Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Who's more violent: The Camorra or the Mexican Cartels?

Gomorrah and Mexican Cartel Violence: Is the Gomorra more violent than Mexican Drug Cartels?

James Creechan, Ph.D. (Toronto, Canada)

May 19, 2009

Available as pdf on Profile

Jean-François Gayraud includes the Camorra of Naples in his list of nine important organized crime groups of the world. He does so even though he acknowledges that the Camorra lacks the hierarchical structure characteristic of other mafia organizations included in his book.

“En la actualidad, la Camorra sigue siendo una entidad criminal atípica. A diferencia de la Cosa Nostra, realiza un reclutamiento masivo y carece de un jerarquía clara y estable. En realidad, se asemeja más a una federación de conveniencia de bandas que aparecen y desaparecen que a una entidad homogénea. El modelo sería más horizontal que piramidal. … No existe una estructura permanente con functiones reguladoras, capaz de cortar y controlar las explosions de violencia.”[1] (Gayraud 2007)102

Roberto Saviano’s runaway bestseller, Gomorrah (Saviano 2007), similarly describes a horizontal criminal organization that facilitates the control of imports and exports through Naples and fosters profitable links with other organized crime groups in Europe and Asia. Alexander Stille’s extended essay review of Gomorrah (Stille 2008) praises Saviano for calling attention to an organized crime group that had frequently been trivialized as less important than other well-known crime organizations:

“That it took the garbage crisis, the recent killings, and Saviano’s book to make the Camorra a major issue is part of the tragedy. As Saviano readily acknowledges, most of the information in his book has been in the public record for years; it could be found in court records and government reports that have been piling up like the trash that reemerged in Naples in the last several weeks. Back in 1993, a report of the Italian parliament’s anti-Mafia commission issued a clear warning: ‘The Camorra is underestimated’.”

Saviano’s description of Camorra clans is much more complete than the general overview found in Gayraud’s book. (pp. 98-104) Furthermore, Gomorrah also claims that the mafia of Campania is more important than it is portrayed in El G 9 de las Mafias del Mundo, especially when Saviano describes its control of global commerce moving through Naples into the heart of Europe. Corruption and extortion tainting all commerce, as well as the dominance in politics permeates all aspects of life, and leaves the reader to only imagine the enormous profit it generates for the Camorra coffers. Saviano put it this way:

“Everything that exists passes through here. Through the port of Naples. There’s not a product, fabric, piece of plastic, toy, hammer, shoe, screwdriver, bolt, video game, jacket, pair of pants, drill, or watch that doesn’t come through here. The port of Naples is an open wound. The end point for the interminable voyage that merchandise makes…It’s a bizarre thing, hard to understand, yet merchandise possesses a rare magic: it manages both to be and not to be, to arrive without every reaching it’s destination, to cost the customer a great deal despite its poor quality, and to have little tax value in spite of being worth a huge amount.” (p.4-5)

Unlike the widely-known Mafias and ‘Ndranghetta, the structure of Camorra is less focused on hierarchy and less dependent on ritual, and instead has been audaciously dedicated to a pure business model generating unimaginable riches. Saviano distinguishes the difference between the Sicilians and the Campanians in one extended quote from the testimony of Camorra defector:

“One of the declarations about the Sicilian Mafiosi that shocked me most was made by the Casalesi pentito Carmine Schiavone in a 2005 interview. He talked about the Cosa Nostra as if it were an organization enslaved to politicians and, unlike the Caserta Camorristi, incapable of thinking in business terms. According to Schiavone, the Mafia wanted to become a sort of antistate, but this was not a business issue. The state-antistate paradigm doesn’t exist. All there is, is a territory where you do business— with, through, or without the state.[2]” (190)

Saviano doesn’t dwell on macro and economic details of Camorra corruption, extortion and money-laundering, but prefers to relate personal narratives and vignettes from individuals sucked into an organizational crime vortex fed by the business opportunities associated with the port of Naples. In fact, this is the strength of his book because it provides a rarely seen portrait of daily life in regions controlled by organized crime. Many of his most memorable narratives are graphic descriptions of violence during the many disputes and turf wars that flourished unchecked by institutional self-regulating processes. One extended example is described in chapter 4, the Secondigliano War, where he relates the carnage that resulted when non-hierarchical and competing clans of Campania attacked rivals over turf, jealousy and most frequently over profitable opportunties. Saviano carefully catalogues the casualties of those Camorra clan wars within the Campania region over a quarter of a century :

“You don’t need to count the dead to understand the business of the Camorra. The dead are the least revealing element of the Camorra’s real power, but they are the most visible trace, what sparks a gut reaction. I start counting” 100 deaths in 1979, 140 in 1980, 110 in 1981, 264 in 1982, 204 in 1983, 155 in 1984, 107 in 1986, 127 in 1987, 168 in 1988, 228 in 1989, 222 in 1990, 223 in 1991, 160 in 1992, 120 in 1993, 115 in 1994, 148 in 1995, 147 in 1996, 130 in 1997, 132 in 1998, 91 in 1999, 118 in 200, 80 in 2001, 63 in 2002, 83 in 2003, 142 in 2004, 90 in 2005. Since I was born, 3600 deaths. The Camorra has killed more than the Sicilian Mafia, more than the ‘Ndrangheta, more than the Russian Mafia, more than the Albanian familes, more than the total number of deaths by the ETA in Spain and the IRA in Ireland, more than the Red Brigades, the NAR, and all the massacres committed by the government in Italy. The Camorra has killed the most. Imagine a map of the world, the sort you see in newspapers such as Le Monde Diplomatique, which marks places of conflict around the globe with a little flame, Kurdistan, Sudan, Kosovo, East Timor. Your eye is drawn to the south of Italy, to the flesh that piles up with every war connected to the Camorra, the Mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, the Sacra Corono Unita in Puglia, and the Basilischi in Lucania. But there’s no little flame, no sign of conflict.[3]”. (119-120)

“(G)ut reaction” is an appropriate descriptor summarizing the reader’s reaction to that routine violence producing almost 140 assassinations each and every year, and Roberto Saviano’s homicide counts are deliberatley drawn out in a year to year count to emphasize his belief that the Camorra is more important than acknowledged. In fact, Saviano audaciously claims that Camorristas are the most vicious when he writes “The Camorra has killed the most”. This assertion was prominently displayed on the jacket cover which reports that author describes “an organized crime network more powerful and violent than the Mafia”, and this focus on violence was also emphasized in external reviews: Rachel Donadio is an example, and wrote the following in a major review for the New York Times.

Since 1979, 3,600 people have died at the hands of the Camorra — more than have been killed by the Sicilian Mafia, the Irish Republican Army or the Basque group ETA. Just last month, the pope made a special visit to Naples to denounce the “deplorable” violence in the region, the result of continuing drug wars between rival clans. The dead do not leave this world peaceably. In “Gomorrah,” bodies are decapitated with circular saws, strangled slowly, drowned in mud, tossed down wells with live grenades, shot point blank near a statue of Padre Pio. A young priest who dared speak out is murdered and posthumously accused of cavorting with whores. Even after death, Saviano writes, “you are guilty until proven innocent.”(Donadio 2007)

Saviano does not compare Camorra carnage with other data about organized crime casualties in either Colombia or Mexico! Perhaps it was simply a matter of not thinking to make this comparison, or perhaps he was blinded a the prevailing European view which traditionally excludes Latin American organizations by default and paradigmatically assigns them to a less important category of action in the global economy. Neither did Jean-François Gayraud include Mexican or Colombian organizations among his nine most important transnational crime organizations since, in his interpretation, Mexican and Colombian criminal groups do not meet the eight criteria he posited as necessary to label a group as a transnational organized crime unit: control of a territory, capacity to dominate social order, hierarchy and loyalty, ethnic and family ties, criminal diversity, myths and legends, antiquity and permanence, and rituals of initiation[4]. (Gayraud 2007)

This exclusion of Latin American crime groups is not unusual. With the notable exception of Luis Astorga, few scholars even think to ask whether Colombian and Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO’s) should be called cartels and/or mafias. (Astorga Almanza 1995). At a cursory level, historical patterns suggest that larger DTO’s in Mexico such the Tijuana DTO (Arellano Felix family), the Juaréz DTO (Carrillo Fuente family), and the various incarnations of the Pacific/Sinaloa/Federation DTO (Joaquin Guzman Loera, Ismael Zambada, Juan-José Espararragoza Moreno, the Beltran-Leyva brothers), the Gulf/Zeta DTO, and the Milenio DTO actually meet most of the 8 criteria outlined by Jean François Gayraud. Most Mexican DTO’s control turf, dominate social order within a region, operate within a clear chain of hierarchy and loyalties, are rooted in strong family ties and a symbolic compradazco, are increasingly diverse in criminal involvement and international money laundering, and are also reinforced by myths and cultural tradition (primarily narcorridos (Astorga 2000; Edberg 2004; Wald 2001)). These Mexican groups cannot claim a record of antiquity and permanence characteristic of Gayraud’s G9 members, but the Sinaloa, Tijuana and Juarez groups have links going back about one hundred years to opium production. To this point, there’s little evidence or testimony suggesting that they employ rituals of initiation — something Gayraud indicated was his definitive criterion for inclusion in the select group of 9 Global Mafia, although there are distinctive cultural symbols of narco involvement such as tattoos, attraction to folk-religious practises such as the worship of Jesus Malverde and La Santa Muerte. (Creechan and de la Herran-Garcia 2005)

Generally, one can make an argument that the larger DTO’s in Mexico, especially those from the northwest have much more in common with Camorra than they share with the other 8 hierarchical crime organizations identified by Gayraud or those described by Saviano. This is especially true of groups connected to the northwestern state of Sinaloa, recognized as the “cradle of drug-trafficking” in Mexico. The Sinaloa Federation may be horizontally organized but it is nevertheless recognized as the most powerful crime organization by several authorities ((Cook and Services 2007; Stratfor and Strategic Forecasting 2006). The rare accounts focusing on individual participation and responsibilities within those organizations also paint a picture of groups and individuals with shifting loyalties much like those described in Saviano’s portrayal of Camorra. (Bowden 2009; Ravelo 2005)

Saviano had argued that “you don’t need to count the dead to understand the business of the Camorra” but perhaps this isn’t the case for Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations. Arguably, most knowledge about the Mexican organizations is directly related to the violence and terror that they’ve left in their tracks. Arguably, violence is so pervasive that the extent, enormity and diversity of crime linked to Mexican cartels remains obscure and undocumented. We simply don’t see past the violence to look at the extent of their involvement in business, money laundering, corruption, and even politics.

However, when one does count the dead to take a comparative look at the business of the Camorra and the Mexican cartels, Saviano’s claim that the Camorra is the most violent criminal organization is not justified.

Comparative Homicide Levels

Anyone who has worked with international data realizes the difficulty of doing a comparative analysis based on crime statistics. And even though most criminologists have traditionally argued that homicide data is subject to fewer problems of interpretation, it’s also true that even homicide data may contain errors related to both reliability and validity. Nevertheless, a comparative data analysis of Italy and Mexico reveals such overwhelming differences in the levels of homicide that they cannot be explained by measurement error.

In the following comparison, the “mafia” homicide data presented by Saviano is accepted as a true value and estimate. Those numbers will be compared to homicide data available from the Procuraduria de Justicia General (PGR) of Mexico. Furthermore, the data from the PGR was matched against newspaper reports of violent murders. The PGR and newspaper data (primarily from Noroeste) are generally the same with a few exceptions: most of the annual data reported below varies by only a few cases in any one year, and the only year where there is a serious discrepancy is for the last reported year from the State of Sinaloa.

PGR data indicates three Mexican States— Baja California, Chihuahua and Sinaloa accounted for almost 75% of homicidios dolosos recorded in Mexico in 2008. These three states are also the “home turf” of three of the largest drug cartels. Baja California is traditional home turf of the Arellano Felix drug organization as well as under invasionary threats by clans linked to the Beltran-Leyva family and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera operatives. Sinaloa is home turf of the “Federation” that has been formed from various “alliances” that have included Ismael ‘El Mayo Zambada’, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the Carrillo Fuentes family, Juan José ‘El Azul’ Esparragoza Moreno, and in the north by the Beltran-Leyva family. Chihuahua is the traditional home turf of the Juárez cartel made notorious by Amado “El Señor de los Cielos” Carrillo Fuentes and still the recognized turf of the Carrillo Fuentes family led by Vicente “El Viceroy” Carrillo Fuentes. Chihuahua has recently been the battleground where incursions by hitmen (sicarios) of ‘El Chapo’ Guzman Loera have been engaged in a bloody turf war with both the Carrillo Fuentes and erstwhile allies and hitmen directed by “los Zetas”.

Figure 1 indicates the disproportionate share of homicidios dolosos found in these three states. In Mexican law, there are several categories of homicide and the “doloso” categorization has an approximate meaning similar to “homicide with felonious intent”. Furthermore, not all homicides are investigated by the Federal Procuraduria, and therefore are not counted in the annual statistics of PGR homicidio dolosos. The PGR must assent to open a file (una averiguación previa) before the homicide is recorded in this database. In fact, the number of Mexican homicidios dolosos is significantly higher for 2008 according to reports published in newspapers of record such as Reforma, El Universal, and Noroeste. By most newspaper accounts, there were more than 6,000 homicidios dolosos in Mexico in 2008, but Figure 1 refers to 4,459 murders.

What happened to the other 1500+ murders? Eventually, PGR records may correspond to the newspaper accounts after the averiguación previas are gradually filed. It may also represent a reduced number of homicides for “optics” because the Mexican Federal Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza and Mexican President Felipe Calderon Hinojoso have consistently insisted that violence in Mexico is not as bad as the international press reports. It is impossible to answer the question about the 2008 at this point, but an earlier comparison of annual data from previous years shows a very close correspondence between the PGR counts and the data reported in newspapers. For instance, most of the homicides reported in Noroeste are associated with a specific victim name and the circumstances of their death. In years prior to 2008, the Noroeste data and the PGR data for Sinaloa differ by no more than 5 cases out of several hundred.

Figure 1: Homicidios Dolosos in selected Mexican States.

Another issue that must be considered is whether all of these these specific homicides are the result of cartel turf wars and business. Once again, a definitive answer isn’t possible but evidence strongly points to a conclusion that 90 to 95% of all homicidio dolosos in Sinaloa, Baja California, and Chihuahua can be attributed to criminal organizations. The most compelling support for this argument comes from a personal decade long interest in reading the crime reports in Mexican newspapers: my personal data base of all Noroeste accounts of homicide dating back to 1997 regularly includes a name and detailed reports about circumstances of death. Almost all homicides included in the PGR reports from Sinaloa involved large calibre weaponry (primarily AK-47’s, a smattering of AK-15). Some resulted from the use of grenades and even bazookas. Most reported death accounts include tell-tale signs of cartel activity and markers such as dumping of bodies in oil-cans (entambalados), in trunks (encajuelados), wrapping in blankets and rugs and taping hands and mouth (cobijada), to even more gruesome patterns such as decapitation and mutilation. The reality is that local PGR officials tend to classify all non-cartel related homicides as “homicidios de fuero común”, a lesser category.

Saviano provides the raw numbers for a 26 year period beginning in 1979 and ending in 2005. This report does not have immediate access to homicide counts in Mexico prior to 1997, and it will be limited to making a comparison of the Neapolitano criminal syndicate for the period 1997 to 2005 in order to examine Saviano’s assertion that the Camorra is the most violent group of organized criminals and that they have killed the most.

Figure 2 summarizes the raw total of murders between over the period lasting from 1997 to 2005 for Campania (the Naples region), and the Mexican States of Baja California, Chihuahua and Sinaloa.

Figure 2: Total number of executions over a 9 year period

It is obvious that each one of the Mexican States far exceeds the number of homicides that Saviano attributes to the Camorra in Campania. In fact, every one of the Mexican States recorded more homicides during this specific 9-year period than Saviano reports for a 26 year period (“Since I was born, 3600 deaths”).

But these are raw totals, and criminologists rarely make comparisons based on raw frequencies and counts.

Table 1 includes descriptive data that will permit an estimated comparative and relative interpretation of the raw homicide counts.

Table 1: Comparative Data for Campania and 3 Mexican States

The population estimate for Campania is for 2008 and has been rounded to the nearest 100,000. The population count the Mexican States in 2008 is taken from the PGR and the Instituto ciudadano de estudios sobre la inseguridad estimates (ICESI 2009). The column labeled Annual Mean creates an average number of homicides per year for each of the regions using the data for each of the nine years between 1997-2005. The column labeled Est. Hom. Rate computes a standard rate per hundred thousand population using the 9-year average as the incident count and the 2008 population estimate. The serious homicide rate, assumed to be primarily related to organized crime, is actually an underestimation because it uses the population of 2008 to compute a rate based on an earlier time period (1997-2005)[5].

United Nations Crime Trend Survey data for 2005-2006 (ICESI 2009) indicates that the intentional homicide rate for Italy was 1.04 in 1995 and 1.06 in 2006, and the data here suggests that Campania is significantly higher by a factor of 1.5. This comparison of Campania with the overall Italian rate provides tentative and partial support for Saviano’s argument that the Camorra are more violent than other criminal groups within Italy[6]. The overall UNODC intentional homicide rate for Mexico is recorded as 10.91 in 2005 and 10.96 in 2006, and the three drug states are significantly higher as much as 1.7 times (Sinaloa).

One final way of looking at this data is reported in Figure 3 which presents a graphical representation of the actual data over time for Campania and for the three Mexican narco-dominated States. Not only are the Mexican States more violent than the Camorra region on the average (Figure 2), they are consistently higher by a significant number over a significant period (at least since 1997). Furthermore, the data in this figure also indicates that the numbers are increasingly worsening and that the level of violence is not a short term phenomenon. It is an ingrained aspect of life in those three Mexican States and they have been plagued by violence for tragically long period of time.

Figure 3: Comparison over Time

The data presented here should leave no doubt that the criminal organizations in Mexico are significantly more violent in their actions than is the Camorra. Many questions are raised by this short analysis, but perhaps the most important one is ‘why hasn’t this violence come to attention prior to recently? Although there have long been news and journalistic accounts about cartels in Mexico, the issue has rarely been examined in depth in academic circles. The factors explaining this lack of attention to such a dramatic level of violence points to a significant gap in the intellectual study of drugs, violence and transnational crime.

There are at least three important issues that must be examined in more depth.

The most obvious question that must be explained is whether the Mexican violence is different than the violence in Italy because the market for the Mexican exports is the United States rather than the Camorra focus on the markets central Europe. Has the American demand for drugs and their willingness to pay for them created an entirely different economy than the one exploited by the Camorra? Is the substantive business of drugs so inherently violent that it routinely generates more violence than other forms of illegality?

Another important question that must be answered is related to the role of arms shipments and availability from an easy market on the American side of the border. Saviano’s book does include a chapter and many references about the dominance of AK-47’s — a weapon he reports has killed more people in the world than any other instrument. AK-47’s are the weapon of choice for Mexican cartels, and most data suggests that 90% of the armaments in Mexico are coming from arms dealers located in the Sunbelt of the United States. What role, and what circumstances, related to arms sales have led to a trend of killing that makes these Mexican States as much as 12 times more violent than the levels seen in Campania.

Finally, one must also explore how the Italian institutional context differs qualitatively and substantively form the Mexican narco-cultural-context. It’s clear that the Italian carabinieri and courts have long been involved in a dedicated pursuit to control or reduce organized crime and violence. Although it is obvious that it is not completely successful, it’s also obvious that the Italian Courts and Police are less likely to be corrupted by the drug business than have been their Mexican counterpart institutions and agencies. How did this happen, and what would Mexico have to do to imitate the Italian anti-mafia policies? But the Mexican context may also be different contextually because the mafias and organized crime groups in Mexico purportedly do appear to control themselves in ways outlined by Gayraud. In Mexico, there have been many claims made that the cartels were self-regulating in the past, perhaps directly through the PGR and other justice agents. Did the violence in Mexico emerge from a horizontal organization that was non-cooperative and overly competitive, and lacking any “self-controlling processes” to keep a lid on disputes arising between various groups?


Astorga Almanza, Luis Alejandro. 1995. Mitología del “narcotraficante” en México. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México : Plaza y Valdés Editores.

Astorga, L. T. 2000. “La cocaina en el corrido.” Revista Mexicana de Sociología 62:151-173.

Bowden, Charles. 2009. “The Sicario: A Juárez hit man speaks.” Pp. 44-53 in Harper’s. New York: Harper’s Magazine Foundation.

Cook, C. W., and Congressional Research Services. 2007. “Mexico’s Drug Cartels: Prepared for Members of Committees of Congress.”20.

Creechan, James H., and Jorge de la Herran-Garcia. 2005. “Without God or Law: Narcoculture and belief in Jesús Malverde.” Religous Studies and Theology 24:53.

Donadio, Rachel. 2007. “Underworld.” Pp. 2 in New York Times. New York: New York Times.

Edberg, Mark Cameron. 2004. El narcotraficante : narcocorridos and the construction of a cultural persona on the U.S.-Mexico border. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gayraud, Jean-François. 2007. El G 9 de las Mafias en el Mundo: Geopolítica del Crimen Organizado. Barcelona: Tendencias.

ICESI. 2009. “Instituto ciudadano de estudios sobre la inseguridad.” Pp. links to data bases, tables and reports about official and victimization data. Mexico City, D.F. Mexico: ICESI.

Ravelo, Ricardo. 2005. Los Capos: Las narco-rutas de México. Mexico City: Plaza Janés.

Saviano, Roberto. 2007. Gomorrah. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Stille, Alexander. 2008. “Italy: The Crooks in Control.” in The New York Review of Books. New York City.

Stratfor, and I. Strategic Forecasting. 2006. “Drug Cartels: The Growing Violence in Mexico.” Pp. 8.

Wald, Elijah. 2001. Narcocorrido : a journey into the music of drugs, guns, and guerrillas. New York, NY: Rayo.

[1]In fact, the Camorra continues as an atypical criminal group. Unlike the Mafia, it undertakes a widescale recruitment and lacks a clear and stable hierarchy. In fact, in fact it most resembles a convenient confederation of bands that appear and disappear than it does a homogeneous entity. The model is more horizontal than pyramidal. … A permanent structure with regulatory functions capable of stopping short and controlling explosions of violence doesn’t exist.

[2]Casaliti refers to the powerful Camorra clan from Casal de Principe as does Caserta. A pentito is a “witness” or more appropriately someone who has “turned”.

[3]It continues: This is the heart of Europe. This is where the majority of the country’s economy takes shape. It doesn’t much matter what the strategies for extraction are. What matters is that the cannon fodder remain mired in the outskirts, trapped in tangles of cement and trash, in the black-market factories and cocaine warehouses. And that no one notice them, that it all seem(sic) like a war among gangs, a beggars’ war. Then you understand the way your friends who have emigrated, who have gone off to Milan or Padua, smile sarcastically at you, wondering whom you have become. They look at you from head to toe, try to size you up, figure out if you are a chiachiello or a bbuono. A failure or a Camorrista. You know which direction you chose at the fork in the road, which path you’re on, and you don’t see anything good at the end

[4]Gayraud does not spend much time defining who is NOT in his book, but focused on the characteristics of the 9 groups he DID include. He did identify the secret rites of initiation as the “defining criteria”. As noted above, he also recognized that the Camorra was “atypical” because of its horizontal and loosely structured organization.

[5]That is, the denominator is larger than it should be resulting in a smaller rate.

[6]A comparison to all other Italian regions would be required to provide full support.