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3Qs: Examining the dynamics of drug violence

Photo by Christopher Huang.

In recent months, more reports have surfaced of escalating violence involving drug cartels in parts of Mexico. We asked Ramiro Martinez Jr., a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern, to examine the current dynamic amid the Mexican drug violence plaguing these regions. As a quantitative criminologist, Martinez’s research looks at how violence varies across ecological settings, and if violent crimes and violent deaths vary across racial and ethnic groups.

What makes the war on drugs such a difficult battle, particularly in Mexico?

The internal battle in Mexico over drug market access and control over drug routes into the United States is fueled by years of sustained illegal drug profits and the well-documented ability to evade local law enforcement. Drug organizations can hire personnel to support their organizations, provide economic resources to their employees and associates, seek more profit in all sectors of the economy and, of course, ignore an underfunded law enforcement system.  The municipal-level police departments in Mexico have been notoriously underpaid, under-supported and under-staffed for decades. These dynamics are difficult to change. It is also worth noting that Mexican drug trafficking organizations are largely engaged in a turf war over drug market access through the areas adjacent to the U.S. border. Most of the country including Mexico City down to Quintana Roo — the state containing the beautiful beach cities of Cancun, Cozumel and the historic ruins of Chichen Itza and others — has been relatively untouched by drug market battles. The vast majority of Mexico is not consumed with the violence concentrated in the northern Mexican states.

What does the recent escalation in violence mean for the United States and border security? 

The U.S. border communities from San Diego, Calif., to Brownsville, Texas, themselves are very secure. I am a native of San Antonio, Texas, and cannot think of a single border community that is under siege, at least when looking at crime data. As a researcher, I am more concerned about the rise of Latino hate crimes than border violence in the United States.  
However, some commentators insist that these are dangerous or “lawless” communities on the border. For example, concerns over the increased levels of criminal violence and the compromised public safety caused by illegal immigration were cited among the principle considerations underpinning Arizona’s controversial immigration legislation (SB1070).  But there are no significant differences between homicides in border counties or non-border counties in the southwestern United States.

How does the increased use of social media and the Internet by civilians to get the word out in their communities, and by the cartels for intimidation and to expand their reach, affect the United States’ and Mexico’s ability to address this situation?

This is a good question, and time will tell how the public can use social media to thwart drug gang messages. Something tells me residents have more voices and more outlets, and hopefully that can help them turn the tide. There are many obstacles on the path to creating a better society.

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