Living in Fear: Mapping the Social Embeddedness of Drug Gangs and Violence in Mexico
Citizens in Mexico are trapped in between two illegitimate forces – the drug gangs and their criminal organizations and the police who are supposed to protect them. Through the use of list experiments within the Survey on Public Safety and Governance in Mexico (SPSGM), we measure the pervasiveness of drug gang activity as it pertains to strategies of coercion (extortion) and co-optation (offering help) to ordinary citizens. The list experiments also allow us to provide a mapping of the geography of drug activity and the extent to which not only the drug gangs, but also the police, engages in strategies of coercion. The paper seeks to provide a better understanding of which groups are most vulnerable and where is it that drug gangs have become most embedded in society. Our findings suggest that although narcotraficantes extort citizens the most in high violence regions and the police does so in low violence ones, both forms of extortion are present everywhere in Mexico. This has triggered a spiral of fear: drug gangs signal unambiguously that they are in control and will punish anyone who provides information to the government, while the police can’t credibly signal that they can regain control of the streets. Police corruption is hence an essential part of the story of Mexico’s violence. Ever more fearful citizens have turned to the narcos for help, we demonstrate, and hence many tacitly –or even openly– support them. The paper results suggest that public strategies emphasizing military action and harsh treatment might not affect the social embeddedness that protects drug gangs and criminal organizations. Instead, enhancing citizen trust within communities and shifting the reputation of police forces while improving the adjudication of justice are more likely to strengthen the social fabric.