Mexico’s Drug Lords: Too Big to Fail?

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On the anniversary of the death of one of Mexico‘s most-wanted drug lords, analyst Alejandro Hope looks at the government’s strategy of taking down high-value targets, which many criticize as destabilizing the underworld and triggering more violence.

The following is InSight Crime’s translation of an article from Plato o Plomo, a blog by Alejandro Hope:

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Nazario Moreno, alias “El Chayo,” leader of the Familia Michoacana. With his demise, a spectacular cycle of captures and killings of cartel leaders was brought to a close. They fell one after another; in addition to Chayo, Arturo Beltran Leyva, Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel and Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, alias “Tony Tormenta” all lost their lives in the space of 12 months. And this doesn’t include the captures of various lieutenants who were key players in the country’s criminal organizations (like “La Barbie,” El Grande, El Indio, etc.).

Many of us thought that such “decapitations” would continue, that it would be only a matter of months until a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas, or the Caballeros Templarios [Knights Templar] was detained or killed. But no; it has been 12 months and nothing has happened. Well, not exactly nothing. Some small-scale leaders have fallen (like Jose de Jesus Mendez, alias “El Chango,” who headed what remains of the Familia; Moises Montero, alias “El Koreano,” from the Independent Cartel of Acapulco; or Oscar Osvaldo Garcia Montoya, alias “El Compayito,” of the Mano con Ojos), along with a handful of second-tier figures (like the Sinaloa Cartel’s Noe Salgueiro; Jose Antonio Acosta, alias “El Diego” of the Juarez Cartel; Jesus Enrique Rejon, alias “El Mamito” from the Zetas, etc.). But when it comes to top capos, not a single one has been taken down in the last year.

Unless somebody gives me additional information, I will accept the most straightforward explanation for this: we simply haven’t found them. From media campaigns to the statements of the most important government officials, everything indicates that the federal government continues to believe that it is a good idea to decapitate criminal organizations. I have no doubt that, when the occasion presents itself, they will go after the remaining capos.

But is this the correct strategy? Is it worth it to destabilize the criminal underworld with the capture or killing of a high-profile figure? Several months ago, there was a debate over the issue, staged on Nexos and other forums, between Eduardo Guerrero and the current interior minister, Alejandro Poire. The dispute centered around one main question: does the decapitation of criminal organizations cause violence to increase in the short term?

The answer turned out to be yes, sometimes. The data presented by Poire and Guerrero showed that the takedown of a capo produced additional violence in some cases, but not others. In some cases, the absence of a boss does not necessarily lead to disorder. There may have been a brief spike in violence in the northwest of the country in the wake of the 1989 caputre of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, “El Padrino,” the boss of bosses of the Pacific Cartel (possibly even contributing to the death of Cardinal Posadas in 1993), but probably not after the arrest of the Gulf Cartel’s Juan Garcia Abrego in 1996.

In Colombia, first the arrest and then the death of Pablo Escobar saw an indisputable reduction in the number of homicides, but the arrest of the Cali Cartel’s Rodriguez Orejuela brothers likely had the opposite effect. The same goes for Italy and the United States; there are captures of criminal leaders which result in wars and others which bring peace.

For the sake of the argument, we will suppose that, on the whole, the decapitation of a criminal band tends to generate violence in the short term, due to succession conflicts, the unraveling of some groups, or through power vacuums that are exploited by rival groups. Is this reason enough not to abandon such a strategy? I believe not, for two fundamental reasons:

If criminals perceive that reaching a certain level of prominence makes them untouchable because their removal will have destabilizing effects, they will seek to make it that threshold. This dynamic could generate even more violence in the long term than high-value takedowns; it would be the equivalent in the criminal underworld of the “too big to fail” argument.

Cartel leaders are horrible people who deserve punishment. They are responsible for the torture, degradation and death of thousands of human beings. It seems morally inconceivable to me not to bring them to justice. Yes, without a doubt, the likely consequences should factor into this moral calculus, but it still seems to me a non-negotiable duty of the state to pursue those who corrupt, intimidate, kidnap, extort, torture and kill. Criminal justice does not simply exist to shape behavior; it also serves as an expression of societal values.

For these reasons (and others) a security policy must have an element which includes the decapitation of criminal groups. The discussion is not whether we should go after drug lords, and kill them if they resist, but over the criteria which should determine their pursuit. In my judgement, a policy of decapitation must have the following elements:

  • The priority level of a high value target should be determined not by the relative prominence or size of the organization, but by the intensity of the violence it causes. The more violent the criminal group (marked, for instance, by carrying out massacres), the more resources should be devoted to the capture of its main leaders. This decision should be completely explicit, but it should not keep officials from going after a cartel leader who is not deemed of high value if the opportunity presents itself.
  • Whenever possible, authorities should try to make sure that their targets are captured alive. In plain terms, a narco brought to justice is worth more than a mangled corpse. This is also particularly important considering the favorite Mexican pass-time of building conspiracy theories.
  • Likewise, whenever possible, each high-profile capture should be paired with the arrest of a number of lieutenants and foot soldiers, as a way to a.) maximize the impact and b.) lessen the risk of violence due to succession conflicts and fragmentation.
  • After the capture of a drug lord, officials should strengthen the presence of federal troops and other security forces in the organization’s area of influence, as a way of preventing an immediate backlash.
  • In some cases, their near-immediate extradition to the United States may be necessary. There are individuals who cannot be easily and safely held in a Mexican prison.

In summary, I am in favor of the government’s strategy of targeting cartel leaders, and will rejoice the day in which they capture “Lazcano,” “Treviño,” “Mayo Zambada,” “La Tuta,” or Chapo Guzman. I only hope that their downfall is accompanied by measures which prevent destabilizing effects, and maximize effects which dissuade violence. Decapitation is a powerful strategy, but it must be use prudently and strategically.

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 Spanish original here.

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