Beltran Leyva member Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias "La Barbie"

Following the recent declaration by a top US official that Mexico's cartels are seeing their last days, analyst Alejandro Hope finds there to be weight in the assessment but cautions that it will not mean an end to violence.

I’m late to the topic, but it’s still worth discussing. A few days ago, William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics Affairs, in an interview with Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, affirmed the following:

“Four years ago we started a multinational effort in Mexico, led by the Mexican government, and what do we see today? In my opinion, we are seeing the beginning of the end with the decapitation of the [Mexican] cartels and the reduction of their operational capacity. It’s what we saw in Colombian in the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, when the cartels felt the pressure from authorities and their response was violence. What we know today -- which we didn’t know then -- is that it was the sign of an organization on the verge of collapse. My theory is that this is what we see in Mexico today.”

These statements have been treated, with few exceptions, with a combination of sarcasm and incredulity in Mexico. In some ways it deserves that treatment (I thought the idea that violence is good news had already been over-used, but moving on ...) In any case, the theory that we could be facing the last gasps of the old cartels doesn’t seem so absurd. Six years ago, there were five large drug trafficking organizations in Mexico: Sinaloa, Gulf/Zetas, Juarez, Tijuana and the Familia Michoacana (and if you want to add it, the Milenio Cartel). What happened to these groups?

The Sinaloa Cartel lost one of its arms, the Beltran Leyvas, and also lost the one led by Nacho Coronel. Today it is led by two guys approaching 60 ("Chapo" Guzman was born in 1957 and "Mayo" Zambada in 1948). They have a lot of power and income, but probably not much of a future: even if they are never caught, they can’t be very far off from retirement. (Or can you picture them in their 70s, living hand-to-mouth in the mountains of Durango? If they’re not captured or killed, I imagine them living their golden years in Bora Bora or someplace similar).

From the Beltran Leyva organization, only very few remain: Hector Beltran Leya is still free, but the group probably doesn’t have much influence outside of northern Sinaloa.

The Gulf Cartel split with the Zetas and then split in two again. The Zetas lost many of their main leaders (including their head boss) and are now divided, according to recent indications.

The Tijuana and Juarez cartels survive, but they are only a shadow of what they were in the 90s, during the era of Ramon and Benjamin Arellano Felix and “the Lord of the Skies.”

The Familia Michoacana lost their main leader and ended up splitting between the Knights Templar and a few guys who still call themselves “La Familia.”

Consider also what happened to the drug market during these years and what could come in the next decade:

Demand for cocaine in the US has diminished considerably in the last five years (by 42 percent). I know it’s difficult to believe, but it’s true: there are drug use surveys as proof (yes, it underestimates the number of users, but the methodology is consistent and the error is probably systematic: they therefore serve as decent trend indicators). And the data is confirmed by other indications of demand (treatment rate, emergency room visits, etc).

Cocaine flows could be moving back to the Caribbean, as Ambassador Brownfield has acknowledged (for years, it was the official US line to deny any such possibility). I wrote about the topic a few weeks ago.

Methamphetamine isn’t doing too well either. The peak of the consumption for this drug was almost a decade ago. From that peak, the drop has been 72 percent.

The number of heroin users has been more or less constant, with peaks and valleys, for more than ten years.

Marijuana consumption has grown considerably, but the drug will only represent a difficult future for drug gangs: there is a high probability that its production and commercialization will be legalized in the US at some point over the next decade (a recent survey found 59 percent in support of legalization in the US).

So no, it’s not an exaggeration to suppose that we’re at “the beginning of the end of the cartels.” From my judgement, it’s very good news: despite everything, it’s preferable to fight a successor to Daniel Arizmendi than an imitator of Heriberto Lazcano. With smaller bands, less organized, less wealthy, many municipal and state authorities can no longer make excuses. Furthermore, it becomes indispensable to return the focus of security to the local and on the ground (where it never should have left).

But it should be made clear that the end of the cartels is not synonymous with the end of violence or the elimination of organized crime. Criminal gangs that are more or less permanent will exist for a good period of time. Maybe they won’t have the scale needed to threaten the stability, integrity, and permanence of the Mexican state, but they will have the size and disposition to threaten the life, liberty, and wealth of a good part of the population (look at what has recently been happening in Acapulco, for example).

How serious is the threat? It depends. On what? On the capacity of authorities (above all local ones) to put limits on criminals, actual or potential ones. In the end, drug trafficking is a symptom, not the disease. The evil that afflicts us is the weakness of the state and the absence of law (a Colombian friend once told me that the problem in his country was that it had “more territory than state:” the same might apply to Mexico). If we correct that, everything else will come as an addendum. If we don’t correct it, a bad -- very bad -- period awaits us.

*Translated and reprinted with permission from Alejandro Hope, of Plata o Plomo, a blog on the politics and economics of drugs and crime published by Animal Politico. Read the Spanish original here.