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The Relationship Between Italian Mafias And Mexican Drug Cartels – Part 1: A Comparison

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Why Mexico and Italy Have More in Common than Meets the Eye

It is now well-known – thanks to the FBI-DEA “Project Reckoning” operation in September 2008 and to the Italian Arm of Carabineers “Crime 3” operation in July 2011 – that the Mexican criminal organizations Los Zetas and Gulf Cartel are in business with the two most powerful Italian Mafias, the ‘Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra. Closer business relations between ‘Ndrangheta, the most powerful criminal organization in Europe, and Los Zetas, arguably the fiercest of the Mexican drug cartels, could be a worrisome shift in the scope of the transnational drug trafficking network.

According to Fabio Armao, Professor of International Relations at the University of Turin in Torino, Italy, there are three major similarities between Italy and Mexico: first, a relatively recent history as unified states, and therefore easily corrupted political systems; second, a paradoxically marginalized yet critical role on the world stage, particularly given their relations with the United States; and third, a Spanish legacy in terms of predominance of the Catholic religion [1].

Weak States and Links Between Criminal Organizations and the Political Process

The birth of the first Italian Mafia, Cosa Nostra, dates back to the immediate aftermath of the Allied forces’ invasion of Sicily during World War II. While the first gangs had already appeared in the first half of the 19th century, only in 1943 did these criminal bosses begin to perform administrative tasks within the government, empowered by the American and British intelligence services. This marked a fundamental shift in how these criminal institutions operated prior to the war and afterwards as, through their actions, the victors of the war provided political legitimacy to the Mafia’s power and authority. In fact, many important Mafia members joined the Christian Democracy party, which at that time was Italy’s ruling political force. As Professor Armao points out, “Since then, this link with national politics has never disappeared.” [2]

As for Mexico, drug cartels have thrived in large part thanks to a lack of concentrated governmental power. From its independence from Spain in 1821, to 1876, Mexico was ruled by a number of weak administrations. Clashes between liberals, supporters of a federal form of government, and conservatives, who proposed a centralized form of government, dominated politics at that time. Afterwards, Mexico experienced political continuity under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz from 1876 to 1911 (with a break from 1880 to 1884), and under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI) from 1929 to 2000. However, the PRI relied primarily on “clientelismo” and corruption to retain its power. This helps to explain why Mexico traditionally has exhibited weaknesses in terms of the rule of law and respect for governmental institutions. Mexico’s long-standing tradition of police corruption and deviant institutions provided the appropriate foundations for organized crime to spread throughout the country. Anabel Hernández, an investigative reporter for the newspaper Proceso, has frequently criticized the Mexican government and police officials’ role not only in failing to guarantee the safety of Mexican citizens, but even worse, in being responsible for many of the heinous crimes themselves.

The absence of the state in the equation is a common trait shared by the presence of organized crime in Mexico and Southern Italy. Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist and author of the best-seller “Gomorra”, wrote that in a state not able to satisfy elementary needs such as medical care and education for the populace, “the narcos that help in building schools and hospitals end up being considered almost as patron saints.” [3]

Where the state is missing a clear-cut role, criminal organizations thrive in its absence. Vanda Felbab-Brown, Fellow at the Brookings Institution, highlights the fact that an appropriate response should be “a multifaceted state-building effort” aimed at bolstering the ties between the state and dropout communities and providing a fitting alternative to illicit activity as a means of appeasing the presence of physical insecurity in the surrounding society. [4]

Peripheral Role in International Relations and U.S. Allies

Mexico, like the majority of Latin American countries, has been subjected to the Monroe Doctrine and is, along with the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, considered by the United States to be part of its “backyard”, or area of influence.

Mexico and the United States have a symbiotic relationship because of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). A report from the Office of the United States Trade Representative made in March 2006 highlights that, thanks to this pact, trade among the NAFTA nations – the United States, Mexico, and Canada – climbed 173 percent from $297 billion to $810 billion between 1993 and 2005, and that, in the same years, U.S. real GDP rose 48 percent and Mexico’s 40 percent. In fact, the negative effects of the treaty seem to overwhelm the positive ones, primarily in the realm of labor migration. Since NAFTA was signed into law – according to the Pew Hispanic Center – the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States, who are often fleeing declining returns to agriculture and often face adverse conditions in their journey,  has increased to 12 million today from 3.9 million in 1993, accounting for an overall increase of over 300 percent. Of those entering the country through its southern border, 57 percent are from Mexico. Moreover, NAFTA expanded the maquiladora program, in which U.S. companies employed low-wage workers near the border to cheaply assemble products for export to the United States. In these export assembly plants the laborers work for as little as 50 cents an hour, six days a week, for up to 10 hours a day. This growth in the maquiladora industry also poses security risks, especially in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, which became famous for the murder and kidnapping of several thousands of women.

Since the American landing in Sicily on the 9th and 10th of July 1943 during the Second World War, Italy has been a U.S. trusted ally. The country was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) signed in 1949, and since 1952 has been supplying U.S. military bases in the critical geopolitical area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Today, according to the Pentagon, these bases are 59 in number. Since George W. Bush proclaimed the so-called “Global War on Terrorism”, the U.S. Army has moved its center of gravity from Germany to Italy, making the Italian peninsula a launching ramp for the current and future wars waged in Africa and in the Middle East. Furthermore, Italy has taken part in NATO-ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan, providing 3,770 soldiers. However, it only provided logistical support to U.S. efforts in Iraq.

Predominant Presence of Catholicism

It is also certainly true that both Mexico and Italy exhibit a predominance of the Catholic religion.

Italy and Mexico are among the countries in the world with the largest Catholic populations. According to a 2013 report of the Pew Research Center, Mexico contains 96 million Catholics (85 percent of its population), and is the country with the second largest number of Catholics in the world (after Brazil).  Italy sits in fifth place with 49 million, accounting for 81 percent of its population.

This common feature is due, in Italy, to the Catholic Church in Rome and in Mexico due to its Spanish legacy. The Roman Catholic Church has always had a huge impact on the Italian peninsula since its inception during the Roman Empire, and this stature only increased after the year 752, when Pope Stephen II proclaimed the Papal States.  For the entirety of the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was able to set a code of conduct for the greater part of continental Europe, including the populations living in present-day Spain. The Spaniards in the 16th century spread the Catholic religion in Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

The Catholic religion is also linked to criminal organizations, particularly because of the role of its precepts of absolution in shielding criminals from the negative consequences of their deeds, and many scholarly works have emphasized the importance of the religion in strengthening the Italian Mafia. [5]

Differences in Terms of Hierarchical Systems and Violence

Beside these similarities stand several stark differences which mostly relate to hierarchical systems and the manifestations and scope of violence.

The hierarchical differences between and among Mexican drug cartels and Italian criminal organizations are numerous. Among the four Italian Mafias – the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra, the Sacra Corona Unita, and the ‘Ndrangheta – the former three have a vertical hierarchy while the last is horizontally organized. In criminal organizations that are vertically organized, the leader is a sort of Chief Executive Officerwho is responsible for the functioning of the group, ensures the organization’s operations, and ultimately supports its goals and objectives. [6] In order to better fulfill his role, he delegates authority to subordinates in terms of tasks and geographical jurisdictions.  On the other hand, the ‘Ndrangheta has a horizontal hierarchy. It is composed of families, the “ndrine”, and each family is dominant over the territory in which it operates, enjoying a monopoly over both licit and illicit activities. These families’ bosses, called “capibastone”, gather annually to discuss and define the guidelines for the upcoming year.

On the contrary, the Mexican drug cartels, once purely centralized, have been forced to decentralize because some of the most important drug lords ended up being arrested or killed by governmental forces. As leaders have been imprisoned or assassinated, the single nodes of the network (the cells) have started to act independently in order to maintain effective operations.

As a result, most Mexican drug cartels are currently organized in a so-called “Decentralized Cell Structure,” a term coined by the international relations analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt. In such a system, there is a low grade of hierarchy with the potential for multiple leaders.  The single nodes of the network (the cells) could instead present a higher degree of hierarchy. The decision-making process is decentralized, leaving a certain level of autonomy to local initiatives. Therefore, the design could appear sometimes as acephalous (headless), or polycephalous, even if not all the nodes have the same importance.  [7]

This type of organization requires a network that as a whole has almost no hierarchy at all, leaving a high degree of autonomy to the cells. Therefore, cell structures can be polycephalous, with multiple leaders whose functions and responsibilities vary depending on circumstances. The leader, usually the person most experienced in the cell, is the one who is not only responsible for the correct functioning of the group, but also for its external relations. Particularly, a leader attempts to pay attention to not attract a high degree of attention from law enforcement. Furthermore, in such hierarchical systems it is very important that the cells align themselves with the umbrella organization’s goals and beliefs. According to Professor Phil Williams of the University of Pittsburgh, such networked criminal organizations are composed of a close-knit core leadership and a periphery consisting of expendable, networked criminals. As the Southwest Region Director at U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Chris Dishman, points out, this organizational mutation is probably only temporary—a transition point from a traditional hierarchical criminal group to a fully networked organization. [8]

Nonetheless, the Zetas drug cartel has a quite different hierarchy. Roberto Saviano recounts that in each of the organization’s cells there are several different roles, in which the most important is la Dirección, the cell’s directional unit. Los Zetas therefore have a pyramidal organization, along with a horizontal structure, with cells spread all over the country. [9] Although, after Los Zetas’ leaders like Arturo Guzmán Decena, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, and Miguel Angel Trevino Morales were killed, the cartel has not broken down. It is certainly weaker and there are some splinter cells, but the group remains united.

Mexican drug cartels and Italian mafias differ completely in the purpose and scope of their intended violence. Whereas for Italian mafias, violence is regulated by an “honor code” and assassinations are hidden, for Mexican drug cartels such violence is unregulated by ascertainable norms. Cartels show as much cruelty and ferocity in their murders as possible, and often exhibit corpses in public plazas, in order to send a message to their opponents about how violent they can be.

Judge Giovanni Falcone used to say that the Cosa Nostra’s most common way of killing was the so-called “white shotgun” (in Italian “lupara bianca”), a method that some criminals used to kill victims without leaving traces, by melting their corpses in acid. Among the four Italian mafias there was – and still is – a strict code for killings, which all the affiliates are pressured to follow. Violence has always had a precise purpose, even if the people outside of the organization cannot understand or justify the reactions. The code determines what techniques of murder should be used, based on the functionality and purpose of the killing itself. Therefore, spectacular homicides have to be reserved for those that fight against mafias. For instance, Falcone reported that Cosa Nostra’s enemies who usually move with bodyguards in armored cars have to be blown up in their own cars in order to serve as a deterrent. [10] The most important rule to stress regarding Italian criminal mafias is that an affiliate cannot kill anyone without receiving authorization from his superior. Tragically, this tendency is not seen in Mexico.

For Mexican drug cartels the situation is entirely different, especially if we take into consideration criminal organizations like Los Zetas. Initially a dropout group from the paramilitary force “Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales” (GAFE), and then moving into an enforcer role for the Gulf Cartel, the Los Zetas cartel now stands alone as one of Mexico’s major  drug cartels. Its members are trained to kill, and their only purpose is profit. They could be seen as a product of unfettered globalization, in which ruthless actors struggle to make money within an unregulated environment.

The intensity of the violence and the brutality shown by Mexican drug trafficking organizations is all but unprecedented in the recent history of criminal organizations. Decapitations, hangings, and car bombs have marked the dramatic escalation in Mexico. These events, in addition to political assassinations and the increased killing of innocent bystanders, made some analysts consider that the violence exhibited by the Mexican drug cartels might even surpass the limits of conventional organized criminal behavior. [11]

Phil Williams observes that the context in which Mexican drug cartels thrive parallels the growth of criminal organizations in Italy, Russia, and Albania. What makes the Mexican case a peculiar one, though, is the feature of “anomie” regarding Mexico’s violence, which is “a degeneration of rules and norms and the emergence of new forms of behavior unconstrained by standard notions of what is acceptable” in an orderly society. [12] Roberto Saviano states that “classical“ organized criminal organizations – like the Italian ones, or even the Mexican drug cartels before President Calderón’s counterproductive war against drug cartels (started in December 2006) – had their own code of conduct, while the new ones do not. [13]

Los Zetas are the first cartel to start using violence and ferocity as marketing tools for murder and as signs of their presence. They have set up a new standard, which now is imitated by other cartels such as: Jalisco New Generation, Sinaloa, Gulf, the Knights Templar, and New Juárez. Saviano writes: “Los Zetas are masters, but they are learning at their own expense, how they could be overcome by their apprentices.” [14] It is a struggle for survival, in which every cartel has to be fiercer and crueler then the others. This conflict invokes an application of Darwin’s theory of evolution, in which only the strongest are able to survive.

In Italy, instead, criminal organizations thrive in secret.  When, in 1992-1993, the Sicilian Mafia tried to widen its power through bombs and assassinations, it failed. On the contrary, the ‘Ndrangheta has strived to remain occult and is more concerned with fostering links with politicians and broadening its businesses around the world. As result, the ‘Ndrangheta is now the biggest cocaine trafficker in Europe and Cosa Nostra acts just as its supporter in its businesses in Latin America. The second part of this analysis will turn to address drug trafficking ties between Mexican drug cartels and Italian criminal entities in more detail.

Sergio Corrado, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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[1] Fabio Armao – From Palermo to Ciudad Juárez: Organized Crime In Italy: Organized Crime In Italy And Mexico In Comparative Perspective – Prepared for delivery at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September 2-5, 2010

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] “Caccia a “El Chapo”, invisibile boss dei narcos”, La Repubblica, May 1, 2011

[4] Vanda Felbab-Brown, A State-building Approach to the Drug Trade Problem, Brookings, 2013

[5] Alessandra Dino, La mafia devota. Chiesa, religione, Cosa Nostra (Italy, Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2010); Nicola Gratteri, Antonio Nicaso, Michele Borrelli, Il grande inganno. I falsi valori della ‘ndrangheta (Italy: Cosenza, Pellegrini, 2008)

[6] Chris Dishman, The Leaderless Nexus: When Crime and Terror Converge, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Routledge, 28:237–252, 2005

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Roberto Saviano, ZeroZeroZero (Italy, Milano: Feltrinelli Editore, 2013), p. 112. I also suggest the reading of the website Borderland Beat in order to have a comprehensive framework on Mexican drug cartels’ hierarchy.

[10] Giovanni Falcone, Marcelle Padovani, Cose di Cosa Nostra (Italy, Milan: Rizzoli,  2004)

[11] June S. Beittel, Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Rising Violence, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, April 15, 2013

[12] Ibid., p. 45

[13] Zetas l’orgia del potere narcos, La Repubblica, July 17, 2013

[14] Roberto Saviano, ZeroZeroZero, p. 122