US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield

The United States' top drug policy diplomat believes that it is “the beginning of the end” for Mexico’s drug cartels, but while the dynamics of drug trafficking in the hemisphere are changing, organized crime is evolving in the face of security force pressure.

In a recent interview with Colombia’s El Tiempo, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield -- who heads the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs -- provided some interesting opinions on the state of drug trafficking in the region.

Brownfield, a former ambassador to Colombia, told the paper that he believes that Mexico’s large-scale drug trafficking organizations are “on the verge of collapse,” comparing the situation in Mexico to that of Colombia during the late 1980s and early 1990s. “In my opinion, we are seeing the beginning of the end, with the beheading of cartels and the reduction of their operational capacity,” Brownfield said.

In response, Brownfield’s interviewers pointed out that success in cracking down on drug cartels has, in many cases, simply caused other criminal networks to spring up elsewhere.  The Assistant Secretary of State agreed, and noted that “these organizations are developing new markets and new routes,” identifying both Central America and the Caribbean as at-risk areas for the future of drug trafficking in the hemisphere.

InSight Crime Analysis

Brownfield’s characterization of Mexican drug cartels as nearing all-out collapse is exaggerated. It is true that the Mexican government has taken down a series of high-profile kingpins in recent years, but the viability of this strategy as a means of reducing drug-fueled violence in the country remains controversial. While the government touts the "kingpin strategy" as a method of decapitating criminal structures and thus reducing their organizational cohesion, some believe it merely causes larger cartels like the Zetas or the Sinaloa Cartel to fragment into smaller gangs who fight among themselves for local and regional control of the drug trade, generating yet more violence. Brownfield’s example of Colombia is a good illustration of this point; while powerful crime syndicates like Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel have been taken down, they have been replaced by criminal networks like the Urabeños and Rastrojos.

Additionally, Brownfield’s analysis acknowledges a deeper problem with Colombia’s security gains: that they have come at the expense of the neighbors. While cocaine trafficking organizations have declined in Colombia, there is evidence that cocaine trafficking has increased in Peru and Bolivia. This is often referred to as the “cockroach effect,” whereby criminal activity simply shifts to less hostile areas in order to avoid law enforcement.

For Mexico, this is already taking place in Central America and the Caribbean, as Brownfield noted. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the Sinaloa Cartel (thought to be the biggest supplier of methamphetamine to the US) has shifted its meth production to neighboring Guatemala as a result of pressure from Mexican security forces.

The dismantling of cartels in Mexico may be a security gain for US interests, but it has come at a cost for transit nations that handle cocaine heading northwards. Brownfield claims that there has been a 40 percent reduction in demand for cocaine in the US in the past several years. The fall in US drug consumption appears to have been taken up by many Latin American nations. Recent years have seen a rise in local drug consumption in traditional transit nations in the region, which is the result of the fact that many local transporters are now paid in product, rather than cash. Central America and the Caribbean alike may suffer increases in transnational organized crime linked to drug trafficking, and it is likely that the US will face new regional security challenges, even if Mexico manages to defeat its large scale drug trafficking organizations.