The Micro-Geopolitics of Organised Crime: A Framework to Read Criminal Groups in the 21st Century

By Fausto Carbajal-Glass

March 22, 2021

Not long after Mexican president Felipe Calderón launched a strategy to counter organised crime in 2006, Mexico’s criminal underworld experienced drastic changes. It became more violent and polymorphous, small organisations multiplied while becoming more localised, and it started drawing income from a range of markets rather than one single criminal enterprise such as drug-dealing.

As for the last dynamic, the economic diversification of organised crime in Mexico fits into a global trend. Although not new, the creation of illicit economies out of natural resources and/or commodities by organised crime has swiftly become the new normal in the 21st century. Criminal groups have diversified economically into various lucrative businesses, for instance: logging in various countries of Latin America; the exploitation and trade of wildlife in countries in Africa[i];charcoal trade in Somalia; oil theft in Nigeria; and the extraction of precious goods and metals such as amber in Ukraine[ii] or gold in Colombia[iii], Venezuela and South Africa.

Organised crime, then, has changed and adapted worldwide. And so too have the analytical tools to deal with this phenomenon. One way to adapt our understanding of organised criminal groups today – and, possibly, other violent non-state actors (VNSAs) – is to regard them as geopolitical actors. In this sense, criminal groups vie for intensely contested territories, transport routes, and access to national and international markets to secure strategic corridors of influence and power –spaces that are key to multiple rival criminal groups.

Geopolitics is hardly a new tool to explain criminal conduct. Jean François Gayraud, for instance, made an important contribution by studying the global behaviour of the world´s nine most powerful criminal organisations through the lens of geopolitics.[iv] Daniel Sansó-Rubert coined the term ‘criminal geopolitics’ to study transnational organised crime, in particular its geographic mobility across countries.[v] However, both authors take a macro level of analysis and, therefore, falling short of bringing granular knowledge on how criminal groups operate at a subnational level, and the impact they have in the daily life of entire communities in terms of violence and insecurity, extra-legal forms of governance, and environmental degradation.

Something akin can be said regarding the research done by the Mexican academic and human rights activist Sergio Aguayo. According to his research, geopolitical shifts in the international drug-trade flows – associated with the demise of big cartels in Colombia and US government interdiction policies in the Caribbean – made Mexico the new logistical centre of drugs in mid-90’s.[vi] In Aguayo´s viewpoint, these factors changed the dynamics of criminal groups operating in Mexico and turned them into more violent actors. Large-scale violence in Mexico, Aguayo argues, responded to regional logics in the drug-trade.

Money seized from the Mexican drug cartel “La Familia Michoacana” during the DEA’s Project Coronado, 20-22 October 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons

To my understanding, omitting the behaviour of criminal groups at the local level presents at least two downsides.

First, explanations of violence in countries like Mexico through the lens of Gayraud, Sanso-Rubert or Aguayo have become insufficient to depict the changing character of organised crime. As stated earlier, criminal groups around the world have diversified their revenue streams and tended to operate more locally – much of this is due to the fragmentation provoked mainly by criminal defection and government action, and the ensuing reduction of a criminal group’s international capabilities and logistical sophistication.

Second, it is fundamental to incorporate the political dimension of organised crime at the local level. In spite of frequently representing a challenge to the State, the operation of organised crime groups entails a mixture of complicities with the ‘upper world’, namely: legitimate entrepreneurs, civil servants, and politicians.[vii] It is in these complex social orders where organised crime also performs a political role, not necessarily to seize, concentrate, or exert power, but to help other political or economic actors to seize, concentrate, and/or exert power.[viii]

These two nuances are crucial to go beyond the ‘narco-centric’ explanation of violence in Mexico, as well as other countries facing similar security challenges. The narco-centric explanation neglects the intricate power relations – and tensions – among other groups with private drivers or motivations in a community (e.g., local, national or international entrepreneurs; local political elites; other VNSAs such as Autodefensas).

With all this in mind, I propose the micro-geopolitics of organised crime (MGPOC) as an analytical framework to understand and, ultimately, counter organised criminal groups’ incursions into diverse sectors of a country’s economy, especially those related to natural resources and/or commodities.[ix] Elsewhere, I have briefly explained the components on which the MGPOC is based, as well as the policy implications of the framework. Here, I seek to discuss some of the theoretical tenets and literature guiding this framework.

The MGPOC is informed by the geopolitical thinking underlying the seminal works of Halford Mackinder, Nicholas J. Spykman, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. As a result, this analytical framework delves into geopolitics as it ‘reflects the combination of geographic and political factors determining the condition of a state or region, and emphasizing the influence of geography on politics.’[x] However, the MGPOC acknowledges the need for geopolitics to have a subnational approach[xi], whereby the role of different actors at the local level is highlighted (e.g., political and economic elites and organised crime groups).[xii]

The use of violence by organised crime is an issue the MGPOC is hugely concerned about. In this regard, scholarship on civil wars and political violence at the community level[xiii] and their interaction with the individual and national factors[xiv] is useful in theorising the dynamics of lethal violence, albeit after some necessary adaptation to non-civil war settings.

The framework seeks to unveil the logics of homicidal violence beneath the operation of criminal groups. Contrary to previous research[xv], homicidal violence does not follow the pattern of an epidemic –i.e. contagion based on proximity. Instead, lethal violence is confined to specific geographical areas. For example, in 2017 half of the homicidal violence in Mexico was concentrated in only 56 of its 2,457 municipalities.[xvi] However, it is important to note that while lethal violence has been highly concentrated between 2011 and 2017, at the same time it has been geographically dynamic.[xvii] This being said, under the MGPOC framework, the exertion of violence by criminal groups is seen as a purposeful means to achieve their strategic goals depending on specific areas of control, thus making the geography of homicidal violence somewhat variable.

This premise might evoke Carl von Clausewitz’s timeless contribution.[xviii] Indeed, the MGPOC includes scholarship on strategic theory as part of its theoretical backbone. Its key postulates could help explain the non-coincidental use of violence by criminal groups, namely: the study of ends, ways and means; interdependent decision-making; the study of the criminal actor as the central unit of analysis; understanding value systems and preferences; the assumption of rationality; and the observance of moral neutrality.[xix]

The infiltration of the production process by any criminal group almost always has an inherently international dimension. Ultimately, most production processes (e.g. the extraction, processing, transportation, and export of iron ore) are bound to local geographies and shaped by the laws of global supply and demand. To this purpose, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory is valuable, insofar as it stresses the importance of analysing a phenomenon at a local level from a long-term perspective, knowing that such a phenomenon is part of an economic world order.[xx]

In this sense, one of the main objectives of the MGPOC is to dissect multiple dynamics and cycles of violence in Mexico, without focussing solely on the ones related to traditional organised crime activities per se (e.g., drug-trafficking). The identification of parallel processes and private drivers of violence could bring another layer to explain the overarching violence that nowadays is taking place under the so-called ‘Mexico´s Drug War’. In the words of Stathis Kalyvas:

‘What appears on the macro level to be [ethnic or sectarian] violence could be motivated, when one looks at fine-grained data, by feuding between competing individuals, neighbourhoods, or villages that adopt the macro-cleavage as convenient cover.’[xxi]

Although fundamental for the MGPOC architecture, research by Kalyvas – as well as research by Arjona and Balcells and Justino – focuses on violence in civil war scenarios. It is at the core of my analytical framework to assess to what extent multiple dynamics of violence also take place in non-civil war settings similarly marked by large-scale violence. Organised crime groups might indeed be the main perpetrators of homicidal violence in a locality. However, this might be the tip of the iceberg. For instance, repeated outbreaks of criminal violence in different parts of Mexico are also attributable to a historical local conflict over land, economic hegemony, and political power.[xxii] This is what the MGPOC calls the ‘political trajectory of homicidal violence’.  

Related to above, the MGPOC is concerned with the (rather unstable) alliance system among multiple actors in a particular local setting. Contrary to what is commonly stated, due to fragmentation and economic diversification, criminal groups may no longer be able to impose their conditions in strategic territories, even if these groups are more than willing to employ violence as their preferred means. Although, in principle, economic diversification might empower organised crime, it is fragmentation that ultimately has caused a considerable loss of leverage for criminal groups vis à vis other actors. As a consequence, organised crime groups have been in the need to integrate themselves into the correlation of forces (political or economic), and to forge alliances with multiple actors operating at the local level. In terms of local politics, for instance, it is important to consider the rather porous interaction between criminal groups and political elites. However, the MGPOC also highlights the interaction between criminal groups and economic actors.

As such, economic diversification by organised crime poses both a theoretical and practical conundrum for the international community as illicit economies have become one of the most portentous threats to democratic governance, environmental sustainability, and citizen security on a local scale.  In this sense, the MGPOC’s take is to better understand and explain the changing character of organised crime in the 21st century and its role in contemporary conflict, armed violence, urban security, and peacebuilding.

Fausto is a consultant on political risk and security analysis. He holds a Master’s degree in War Studies from King’s College London. His professional career has been in the Mexican government, particularly at the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. He is member of the World Future Studies Federation (WFSF), the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI), the Mexico Research Center for Peace (CIPMEX), and the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR). In academia, he teaches on the BA Strategic Intelligence programme at Universidad Anáhuac México, and is currently working on two papers on the micro-geopolitics of organised crime, and the dynamics of violence in Mexico, respectively.

[i] Nellemann, C., Henriksen, R., Raxter, P., Ash, N., & Mrema, E. (2014). The environmental crime crisis: Threats to sustainable development from illegal exploitation and trade in wildlife and forest resources. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) & Interpol.

[ii] Zabyelina, Y. & Kalczynski, N. (2020). ‘Shadowy Deals with “Sunny Stone”: Organized Crime, Informal Mining, and Illicit Trade of Amber in Ukraine’. In Illegal Mining: Organized Crime, Corruption, and Ecocide in a Resource-Scarce World, Zabyelina, Y. & van Uhm, D. (Eds.). London: Palgrave-Macmillan.

[iii] van Uhm, D. (2020). ‘The Diversification of Organized Crime into Gold Mining: Domination, Crime Convergence, and Ecocide in Darién, Colombia’. In Illegal Mining: Organized Crime, Corruption, and Ecocide in a Resource-Scarce World, Zabyelina, Y. & van Uhm, D. (Eds.). London: Palgrave-Macmillan.

[iv] Gayraud, J. 2007. El G9 de las mafias del mundo: geopolítica del crimen organizado [The World of Mafias: Geopolitics and Organised Crime]. Barcelona: Tendencias.

[v] Sansó-Rubert, D. (2016). Nuevas tendencias de organización criminal y movilidad geográfica. Aproximación geopolítica en clave de inteligencia criminal. Revista UNICI, 41, 181-203.

[vi] In: Enkerlin-Madero, H. (Fall, 2015). The Geopolitics of Organized Crime. Berkley Review of Latin American Studies, 50-52.

[vii] van Duyne, P. C. (1997). Organized crime, corruption and power. Crime, Law and Social Change, 26(3), 201-238.

[viii] See: Carbajal-Glass, F. (2019a). Informal Institutions in Mexico´s Drug War: Two Competing Hypothesis. Paper presented at the University of Oxford conference ‘Security and Criminality in the Americas: Governing the Unruly’, 3-4 June; _____________. (2021). The political trajectory of homicidal violence: Organised crime in Michoacan´s urban Apatzingán [Manuscript submitted for publication]. Special Issue Urban History Journal, Cambridge University Press.

[ix] The MGPOC is explained more in-depth in: Carbajal Glass, Fausto. (2020). ‘Where the Metal Meets the Flesh: Organized Crime, Violence, and the Illicit Iron Ore Economy in Mexico´s Michoacán’. In Illegal Mining: Organized Crime, Corruption, and Ecocide in a Resource-Scarce World, Zabyelina, Y. & van Uhm, D. (Eds.). London: Palgrave-Macmillan. In this book chapter it is analysed how and why the Knights Templar tapped into the iron ore industry in Michoacán state, Mexico, through 2011-2013.

[x] Brzezinski, Z. (1986: xiv). Game plan: How to conduct the US-Soviet contest. Boston, MA: The Atlantic Monthly Press.

[xi] Agnew, J., & Corbridge, S. (1995). Mastering space. London: Routledge. BBC. (2014). Mexico vigilantes in deadly shoot-out in Michoacán. BBC. Retrieved from: Graham, S. (2004). Cities as strategic sites: Place annihilation and urban geopolitics. In S. Graham (Ed.), Cities, war and terrorism: Towards an urban geopolitics (pp. 31–53). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

[xii] ‘Local level’ refers to the municipality, the lowest politico-administrative unit in Mexico. For the purposes of this research, meso-level of analysis is also an equivalent.

[xiii] Arjona, A. (2014). Wartime Institutions: A Research Agenda. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 58(8), 1360-1389; Balcells, L. (2015). Political violence: An Institutional Approach. In J. Gandhi & R. Ruiz-Patiño (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Comparative Political Institutions (pp. 377-388). London: Routledge.

[xiv] Balcells, L., & Justino, P. (2014). Bridging Micro and Macro Approaches on Civil Wars and Political Violence: Issues, Challenges, and the Way Forward. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 58(8), 1343 – 1359.

[xv] See, for instance: ICG. (2019). Treating Mexico´s Epidemic of Violence under the López Obrador Government. International Crisis Group. Retrieved from:

[xvi] Guazo, D. (2018, September 4). Los nuevos territorios de la violencia [The new territories of violence]. El Universal. Retrieved from:

[xvii] Torreblanca, C. (2018, August 9). Autopsia de la violencia en 2017 [Autopsy of violence in 2017]. Animal Político. Retrieved from:

[xviii] von Clausewitz, C. (Ed. 1976). On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[xix] Smith, M.L.R. and Stone, J. (2011). Explaining Strategic Theory. Infinity Journal, 4, 27-30.

[xx] Wallerstein, I. (1974). Modern world-system. New York, NY: Academic Books.

[xxi] Kalyvas, S. (2015:1531). How Civil Wars Help Explain Organized Crime –And How Do They Not. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 59(8), 1517 – 1540.

[xxii] Carbajal-Glass, 2021.

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