Friday, January 13, 2012

On Joaquín Villalobos' Nexos Piece

Calderón advisor Joaquín Villalobos penned a long defense of his crime policy in the latest Nexos, an article to which I responded here. Highlights:

Perhaps the piece's most glaring problem is Villalobos’ focus on Mexicans’ supposed cultural aversion to conflict, which he claims prevents them from supporting a robust response to the security problems. In his telling, Mexicans’ longstanding preference for negotiating their way out of problems rather than confronting them directly is responsible for the existence of criminal gangs, and has made it impossible to marshal the collective force of the law-abiding masses.

One problem with this argument is the source; for a member of the administration to publicly blame the population at large for the ill effects of government policy is inappropriate, aside from being politically tone-deaf. Beyond that, cultural critiques from whatever source are particularly unhelpful for a number of reasons: they are unfalsifiable, because they are not based on data but rather on impressions and anecdotes; and they earn acceptance through rote repetition rather than careful analysis (Villalobos, for instance, bases his cultural generalization on a recent book of Jorge Castañeda’s, who in turn borrowed many observations from authors like Octavio Paz and Manuel Gamio). In addition to this, even if the critique is on target, changing a country's culture is difficult to the point of futility, so it’s not clear what the policy implications would be.

Rather than worrying about correcting or overcoming something so amorphous and unidentifiable as culture, officials would do much better to analyze specific institutional bottlenecks, such as the inability of the Mexican justice system to process cases efficiently. Thorough institutional reform is a painstaking process, but it is more likely to work than changing an entire culture via public haranguing.

Villalobos goes on to dismiss the idea that Mexico should consider the security landscape from the criminal’s perspective, which is an odd argument, given that in any conflict it is a useful exercise to put yourself in your adversary’s shoes in order to predict their next move.

He also criticises dissuasive approaches to crime reduction such as that put forward by UCLA criminologist Mark Kleiman in an article in Foreign Affairs last year. In it, Kleiman proposed identifying the most violent of Mexico’s criminal networks through an elaborate scoring system, and then targeting them for extinction by coordinating law-enforcement activities in both the US and Mexico.

There are certainly elements of Kleiman’s strategy that are unconvincing; as Villalobos indicates, he spends very little time on issues of institutional quality and corruption, which are huge obstacles to any security improvement in Mexico. But Kleiman is certainly correct in his belief that the incentives currently driving violence in Mexico need to be reversed, and that smart policy-makers should be thinking about ways to encourage less aggressive modes of conduct. In fact, Villalobos’ call for stronger institutions is, in a broad sense, just the sort of dissuasive tactic that he criticizes: the theory behind it is that if criminals have a greater chance of being imprisoned and less ability to corrupt security agencies, they will naturally respond with more defensive, less violent operations.

More on the piece from Leticia Ramírez of México Evalúa here.


Richard said...

Well done, Patrick! I realize you had space limitations and editorial considerations, but Joaquin Villalobos isn't just some "ex-guerrilla" but a well-known cheerleader for right-wing and neo-liberal policies, even when imposed by violence.

I don't see anything wrong with making arguments based on cultural (and historical) values (naturally!... it's what I do for a living). Even when accompanied by massive violence, the result has always been a negotiated settlement... the Conquest didn't make Mexicans into Spaniards, to take the most obvious example.

I think what worries most of us who think the Calderón approach is wrong-headed is the nagging worry that we will start to see violence on the level of countries like Villalobos' El Salvador. Right now, even with a murder rate below that of Brazil (and far, far below that of Salvador) it is too high for the Mexican people... and, you're right, that blaming the culture is counterproductive.

pc said...

Thanks! Glad you liked it. I don't mind making cultural observations or arguments, but I often find linking policy prescriptions to perceived cultural characteristics to be rather dangerous. Think of the US saying that Arabs only respect force in 2002. Without knowing anything about Middle Eastern cultural writings, I'm sure there was a sensitive, thoughtful cultural critique behind that crude generalization. I think the observations should for the most part just stand alone, ie Paz in Laberinto.

RE the violence reaching El Salvador's levels, I think the fact that the jump was only 11 percent this year (instead of 60 or 100 percent) is encouraging, even though there is some argument over their accuracy, and the number of disappeared that are unaccounted for. But I think given the distance that Mexico would have to go to reach El Salvador's depths, and the relative institutional strength, and the many portions of the country that are far safer than what is written about in the US media (just ask Burro Hall), I don't see that as being a likely outcome. Hopefully not, anyway.