Drug Cartel Fragmentation and Violence

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U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents usher Fabio Ochoa, Colombian drug kingpin, to an awaiting vehicle following his extradition from Colombia to Florida, September 8, 2001(Courtesy Reuters).

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents usher Fabio Ochoa, Colombian drug kingpin, to an awaiting vehicle following his extradition from Colombia to Florida, September 8, 2001(Courtesy Reuters).

One of the heralded lessons of Colombia’s fight against drug cartels is that fragmentation reduces violence. The vertical command structures of the famed Medellín and Cali cartels were legendary. Their pseudo-celebrity leaders lived extravagantly, socialized widely, and often died violently. They spent billions to buy off politicians, judges, and business leaders, and they spent more to assassinate adversaries they couldn’t buy, chasing their targets not just all over Colombia but the world. The country became, for a time, the most violent place on earth, the nationwide homicide rate topping 80 per 100,000 in 1991.

But a couple of decades later, the drastic levels of violence have fallen, the motorcycle assassins disappeared, the car bombs ended. The conventional story goes something like this: the killing first of Pablo Escobar and then the arrest and conviction of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers fragmented the cartels and their command structures. From the ruins of the once centralized cartels sprang smaller – and less vicious – criminal organizations. While cocaine production and distribution (which hasn’t changed much) continued, violence fell.

A U.S. law enforcement official once told me that their antidrug strategy in Mexico was first to go after the wolves (the highest level cartel leaders), then go after the snakes (the next level down), and then clean up the remaining rats. The odd animal analogy aside, this strategy seems straight out of Colombia’s playbook.

Mexico has, in fact, done this fairly successfully. Of the 37 thugs on its Most Wanted list, 21 are either behind bars or six feet underground. Where once U.S. and Mexican officials cited four main criminal organizations, today the number has at least doubled, complemented by the rise of many smaller operations and local gangs. But as the Mexican cartels multiplied, violence escalated to all time highs.

Why the difference? Obviously Mexico and Colombia have different histories, and different security problems, so the reasons for divergent outcomes are multiple and complex. Perhaps one issue — seemingly forgotten in the transfer of “lessons learned” —is the direct targeting of the Colombian government by its cartels.  In the early 1990s, at the peak of the violence, one of the biggest points of contention was Colombia’s extradition law. The drug cartels wrote open letters offering to stop the car bombs and assassinations, to retire from the drug business, to even pay off the national debt if extradition to the United States was taken off the table. Denied, the cartels tried to lay down their own version of the law on the nation. Fighting back, Colombian law enforcement slowly gained the advantage, and as these groups fragmented, violence declined.

In Mexico, by contrast, the cartels are not openly and directly confronting the state. Sure, they threaten, co-opt and even increasingly kill local and state police and elected representatives. But their open letters –narcomantas hung over important intersections– are primarily directed to their drug trafficking rivals, or to local political alignments. They don’t often explicitly challenge the national government, much less launch violent “campaigns” against it. Even the most high-profile recent killings – for instance DEA officer Jaime Zapata in San Luis Potosi, the brother of former Chihuahua Attorney General Mario Gonzalez or PRI gubernatorial candidate in Tamaulipas Rodolfo Torre Cantú— the assassinations don’t seem to have come from the top. If the violence isn’t ordered from on high (as it was in Colombia), then taking out the top echelons of the cartels won’t end it. Furthermore, if most of the bloodshed is between the criminals themselves, going after the heads will just escalate the cycle, as more and more mid-level criminals fight it out for control of the remaining business (catching innocent civilians and law enforcement officials in their wake). 

This suggests Mexico should rethink its kingpin strategy — or at least complement it with other approaches. There are many other models out there to consider – the “broken windows” approach (perhaps the other extreme, as it focuses instead on smaller quality of life crimes before building up to the big organized crime rings); community policing models, used to good effect in U.S. cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, New Haven, and elsewhere; or a territorial approach, which integrates neighborhood level policing with other public services, and is already being used in the historic center of Mexico City. These methods may work to raise the social, in addition to the material costs of violence for the criminals.

As Mexico debates the right policy mix in the coming year under Calderón and beyond next July’s presidential elections, the big missing question is how to get Mexican society– the one weapon the cartels can’t match – involved. So far, citizens have been relegated to the status of “clients” or victims. Opening up the security policy to analysis and debate is an important first step.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.