Earlier this month, the Mexican navy announced the death of Heriberto Lazcano, the leader of Mexico’s violent Zetas drug cartel, during a firefight with the marines. The slaying was hailed as a significant victory for the government of President Felipe Calderón, which has made the elimination of top cartel leaders a priority in its fight against organized crime. But will a strategy to target drug kingpins pay off in the long-term? Baker Institute fellows weigh the pros and cons of the approach in a five-day installment of the Baker Institute Viewpoints series. Today, Tony Payan, visiting Baker Institute Scholar for Immigration and Border Studies, writes that the kingpin approach is just one component of a larger strategy to combat drug trafficking.
Intelligence services in Mexico and the U.S. have identified a number of important drug trafficking leaders and placed them on a “Most Wanted” list. Many of the tactical efforts of the so-called war on drugs in Mexico have focused on these leaders. The administration of President Felipe Calderón now boasts it has captured or killed nearly two-thirds of these most wanted criminals. This is one of the touted successes of the drug war that some claim has cost nearly 100,000 lives in Mexico alone. The question is whether targeting drug trafficking leaders is an effective strategy in the overall drug war.
The answer is yes, but the so-called kingpin strategy cannot by itself end the drug war. It is but one component of a complex strategy to combat illegal drugs. At a superficial level, it is important for the Mexican government to go after these criminals, if only for the sake of its own struggle to establish the rule of law vis-à-vis these powerful characters who challenge the very political and judicial system within Mexico. The kingpin strategy does take away brainpower, experience, skill, and organizational leadership from the drug cartels. Going after cartel leaders does hurt the cartels and often weakens them. However, as it is now evident in Mexico and Colombia, the kingpin strategy can only go so far. From Mexico, we have learned that lieutenants — including family members — are often groomed to take over the business; new leaders always emerge; and kingpin strategies cost many lives because cartel members often vie for power within the group, sometimes producing dozens of gruesome scenes while the cartel readjusts to new leadership. From Colombia, we have learned that even if all the major drug lords are gone, drugs are still being produced, trafficked and marketed as successfully as before. Colombia, for example, continues to be one of the largest producers of cocaine; its cocaine exports to the United States have not flagged, even after its famed cartels from the 1980s were dismantled and formed smaller bands, and the country was left with few prominent drug lords like Pablo Escobar. The American cocaine market has barely suffered due to the absence of Colombian cocaine kingpins.
The target-the-leadership strategy has been used very skillfully to fight terrorism. It has worked well in dismantling important Al Qaeda cells. But the illegal drug market is not like the world of terrorism. The objectives of these organizations are different: Al Qaeda has a political purpose; drug lords have a profit motive. Similarly, Al Qaeda is mostly concentrated outside the United States and is able to target American interests abroad. The market for illegal drugs is intertwined with black markets in many U.S. cities and rural areas. Al Qaeda is increasingly isolated in cells that can be identified and targeted; the drug cartels are embedded in society at large and are often neighbors, friends and even family. Thus, unlike the world of terrorism, where the strategy of targeting the leadership may work well, the drug war cannot be understood without taking into account the entire chain and market structure of illegal drugs, and the “pull” (demand for drugs) role that America plays in the chain. The kingpin strategy thus cannot be but one part of the overall strategy in dealing with the use of psychotropic substances.
Without addressing drug policy as a whole in the United States, the drug war will continue, no matter how many kingpins the U.S. and Mexican governments eliminate. Drugs will continue to flow, become cheaper, vary in quality regardless of law enforcement efforts, and continue to be consumed by millions of Americans (and Latin Americans). What is required is an approach that addresses the role of illegal drugs in our society. We need honest and open debate on prohibition, and how we can move to harm-reduction strategies by legalizing some drugs, focusing some resources on the most dangerous and pernicious of them, and spending most of our resources on education, prevention and treatment.
Finally, a curious fact — one that many Mexicans often complain about — is that the most-wanted list does not include high profile American drug leaders in the largest drug market, the United States. The main question that emerges in conversations in Mexico is whether there are no kingpins in the United States that need to be added to the list — especially when considering the entire chain, from inputs to manufacture or cultivation to distribution to dealing. This is a fair question, as the drug war is fundamentally an American policy being fought on foreign soil, from Mexico to Central America to South America.
Monday, October 29, 2012
Written by: Tony Payan
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