The DEA’s Nuclear Umbrella: Increasing the Marginal Cost of Killing

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The narcos know that if they touch one hair on a US agent’s head the response will be ferocious, immediate, and unrelenting — Alejandro Hope asks whether the US could offer the same deterrent against the mass slaughter of Mexican civilians.

On Saturday morning, a group of thugs entered a bar in the city of Chihuahua and shot up the patrons with AK-47s. Nine people died, among them five band members and a pregnant woman. I don’t know how many people they were after, but there is no doubt that it did not matter to the shooters how many they took with them.

Why did they do this? Why the indiscriminate violence? For two reasons: 1) killing without checking who you are killing is quick (the whole incident took less than a minute), and 2) it does not generate additional costs (the assassins dealt with the same risk of capture or reprisal as if they had killed only one person).

For everyone that has taken a basic economics course, the solution to prevent this type of act should be obvious: it is necessary to increase the marginal cost of homicide. That is to say, the response of the authorities should be increased: above a specific number of victims (whichever number you want), the persecution of the assassins should increase. If the criminals know where the line is, they will avoid indiscriminate acts of violence for fear of exceeding the quota. I have already explained this in more detail on various occasions.

Now, very, very serious people say this cannot happen because: 1) the criminals are psychopaths who do not respond to incentives and/or 2) the Mexican authorities are so incompetent that they could never issue a credible threat (it never ceases to amaze me that people close to the government defend the government by saying that it is incapable).

The first objection is manifestly false, as this demonstrates. As Mauricio Meschoulam argues, we should not confuse mental illness with irrationality. The second criticism is also fallacious: the government has limited powers, but they are powers nonetheless. Well directed, they can offer results and impose costs on criminal groups (as cases like this, this, or this demonstrate). They can offer means of dissuasion. Still, for the sake of argument, I am willing to concede the point: the Mexican authorities don’t scare anyone.

Fair enough. But the same cannot be said of the US agencies: they can intimidate (and a lot). In the 27 years since the killing of Enrique Camarena [see image, above, of children at a US school named after the slain DEA agent], some hundreds of DEA agents have passed through Mexico, operating under conditions of highest risk, at the edge of an extremely violent criminal underworld, and how many have been killed by a bullet? Exactly zero.

Other agencies don’t have this perfect record, but almost: from 2007 to today, in the worst period of criminal violence in this country’s recent history, three representatives of the United States government have been killed in Mexico (and one was due to the confusion of an idiot). Three out of a few hundred.

Why so much respect? For one simple reason. The narcos know that if they touch one hair on a US agent’s head the response will be ferocious, immediate, and unrelenting. After the assassination of Camarena, the DEA charged itself with hunting down and apprehending absolutely everyone involved in this crime: the vengenace took a decade, but nobody was allowed to get away with it. After the attack on the consular employee in Ciudad Juarez, more than 200 members of the Barrio Azteca gang were detained within hours. Something similar happened after the homicide of ICE agent Jaime Zapata: after a few days, more than 500 members of groups involved in importing drugs to the United States were in jail (in addition to the foolish perpetrators of the homicide, captured by the Mexican Armed Forces).

This threat serves as a protective mantle for a certain number of people, but it could be extended. What would happen if the US government communicated to the criminal groups, through whatever channels (public or covert), that certain acts committed against the Mexican population (for example, a massacre with eight or more victims like the one in Chihuahua) would trigger a response similar to those that follow attempts against US personnel? I am sure that the criminals would think twice before committing a savagery, without the Mexican authorities having to do much (so the objection of institution weakness in Mexico is no longer valid).

Unthinkable, some will say? Why would the gringo government do us this favor? For three reasons: 1) extreme violence in Mexico isn’t exactly the best publicity for its anti-drug policy, 2) the violence is being used by Obama’s political adversaries to attack his administration (see the scandal over Fast and Furious) and 3) the US government can give itself a medal for reducing violence in Mexico, just as it did with Colombia.

What’s more, there is an obvious precedent: the extension of the nuclear umbrella of the United States to Western Europe (and some Asian and Middle Eastern countries) during the 40 years of the Cold War. The Soviet Union didn’t refrain from invading countries aligned with the United States because it didn’t want to or couldn’t (it always had the advantage in conventional forces) but because the Soviet leadership knew that an attack would trigger an immediate nuclear response from the US.

The nuclear umbrella had the additional advantage of being a (relatively) cheap instrument: it worked as a credible threat to keep rivals in check (this is the appeal of the atomic bomb for North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, India, etc.) without having to deploy huge military contingents.

The “Camarena response” would be the equivalent in the world of the narco. The United States cannot stop drug trafficking, but it can derail any individual group. And the criminal groups know this: for this reason, they don’t mind killing Mexican policemen and soldiers, but they don’t even think about touching a hair on a DEA agent’s head.

So we have at our disposal an effective deterrent proven to moderate the behavior of the criminals; what do we need to do to use it? Well, to ask for it, before anything else: President Calderon (or his successor) could make a petition to President Obama (or his successor). And it could be made in a discreet way, if anyone were concerned about possible adverse political reactions in either of the two countries. Would there be conditions? Maybe, but probably nothing too severe: there is a shared and manifest interest by both governments in reducing the level of violence in Mexico (at least in its most brutal forms) in the shortest time possible.

Of course, using somebody else’s tools to contain the homicidal instincts of criminals does not eliminate the need to construct our own. But if there exists the possibility that a warning from our supposed allies will prevent more tragedies like Saturday’s, are we not at least obligated to explore it?

P.S.: Yes, I already know what some are going to say to me: some group could pass as another to unleash the gringos on their rivals. To which I respond: a) the DEA and the other agencies have too many informants for a trick like this to work, and b) it can be made clear to criminal groups from the start that any attempt at deception will intensify the response if discovered.

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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