Mexico’s cartels have always been adaptable. In the 1980s they trafficked marijuana and then cocaine from Colombia to the United States. But in the past decade they have mutated into a much wider array of groups, with their tentacles reaching beyond the drugs trade into extortion, people-smuggling, arms-selling and illegal mining.
In 2022 almost double the number of Mexicans reported having money extorted than did five years before (see chart). Only a tiny minority report.
The big money comes, however, from “taxing” businesses in sectors such as agriculture and mining. Avocados, Mexico’s “green gold”, are a good example. The country provides almost a third of global supply, most of which is grown in the western state of Michoacán. The $3bn-worth of them exported every year to the United States is a huge source of income for the producers and also for gangs.
Ms Felbab-Brown’s fieldwork in Mexico shows how gangs also force fishermen to sell their catch at a cut price, which they then sell for a profit to restaurants. They also dictate the terms of when and what they can fish.
Trafficking natural resources is lucrative, too, says the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. In 2014 Mexico’s government acknowledged for the first time that gangs illegally mine and export iron ore from Michoacán.