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Mexico And The Problem Of 'Privilege Violence'

If President López Obrador really wants to give his country peace and security, he'll need to tackle criminal complicity among the powers that be.

A victim of Mexican organized crime
A victim of Mexican organized crime
Luis Rubio


MEXICO CITY — Violence ends up destroying or at the very least transforming civilizations. So what can be done to stop it? For governance analyst Rachel Kleinfeld, the solution lies in re-civilizing societies and political systems.

In each situation, she argues, there are clear and distinctive reasons for violence to occur. So countering it requires the correct focus. Kleinfeld believes that in many countries, leaders need to tackle what she calls "privilege violence," violence that is wielded for the purpose of protecting power. For that to happen, the middle class and civil society need to mobilize and pressure the state to act.

Violence can eat away at a state's structural integrity. Often, there is outright complicity, Kleinfeld argues. Criminals come to entice and corrupt rulers to the point of turning them into accomplices, and once the state is part of the criminal order, its entire structure of police and judges is weakened and becomes part of the problem, not the solution.

Kleinfeld points to privilege violence as typical of unequal and polarized societies in which the powers that be use it to preserve the status quo. Big interests may prefer a cowed population, but down the line, as violence thrives, the state apparatus loses its ability to protect ordinary citizens.

The most interesting aspect of Kleinfeld's research, as it relates to Mexico, is the distinction she makes between governments that are overwhelmed by violence, and those that have joined with organized crime. While the second can lead to the first, there are cases, like Afghanistan, where very powerful criminal groups can impose their law.

Violence and corruption produce a generalized fall in standards.

The author has no doubt that in the cases of Honduras and Mexico, the second case applies. Authorities were corrupted by or simply embraced organized crime, leading to the collapse of structures designed to protect citizens and implement justice.

Once that happens, and when the authorities connive in criminality, all areas begin to deteriorate, even when unrelated, Kleinfeld contends. That's because violence and corruption produce a generalized fall in standards. People with hitherto irreproachable conduct begin thinking it is now alright to steal in a supermarket. Electricity inspectors practically turn to extortion not unlike how the mafia demands protection money. The political discourse becomes aggressive as never before.

When civilization becomes degraded in that way, the only way to rebuild, Kleinfeld argues, it is with a government that is prepared to smash the complicity chains, and with a general population that demands government accountability.

It is as if the analyst were writing a script about our country. An incoming government finds an exhausted, half-dismantled state apparatus that was corrupted by crime-associated predecessors. It has no choice but to come to terms with the criminals to avoid a sudden rise in violence. The future is determined at that point: The new government can either accept the status quo (a pact), either as an end in itself or just to continue as before, or it can use the ceasefire to win time and build new police, judicial and investigative capabilities. Most governments become mired in such pacts, and the result is more violence.

Whether a country can escape the cycle depends, in large part, on the role played by civil society. When society insists on government action, provides oversight, and reveals its weaknesses, governments keep the flame of "re-civilization" alive, Kleinfeld argues. Likewise, when society doesn't or can't pressure the state, governments inexorably begin to cede.

The new government in Mexico, under Andrés Manuel López Obrador, must decide if it really wants to solve the problem, or just play the boss role — which is not the same thing. It has promised to restore peace and security in Mexico, but through the army. Kleinfeld's research casts doubts on whether that will work. If the López Obrador administration really wants out of the violence, she suggests, it must collaborate not with the armed forces, but with civil society.

Leoluca Orlando, a former mayor of Palermo — once a mafia stronghold — said it clearly once in comparing the fight against the mafia with a two-wheeled cart. The cart can move with just one wheel, but only in circles. Pushing it forward requires both wheels.

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