The Agenda

Randall Collins on the Mexican Cartels

Bill Wasik kindly directed my attention to Randall Collins’s blog via his Twitter feed. Collins is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, perhaps best known for his fascinating book Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory. Some years ago, my friend Graeme Wood wrote a review of the book that is well worth reading. This from Graeme captures the essence of Collins’s thesis:

Mr. Collins’s most distinctive point — that we have to overcome a very high threshold of fear and tension before we become violent — seems, under the weight of his anecdotes, difficult to deny. He repeats the famous military finding that soldiers in combat only very rarely fired their weapons at the enemy with the intention of killing. All evidence suggests that the typical frontline infantryman fought not with a frenzied, sexual thrill, as was suggested by Joanna Bourke, but with jelly-guts and a whimper on his lips. In not especially severe cases, some men under fire will lie down exposed in an open field and cover their eyes and head, hoping to make the violence go away by not looking at it.

Under these conditions of fear, few will fight. Violence happens only when the fear-stricken desperados find a path around their paralysis, often through “staged violence” — the highly stylized dueling rituals so popular in 19th-century Europe, or informal “fair-fights” staged outside bars or after school today — or by finding a weaker victim to gang up on; Mr. Collins calls one common variety of this “forward panic,” a manic orgy of violence as in My Lai or Nanking. Providing a weak target sometimes suffices to tip a situation from tense to violent. In moments of tightly wound panic, begging for mercy can itself provoke slaughter.

In May, Collins wrote a fascinating post on organized crime, comparing mafias in a variety of different cultural and institutional contexts and how they evolved in response to changing pressures and economic opportunities. In particular, Collins focuses on the distinctive nature of the powerful Mexican drug cartels, including their use of spectacular public violence. 

While many argue that the legalization of various narcotics would be the death-knell of the Mexican cartels, Collins believes that this notion rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the source of the cartels’ power:

Drugs provide one source of income, and the variety of drug routes provides bases on which some– but not all– of the cartels originated. But the main resource of a crime-org is how much violence it can muster, and that depends on its political reach and strength of organizational control. Once the military/political structure exists, it can be turned to different kinds of criminal businesses, whether these involve running a drug business (or any other illegal business); or merely raking off protection money from those who run an illegal business; or extorting protection money from ordinary citizens, including kidnapping. A crime-org might start out in the drug business and shift its activities elsewhere, or vice versa. Randolfo Contreras has shown that in the 1990s when the crack cocaine business dried up in the Bronx, former street dealers went into other areas of crime. In Mexico, when increased border surveillance cut into drug deliveries to the US, crime-orgs expanded into extortion and kidnapping for ransom. The Zetas, because of their organization as Special Forces, were less directly connected with the drug business itself; when they became independent of the declining Gulf cartel, they have moved aggressively into more purely predatory use of violence against other cartels’ territories. This is not so much an effort to monopolize the drug trafficking business, as a different political strategy, leveraging their special skill, highly trained military violence.

It follows that ending the illegal drug business– whether by eradication or by legalization– would not automatically end violence. Mexican crime-orgs could intensify other types of violent extortion (and so they have, with increased pressure on the US border), as along as they still held territories out of government control; and wars between the cartels would not cease. It is a non sequitur to argue that if the US would stop drug consumption, Mexican cartels and their violence would disappear. [Emphasis added]

To be sure, legalization could weaken the Mexican cartels considerably, and that should certainly be taken into account when we weigh the pros and cons of reforming our drug laws. 

I should note that Collins has written awesome posts on a number of subjects, including a particularly rich and informative post on bullying.

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