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Mexican drugs world pans out into hybrid war

Drugs-related violence in Mexico is similar in terms of dynamics and strategy to the IS hybrid war in the West. This is the claim made by Teun Voeten. PhD defence 20 September.

Mexicans have lived for years in the shadow of drugs-related violence. In 2006 former President Felipe Calderón declared war on the drugs cartels, after which the violence rose to unprecedented levels: in a period of just ten years it led to between 150,000 to 180,000 deaths, 29,000 of these in 2017.

Hybrid war

In Mexico there are a number of different armed groups that deliberately create an environment of chaos and lawlessness. This 'hybrid war' is fed by the hallucinatory effect of the drugs trade, and it is complicated by the diversity of the players involved, who come from all sections of society. ‘The simultaneous use of primitive and modern weapons and strategies, such as internet warfare, is another important characteristic of a hybrid conflict,' Voeten adds. 

Parallel with IS

Voeten compares the tactics of the Mexican drug cartels with the way IS works, another example of a hybrid war. The videos of the beheadings by IS are very similar to the retaliation videos of the Mexican drugs cartels. Voeten: ‘They are intended to incite anxiety, but also to recruit new followers: if you can’t beat us, join us. It's easy to write off the violence as mindless, but my research shows that there is a logic behind the way the perpetrators act.' 

Teun Voeten in Beirut, July 2006. Photo: Jeroen Oerlemans/De Beeldunie
Teun Voeten in Beirut, July 2006. Photo: Jeroen Oerlemans/De Beeldunie

War photographer

Voeten's experiences as a war photographer for De Volkskrant, among others, came in very useful during his research. In the period from 2009 to 2017 he made 20 visits to Mexico, which resulted in his photo book Narco Estado: Drug Violence in Mexico. Before that he reported on armed conflicts in such countries as Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Liberia and Colombia. 'It was fantastic to be able to do this PhD research,' Voeten commented, 'because 25 years of experience as a war photographer suddenly fell into place.'  

Multiple wars at the same time

Voeten studied Mexican drugs violence from different perspectives: political, economic and anthropological. At political level he looked at the dynamics of the conflict. 'Many wars are fought at the same time between cartels, authorities, police departments, paramilitary groups, citizens and minor criminals. These roles can overlap and the players can change position. And all of them have different motivations and backgrounds.’

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Cartels with a business model

The liberalisation of the Mexican economy has opened up opportunities for criminal entrepreneurs. According to Voeten, drugs cartels operate under the same logic as legitimate businesses, with each cartel having its own business model. 'The Sinaloa cartel specialises in drugs smuggling, which means that they want to control the smuggling routes. And the Zeta cartel, with a different portfolio, uses franchising to expand its activities.' 

Talking to contract killers

Voeten also looks at the situation in Mexico from an anthropological perspective. How can individuals not only kill fellow human beings, but even turn into ruthless murderers who commit horrific atrocities? In an effort to answer this question, Voeten talked with several sicarios, Mexican contract killers. Voeten: ‘The first murder is generally an accident or self-defence. Extreme violence is simply part of the human repertoire. Disassociation, both spatial and moral, positive and negative sanctions, and finally drugs and brainwashing are what make it easy to kill a fellow human being. That's the same in all cultures.' 

Teun Voeten will defend his PhD at Leiden University on 20 September. He carried out his research over recent years as an external PhD candidate at the Leiden Institute of History.

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