This week a short video circulated in major news outlets and social media showing an attack in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán. Unlike other violence that takes place in Mexico daily, this attack made headlines because the footage comes from the same drone that dropped the explosives. Yes, you read that right. Purportedly, the criminal group known as Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) was responsible for the aerial attack but as of the time of writing nobody had been arrested.
As Philip Johnson, an expert on why criminal actors communicate, contends, to understand why videos like the drone footage are shared by perpetrators we also need to think what they are saying and, equally important, what they affect by saying it. In this sense, the drone video is not only about watching violence but also how this violence serves the goals of the perpetrators. In the coming months, therefore, it will be important to watch how events unfold among different actors in Tepalcatepec.
But the conversation cannot end there, nor the drone attack should be analyzed separate from the Mexican Army helicopter brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2015 or the .50 caliber Barrett mounted on a truck in Culiacán during the failed arrest of Ovidio Guzmán in 2019. Arguably over the years, the firepower displayed by criminal groups has had lasting impacts among the general population including the quality and viability of Mexican democracy.
Results from the project “Perceptions on Mexican Democratic Institutions: A Survey of Experts and Citizens” by UC San Diego, the Institute for Legal Research at UNAM, SIMO Consulting, UC Santa Barbara and UC Merced, show a disturbing reality.
In our survey we found that 70 percent of the population agrees that organized criminal groups have more and better weapons than the Mexican armed forces. Only 24 percent disagreed with this statement while 6 percent did not know or did not answer. The fact that 70 percent of the Mexican population believes organized criminal groups have greater firepower than the state is concerning for several reasons but there are two worth highlighting:
First, this is not factually correct. The Mexican armed forces have greater firepower than criminal groups but videos like the one that circulated this week have become very effective in conveying the opposite. This also results in entire populations believing that organized criminal groups are free to act however they want without an effective state response.
Second, paradoxically, this perception further feeds militarizing public safety. If people perceive criminal groups to have greater firepower, then the armed forces can call for more mano dura approaches that we know are ineffective in reducing violence but certainly result in human rights violations. To the extent that the armed forces are increasingly in charge of civilian tasks, we ought to seriously consider how this perception vs. reality of firepower capacity can negatively impact civilian institutions.
Notably, in our survey we also found that this perception of greater firepower by criminal groups does not translate into a greater sense of safety. Our results show that 54 percent of the population disagrees with the idea that criminal groups provide greater security than local or state authorities. Contrary to notions that entire territories are fine or even enjoy living in areas where criminals exert violence, and consistent with Mexico’s statistics agency (INEGI) victimization survey, we find that there is a general sense of feeling unsafe even if drones have not made their debut in other parts of the country.
Full results for the survey will be available online in the coming weeks. If you would like to learn more please feel free to contact us.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc