Mexico Takes Down Another Kingpin, but Conflict Rages On

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The death of Heriberto Lazcano in a shootout with marines last week marks another in a series of takedowns of Mexico’s most wanted capos, but the ability of the so-called “kingpin strategy” to cut violence remains a matter for debate.

Of the 37 capos identified in 2009 as Mexico’s most wanted men, 25 have now been captured or killed. Lazcano, the longtime chief of the Zetas, is arguably the most powerful to fall so far, but other key figures — such as Arturo Beltran Leyva and Ignacio Coronel — also feature on the list. Of the Mexican criminals whose notoriety is comparable to Lazcano’s, only four remain at large: Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza, and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

This represents a triumph for the government. No administration has done more to punish the most powerful figures in organized crime, and, in a context of widespread dismay over worsened security, such arrests and killings offer some sense of relief to a rattled public.

Furthermore, the improved capacity of Mexico’s security agencies to track down the nation’s most wanted men should pay dividends many years into the future.  The success of the marines — who were responsible for tracking down Lazcano, Beltran Leyva, and a number of other criminal heavyweights — also represents something of a triumph for US-Mexico collaboration. The marines have emerged as the US’s favored Mexican security agency, thanks in large part to their perceived lack of corruption and an institutional spirit absent in other branches. The marines have trained extensively with their US counterparts, and have used US intelligence in several successful manhunts, including that of Beltran Leyva in 2009 (see photo of his apartment after his last stand against the security forces, above).

Ironically, the lack of pressure on the highest ranking capos was one of the Calderon administration’s principal failings in the first three years of his tenure. Despite Calderon staking his presidency on an aggressive anti-crime strategy as soon as he came to power, very few major drug traffickers were arrested before the publication of the list in 2009. Consequently, his professed dedication to fighting criminals was often written off as a media sideshow.

As author Charles Bowden, one of Calderon’s most strident US critics, wrote in his book “Murder City;” “Since this massive drug war started at the behest of the president of Mexico, [the capos] have had not had a hair on their heads touched.” Bowden’s book was published in 2010, so it was inaccurate the moment it appeared in stores, and the results in the years since then have made it hard to dismiss the president so easily.

However, this impressive record of tracking down the most dangerous men has plainly fallen short of improving public security. In 2008, the year before the kingpin list was published, 13,155 people were murdered in Mexico, according to the National Public Security System. This year, in contrast, Mexico was on pace for more than 14,000 murders in the first eight months of the year.

The increase in violence has been particularly severe in areas where big capos have been taken downs, notwithstanding government claims to the contrary. Morelos state following the death of Beltran Leyva in 2009, and Jalisco in the years after the death of Coronel, have grown far more violent. The multiple takedowns of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon heavyweights — Jorge Eduardo Costilla Ezequiel Cardenas, and now Heriberto Lazcano, among many others — have coincided with a grave decline in public security in Mexico’s northeast.

Furthermore, despite the argument from proponents of the kingpin strategy that taking down the biggest fish will inevitably cause a group’s demise, the gangs often continue to exist. Taking the above cases, both the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Sinaloa Cartel remain on their feet, though the former is now much weakened. Even when the arrest of a capo does lead to a group’s disintegration, this does not mean that its members decide to adopt law-abiding lifestyles. As InSight Crime recently pointed out with regard to the constellation of new gangs in the southern state of Guerrero, lieutenants from one gang can easily regroup under a new banner, should their leader disappear.

What this all demonstrates is that the kingpin strategy alone is not enough. The capacity and willingness to capture or kill the most powerful criminals is certainly a necessary condition for a safer Mexico. Indeed, as Calderon has pointed out repeatedly, the existence of extremely powerful figures like Guzman and Zambada is due in large part to previous governments’ failure, over the course of decades, to consistently arrest the worst of the worst.

However, the ability to track down and eliminate the most dangerous sliver of criminals can only be one factor among many in improving Mexican security.

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