the civilian population. Extortion and bribery are also used; maintaining local police cooperation is essential. Territorial drug networks, however, “play a zero-sum game” (p. 23). These networks seek control over territory and focus on creating revenue similar to the state. They are also involved in kidnapping, human trafficking, firearms trafficking, extortion, taxing licit and illicit activities, prostitution, domestic distribution of drugs, and copyright piracy, all of which abuses civil society (p. 23). These networks will be targeted by the state as it not only affects society, but challenges the states governance and sovereignty.


Chapter 2 (“The Arellano Félix Organization’s Resilience”) introduces the Tijuana Cartel and identifies the four phases of its history. The first phase, ‘Pax Padrino’ (or ‘Peace of the Godfather’), describes the relationship among Mexican traffickers during the 1980s. It is regarded a peaceful period due to three factors: (1) a corrupt Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS); (2) an authoritarian ruling party, Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), capable of making credible long-term promises to traffickers; and (3) the managerial capabilities of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (p. 48). The second phase, territorialization, was “marked by its independence from other Mexican drug networks and its increase in numbers of ‘enforcers’ to meet new challenges” (p. 50). During this time, Gallardo was serving a sentence in La Palma prison for his complicity in U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena’s death in 1985. As AFO’s leadership fluctuated, their violence became unprecedented; as Jones explains, they “killed in ways designed to terrorize networks and signal a reputation for violence” (p. 52). This phase ended with the U.S.-Mexican joint law-enforcement effort that diminished the cartel’s first-generation leaders in the 2000s, which ushered in the third phase, dismantlement. Jones cites Operation United Eagles as an example of extraordinary U.S.-Mexico law enforcement cooperation. Many AFO members were arrested and the group grew weaker as a result. The final phase, the restricting phase, was the rise of Luis Fernando ‘El Ingeniero’ Sánchez Arellano between 2006 and 2008, the Arellano Félix brothers’ nephew. His leadership style was different than his predecessors, which caused tension within the network and reduced its resiliency over time. Eventually, the old network dissolved and the AFO continued under El Ingeniero; but, the importance of the case study is to show “the evolutionary process that eliminated one drug network for its emphasis on territorial extortion and allowed another to survive because of its transactional character and its ability to form alliances with the state and other powerful transactional drug networks” (p. 66).


In Chapter 3 (“The State Reaction”), Jones argues that while states react more strongly to territorial networks over transactional networks, thereby reducing network resiliency, the “strength of state institutions and democratic transition also strengthen or weaken the state reaction’s impact on a drug network’s resilience” (p. 75). The author continues with the case study on the AFO in this chapter. Overall, according to Jones, “democratization has weakened Mexico’s ability to negotiate with drug traffickers” (p. 78). The U.S.-Mexican response to the AFO through joint law-enforcement cooperation has severely damaged the network. Former Mexican President Felipé Calderón heavily used the military to fight the drug war and successfully arrested the majority of kingpins in the country during his presidency. Jones pays special attention to a number of policies from Calderón’s administration that targeted the AFO, which include the 2007 Mérida Initiative—in which Mexico received $2.5 billion in U.S. military equipment from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2015—ATF Project Gunner, which aimed to stop the flow of guns into Mexico from the United States, and Operativo Tijuana in 2007, which targeted kidnappings, extortions, and homicides that were all on the rise in the state (p. 83). As Jones explains in this chapter, Mexican law enforcement greatly benefited from U.S. law-enforcement cooperation.


Chapter 4 (“The Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, and Los Caballeros Templarios”) applies the state-reaction theoretical framework that Jones previously discussed to three smaller case studies. The first case study examines the Sinaloa Cartel and its resilience. When its leader, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán escaped from prison his first time in 2001, he moved quickly to take over new territory. Early on, he targeted the Gulf Cartel and later moved into Ciudad Juárez and the Juárez Cartel. The Sinaloa Cartel formed alliances with local gangs to fight the Juárez Cartel and gain control of new territory. However, internal conflicts, such as with the Beltrán Leyva brothers, caused tensions. The brothers became the Beltrán Leyva Organzation (BLO), which was not as resilient as other networks. The Sinaloa Cartel never faltered during each of El Chapo’s arrests, incarcerations, and escapes. As Jones explains, the cartel has a “trafficking-oriented business model” and have proven to be adaptive (p. 104).  Los Zetas, on the other hand, are characterized as “highly territorial” but as having increased their transactional activities over time (p. 97). Jones provides an insightful, yet brief, background on how Los Zetas developed as an intelligence force, “useful for the control of territory and expansion of the Gulf Cartel into all of the strategic areas of northeastern Mexico in the late 1990s” (p. 107). They grew in size and eventually became known for their violence. Jones describes their trainings, tactics, and leadership and also makes it a point to explain how Los Zetas are actually “narco insurgents” or “criminal insurgents” (p. 108). The final case study in this chapter examines Los Caballeros Templarios (CT), or the Knights Templar, which is an offshoot of La Familia Michoacán (LFM). Jones briefly outlines the importance of LFM and how the group produced the Templars. Its leader, Nazario ‘El Más Loco/El Chayo’ Moreno González faked his death in 2010, which resulted in the creation of the Templars led by Servando ‘La Tuta’ Gómez Martínez. The CT followed the LFM business model, according to Jones, and relied on violence to show that they are protector of the people. However, El Chayo was finally confirmed dead in a shootout with Mexican authorities and La Tuta was arrested in February 2015. Each case study faced different challenges and not all proved resilient. The importance of these cases is to show that resiliency is based on the business model that each cartel employs.


In the concluding chapter, Jones explains that “the state-reaction argument demonstrates which business strategies will increase the risk of state reaction and how strong that reaction will be, and it allows us to effectively measure the resultant drug network’s resilience via the resilience typology” (p. 125). According to Jones, this will help gain a better understanding of how and why Mexico targets some drug networks over others. The final chapter not only discusses lessons learned from the case studies, but also addresses some weaknesses of the argument by revisiting the cases and offering theoretical and policy implications. The author is certainly well positioned to discuss this subject matter and has proven his expertise through his research and analysis. This is an excellent book that addresses how drug networks are targeted through the prism of the state.


Categories: SWJ Book Review - El Centro

About the Author(s)

Alma Keshavarz received her PhD in Political Science at Claremont Graduate University. Her dissertation focused on hybrid warfare applied to the Islamic State, Russia, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. She previously earned a MA in political science at the same institution. She also holds an MPP from Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy and a BA in Political Science and English from University of California, Davis. She has held various research intern and associate positions and has served as a graduate assistant at Pepperdine University. Her research interests include non-state actors, specifically Hezbollah, cyber security and warfare, and national security strategy with a regional focus on Middle East politics, specifically Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. She has written a number of SWJ  articles and has also co-published a number of the works for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), Fort Leavenworth, KS. She is fluent in Spanish and Farsi and is a past Non-resident Fellow in Terrorism and Security Studies at TRENDS Research & Advisory.