Bin Laden, the Drug War and the Kingpin Strategy

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The death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan reminds us that the U.S.’s priority in the fight against criminal groups is to capture or kill their leaders. But is the so-called “kingpin strategy” really the best way to deal with these increasingly fragmented organizations?

In the case of al-Qaida, the answer may be yes. Bin Laden’s increasingly loose network of terrorists looked to him for spiritual guidance and ideological motivation. His followers may be shocked into retaliation, but they no longer have the edge that bin Laden’s ability to elude capture gave them. His death shows they are all vulnerable, reachable, even human.

But in Latin America and the Caribbean this same strategy, pushed by the United States government, has provided mixed results, even as proponents continue to list its achievements.

In Colombia, the strategy dates back to the fight against Pablo Escobar. Escobar died in a hail of bullets in December 1993, but the organization that helped bring him down, known by its acronym the PEPES, became the core of the most powerful drug cartel in the world.

More recently, the death of several top leaders from the hemisphere’s largest rebel organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) has weakened the group, but has not shattered the resolve of its troops, some of whom may have been pushed into new criminal activities.

As a weekend report in El Espectador illustrates, the group is far from done. The story says the FARC’s soldiers continue to train, battle, and try to fill the void left by the absence of government in the remote areas where they operate. This even includes providing local populations with medical attention in the name of a fallen commander.

The absence of a clear ideological path has led other parts of the FARC astray. As a whole, they may now be more focused on financial than political gains, resulting in unprecedented alliances with other criminal groups.

The death and capture of leaders of large Colombian criminal groups has also arguably created a more chaotic and difficult terrain for security forces, and, in some cases, laid the groundwork for more violence, as what’s left of these cells battle for control over the organization and its booty.

In Mexico, the government’s success in killing kingpins has been met with more violence. The death of Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009 led to spikes in homicides in the states of Morelos and Guerrero where factions of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) fight for control.

According to Mexican intelligence officials consulted by InSight, Acapulco, the capital of Guerrero and at one time a BLO stronghold, is set to surpass Ciudad Juarez as Mexico’s murder capital. This is due to the nearly half-dozen criminal factions fighting over every square inch of valuable drug peddling territory.

The short-term gains in morale and political capital from the death or capture of a kingpin are indisputable. Presidents from Mexico to Colombia (and lately Guatemala) have enjoyed jumps in the polls after such successes. High-profile takedowns position them (and their parties), as they prepare for elections. Obama is likely to enjoy a similar bump that he will hope lasts into next year.

And there are clear benefits to the kingpin strategy. One is that it can illuminate the larger networks that these leaders use. In the case of Bin Laden, the uncomfortable truth of the Pakistan government’s support for al-Qaida is clear without the Obama administration having to even say the words. In the case of Mexico, the relationships between state actors and criminals are too often obfuscated but apparent.

But the energy needed to find, corral, and capture or kill large criminal leaders also diverts resources from important tasks that should accompany these efforts, including economic and social programs. These are the least sexy aspects of any anti-crime effort, but are usually what make the difference in the long term.

When President Barack Obama took office he reportedly told U.S. security forces to make the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden a top priority. Hours after this was finally achieved, some analysts and political leaders are already cautioning that the impact of bin Laden’s death on al-Qaida may be limited.

Those same limitations need to be kept in mind when governments plot the high-profile takedowns of Latin America’s kingpins.

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