10 years at war: rethinking drug trafficking

Mexico (OpenDemocracy) – If Mexico is to be a less violent country, it has to rethink the concepts that have led it to adopt strategies which have produced unacceptable results. It needs to think of criminal groups as organizations, beyond the narco tales.

Mexico is facing a deep legitimacy crisis, before which critical voices are emerging. Trump’s arrival across the border should prompt awareness of the urgent need to face the necessary changes in the country, which will be holding presidential elections in 2018, amid great uncertainty. The series Mexico at the Crossroads gives a voice to these critical visions.

The figures left by a decade of war against organized crime in Mexico are well known: one hundred thousand dead and thirty thousand disappeared. Despite the dark history these figures tell us, even though the names and surnames behind the numbers are unknown, we still understand very little about the criminal groups which are largely responsible for causing the different types of violence that the country is enduring. So, in Mexico we have adopted a fairly Manichean perspective, according to which organized crime is thought of as “cartels”, led by one or a few bosses, who are deemed capable of supervising all operational aspects of the business and who belong to a generic category: el narco.

Some will say that Mexico is not actually the most violent country in the world, or in Latin America, and that there are crimes and deaths everywhere – which, with some nuances, is quite true. But although they are all criminal acts, they are not the same. Leaving aside comparisons with other violent societies, the important thing is that Mexico in 2017 is a fundamentally different country from the one which harboured democratic yearnings in 2000. True, not everything has been negative. But in security matters, the relevant question is: what have we learned after ten years of open struggle against crime? Evidence suggests very little.

One of the clearest examples is the strategy which focuses on catching and extraditing those believed to be the leaders of criminal organizations, in order to weaken or halt their activities. During the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), Mexico arrested or killed 25 of the 37 alleged leaders of criminal organizations (Beittel 2013), and during the administration of Peña Nieto the most famous case, albeit not the only one, has been that of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, El Chapo. But despite extraditing these alleged leaders of criminal groups to the neighboring country, and the new executive order signed by the President of the United States to fight transnational criminal organizations, the incentives to keep on supplying the world’s largest market for illicit drugs remain.

According to the Annual Report on Drugs (2014) of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in 2013 the use of illicit drugs by 12-year-olds or older in the US reached its highest level in a decade, together with equally high retail prices – the highest in the world -, thereby proving that the buoyancy of a drug market is unaltered by the alleged capture of the leaders of criminal organizations.

What to do, then, if capturing and extraditing capos is not the solution? Assuming that there can be a univocal answer to this would be tantamount to ignoring the complexity of the problem we are facing. Some solutions (beyond the scope of this article) will show results only in the long term; others imply that we must take a step back and rethink drug trafficking. In order to do this, we must leave behind the narco tales and stop attributing to organized crime all the violent acts that occur in this country – thus exempting the State from all responsibility.


By Drejtinm, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Rethinking drug trafficking is thus an invitation to reflect on the fact that criminal organizations are not homogenous and unitary actors, involved exclusively in trafficking illicit drugs. That is, not all individuals within a criminal organization work with the same energy and follow orders with the same interest. Similarly to what happens in other organizations, criminal groups show significant sophistication in some areas, as well as ordinary elements which are similar to those present in legal organizations. It is thus necessary to understand what their areas of sophistication are, as well as their simple characteristics, in order to design policies capable of weakening crime in the long run.

For example, despite the reports describing the fragmentation of criminal groups, it is hard to understand why some organizations are more prone to splitting than others. That is, why the Knights Templars separated from the Michoacana Family, and the latter from the Zetas, who in turn left the Gulf. So, in this sense, beyond the alleged conflicts between individuals, both the policy of capturing and extraditing leaders, and the way in which the groups are structured, are certainly variables to be considered.

To the extent that public policies aimed at limiting criminal activity have focused on arresting or eliminating the bosses, they have acted as an incentive for the criminal groups to decentralize decision-making. That is, decentralization can protect the viability of the operations by distributing risk across a network which is flexible, but whose intelligence is limited. So, when a cell is dismantled, the information it can share does not imperil the survival of the entire criminal group.

However, even though a cellular structure favours flexibility, it is also more unstable. Because cells have little communication between them – for security reasons -, they also lack the opportunity to learn “good practices” which could help them avoid being captured. Likewise, they generate greater risk tolerance, encouraging the diversification of criminal activities. This combination of instability and incentives to diversify leads groups to fragment and seek income through extortion and kidnapping – and violence thus becomes an essential component of the business model of cellular organizations. The violence that Michoacán is undergoing, for example, is a phenomenon that goes well beyond the stories of former teachers turned bosses.

In short, if we want a less violent country, then it is time to rethink the concepts that have led us to adopt strategies which have produced suboptimal results. We need to go beyond the narco tales and think about the groups as organizations, and approach them seriously, seeking to understand their functioning – all of them are criminal groups, but they are also different from one another.

This report prepared by Cecilia Farfán Méndez for OpenDemocracy