Mexico Trumpets Cash Seizures, But Figures Don’t Impress

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Mexican authorities boast of having confiscated more than $260 million from organized crime in nearly five years of the Calderon administration, but the number pales in comparison to the overall flow of illicit cash.

According to a new report from the Secretariat of Public Security, know as the SSP for its initials in Spanish, the agency has seized approximately $266 million since Calderon arrived in office in December 2006, which they say represents a more than four-fold improvement over the results of the administration of Vicente Fox, who preceded Calderon. The figure does not include seizures by the army or navy.

However, $266 million is a drop in the bucket when one considers that up to $39 billion in illicit cash from the drug trade flows into the country on an annual basis, according to U.S. government estimates. Indeed, the entire haul represents just 0.6 percent of the high-end estimate of a single year’s drug revenues in Mexico.

The numbers are less impressive still when one considers that more than $200 million of the seized cash came in a single confiscation in 2007, at the house of Chinese national Zhenli Ye Gon. Without that seizure, the proportion of illicit cash nabbed by government officials would drop to closer to a tenth of a percent of the total.

Further undercutting the seizure statistics is the fact that $39 billion refers only to drug cash, ignoring the many other activities that criminal groups are increasingly pursuing, from oil theft to pirate merchandise to extortion, which produce billions of dollars revenues. The UN has estimated, for example, that Mexican criminal groups earn $6.6 billion annually from human trafficking.

All of this leads to the conclusion that cash seizures by the Mexican authorities are not imposing a significant burden on criminal groups. Whether this is because of a lack of effort, or because tracking cash, which even in bulk does not take up much space, is exceptionally difficult, remains a matter of debate. However, the statistics mirror the inability of U.S. authorities to crack down on the southward cash flow at the Mexican border.

Regardless, the much-ballyhooed bilateral efforts to crack down on drug profits do not seem to have produced much. Another tool to that end is confiscating not cash but the illicit assets it helps finance, and indeed Mexico passed what was supposed to be a landmark asset-seizure law in 2009, but because the terms hampers criminal prosecutions against the target of the seizure, the law has never been used.

The report, titled “Description, Advances and Results of the National Strategy of Crime Prevention and Combat of Delinquency 2007-2011,” also says that drug seizures have increased substantially under Calderon.

According to the SSP’s data, it has seized 497 tons of marijuana under Calderon, five percent more than over the six years Fox was in power. The government also claims to have seized 26 percent more cocaine than the Fox administration, something that conflicts with UN research showing a significant decline in Mexican seizures in recent years.

The decline, however, is not thought to be due to failings on the part of Mexican authorities so much as a decrease in the amount of cocaine entering the United States from Mexico, as well as increased seizures of cocaine in South American producer countries.

The report, which was handed to the Mexican Congress, comes soon after the release of another SSP report detailing the government’s actions against the Familia Michoacana drug trafficking organization. The publication of such reports seems to mark a shift within the Calderon administration toward a more aggressive and proactive defense of its much-criticized security policies.

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