How the Government Aids Organized Crime in Mexico

Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Philip Luke Johnson (Political Science) was teaching third grade in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2010 when news spread of a massacre in San Fernando. A well-known Mexican crime organization known as the Zetas murdered 72 migrants and hid their remains in a mass grave.
“That event changed my thinking. It was so nonsensical,” Johnson tells The Graduate Center. “This baffling event prompted and guided my studies.”
In 2011, he left Mexico and later pursued his Ph.D. at The Graduate Center, determined to study crime and violence in Latin America and the U.S. He recently published his first article, “How Organized Crime Appropriates Counterinsurgency Violence.” The piece, published in Perspectives on Terrorism, examines the ways Mexican crime organizations appropriate tactics used by military and paramilitary units.
Johnson used the Zetas as a case study. He identified the criminal group as the first in the country to “actively recruit soldiers with counterinsurgency training.” It began in the 1990s when the drug trafficking organization Gulf Cartel recruited Guzm├ín Decena, a member of an elite anti-crime military unit created by the Mexican government in the 1980s.
Decena’s job was to create a subgroup of armed enforcers for the cartel. He recruited 30 other soldiers and used his military skillset to create the Zetas. In the decades that followed, these tactics would permeate crime organizations in the country. By 2007, the Zetas would house more than 100 recruits (some even children) at training camps, where it spent thousands of dollars for each recruit to undergo military-style training.
“We can’t let governments off the hook with this. [There are some] government-trained, sometimes U.S.-supported guys who are getting recruited into gangs and are really changing the scene,” Johnson says. This is “making it much more violent, much more dangerous for innocent people like migrants trying to make their way through parts of Mexico. There are plenty of bad guys very close to government.”
The article is one of the first to link “state terrorism” and organized crime which, Johnson says, many studies have overlooked. He notes that terrorist counter-insurgency tactics utilized by U.S. and Mexican governments have entered criminal organizations through highly trained and well-equipped military units.
Johnson has returned to Mexico several times between 2017 and 2019 to conduct research for his dissertation, funded by a string of CUNY grants. His dissertation examines criminal communication in Mexico. During his trips, Johnson assembled a database of over 6,000 “narco-messages” — written messages displayed in public that are attributed to organized crime groups.
“They’re written in black or red block lettering; they are full of unusual spelling,” Johnson explains about the messages. “They’re usually full of insults, they usually contain threats. But there’s always an element of, ‘We’re the good guys.’”
Along with collecting the messages, Johnson interviewed journalists and activists in his research. He says he stayed safe by learning from locals which dangerous areas to avoid — and his being Australian worked to his benefit.
Now, Johnson says he spends most of his time in The Graduate Center’s New Media Lab, which he joined in 2019, working to decipher the messages and complete his dissertation. When he completes the program, Johnson says he plans to remain in academia and teach — “I just like being in the classroom.”

Submitted on: JAN 30, 2020

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