Mexico: Seeking an Alternative to Calderon’s Crime Strategy

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Four years after President Calderon declared war on Mexico’s drug cartels, a policy which has been accompanied by surging violence across the country, policy expert Eduardo Guerrero has proposed a change in focus.

Guerrero made his pitch for a new approach over the course of several thousand words in the Mexican magazine Nexos. The piece, which doubles as a critique of the Calderon administration’s policies, advocates a shift in emphasis on a number of issues related to organized crime.

The president’s crime policy has focused on taking down the biggest drug kingpins, leading to an explosion in violence in Mexico, with the often-cited figure of up to 40,000 killings related to organized crime since he took power. According to Guerrero, one of the most important effects of Calderon’s aggressive pursuit of the capos was to fracture the largest organizations into smaller groups with more diverse revenue sources. Instead of controlling the entire cocaine supply chain, from the jungles of Colombia to American streets, many of the newer, smaller networks focused on controlling their slice of turf and extracting as much profit from it as possible, not just through drug trafficking, but also more violent activities like kidnapping and extortion.

One effect of this atomization of gangs is that state and municipal governments have become key elements in the fight against organized crime. The federal government needs the help and knowledge of local forces to effectively attack the smaller networks, while the gangs are eager to secure the protection of governments in their domain. Unfortunately, the municipal governments in particular have been mostly unable to protect themselves against the influence of organized crime, much less serve as active and effective partners for the federal government.

Evidence of the vulnerability of municipal governments abounds. Local police forces are often bought off by the dozen, while honest police face threats and violence. In 2010, 14 mayors were murdered around Mexico, and three more were killed in the first two weeks of 2011. (The trend has slowed since then.)

With the fracturing of the major groups likely to be a permanent feature of the Mexican criminal landscape, the obvious solution is to strengthen of the capacity of the state and local governments to combat criminal groups. However, in Mexico’s highly centralized system, most state and municipal governments rely on the federal government for the majority of their income.

This poses a big problem for crime policy on the local level. As well as their lack of financial independence, many local governments appear to simply lack the capacity to spend the resources they have access to. One example Guerrero mentions is the lack of logic behind the distribution of security spending across the 32 states. For instance, Chihuahua and Guerrero, two of the most violence-riddled states, had levels of per capita security spending in 2010 barely above the national average. Nuevo Leon, one of the nation’s most important economic regions and ground zero in the fight between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, spent significantly less than the national average.

Another of Guerrero’s main criticisms relates to Calderon’s decision to focus on punishing the heads of criminal groups, rather than dissuading them from the worst behavior. He argues that the government should distinguish between different gangs and criminal activities, instead of treating all of them as one and the same.

This provides a valuable insight — that a realistic goal of government policy would not be to eliminate the drug trade, but rather to bully the industry into a more defensive, less violent modus operandi. Guerrero’s call to prioritize the combat of specific groups and certain types of crimes makes sense, but dramatically overhauling the incentive structure for a diffuse, hidden industry of some 500,000 different players and dozens of different gangs is necessarily going to move slowly. Therefore, whether or not Calderon (and his successor) ultimately manage to dissuade the drug gangs from employing, say, extortion is a question better addressed 10 years from now.

Furthermore, vigorously pursuing a wide range of criminal leaders and discouraging criminal groups from committing certain types of crimes are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in most developed nations, the capacity to arrest crime bosses before they ever rise to the stature of, say, Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” seems to go hand-in-hand with gangs being dissuaded from overly offensive patterns of activity.

Nonetheless, with Calderon’s first term coming to an end next year and his crime strategy widely deemed a failure, Mexico-watchers are going to be searching for alternative approaches in the months to come. Guerrero’s insights make a good starting point.

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