The Kingpin Strategy, Nacho Coronel, and Violence on the Pacific

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Mexico’s government offered an implicit defense of President Calderon’s so-called “kingpin strategy,” which holds that the best way to take down a criminal group is to chop off the head, leaving the body to wither and die.

The analysis, put forward by two members of Calderon’s security team, argues that that the July 2010 death of Sinaloa Cartel boss Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, alias “Nacho Coronel,” had little to do with the recent spike in executions along Mexico’s Pacific coast.

The conventional explanation for recent bouts of violence in the states of Jalisco, Colima, and Nayarit is that the federal troops’ killing of Coronel opened the door for rivals and fragmented the teams working underneath him. This resulted in a mad scramble for the scraps of his empire, with the interested parties channeling their efforts through the group Resistencia and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, the two main gangs on the ground. As a result the once-tranquil region of Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit is now the newest narco-battlefield.

This version of events contradicts a common critique of “kingpin strategy.” Killing or arresting a capo essentially removes a force for stability in the underworld, which precipitates more violence.

But looking at the 22 weeks before and after the death of Coronel, Alejandro Poire and Maria Teresa Martinez of the National Security Council offer a different take. Writing in Mexican magazine Nexos, they argue that the murder rate in the region was already on its way up in the months before the capo’s killing, as a result of attempts by the Zetas and other rivals to move into the zone. This included the disappearance of Coronel’s son and nephew, which prompted retaliation from the Sinaloa Cartel.

The increase in the murder rate actually slowed after Coronel’s death, according to the analysis. This leads the authors to conclude that if the government’s killing of Coronel had any impact, “it was to slow the spiral of violence that Nacho Coronel and his enemies had caused in the region.”

Unfortunately, the impact of the authors’ analysis is limited by their narrow approach to the question of taking out kingpins. First, five months before and after Coronel’s death is likely not enough to correctly interpret all of its repercussions. The jockeying for positions sparked by a capo’s removal may take many months or even years to ignite, as his erstwhile underlings try to maintain the peace and keep things working as before.

The case of Osiel Cardenas, a Gulf Cartel capo who was arrested in 2003 and extradited in 2007, is instructive. After his arrest, the two main factions of his organization — the Gulf traffickers and the Zetas — managed to work together just fine, for a while. Cardenas kept some control of his organization for almost four years while in a Mexican prison. Even after his extradition, although the Zetas branched out from their gunman beginnings, there was at first little open conflict between the two cliques.

But that changed in early 2010. The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas essentially declared war on each other, and Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, along with other states, have seen dramatic increases in the level of mayhem.

This story doesn’t necessarily mean that the same thing will happen as a result of Coronel’s death, but it does argue against drawing definitive conclusions from less than a year’s worth of homicide statistics. Even if we accept the article’s thesis, it still may be that the seeds of further mayhem were sowed by Coronel’s removal.

Indeed, media reports indicate that the murder rate has accelerated in 2011 in both Colima and Nayarit. Furthermore, Poire and Martinez are looking at just one case. They make no attempt to put Coronel’s death into a broader context by offering other examples.

Situations where violence has erupted following the removal of a kingpin are not hard to find. In the year following Arturo Beltran Leyva’s death in Cuernavaca in December 2009, the murder rate in Morelos state, where Cuernavaca is located, nearly doubled. The January 2010 arrest of Tijuana boss Teo Garcia did not spark an immediate rash of violence in Baja California, but the region has since grown more violent. Going back a bit further, the death of Amado Carrillo in 1997 provoked a spasm of executions in Juarez, as the capo’s brothers fought his erstwhile partners, the Muñoz Talavera clan, for control of the organization.

Poire and Martinez also neglect to make a positive case for the kingpin strategy. Another common critique of the strategy is that arrested or deceased capos can be replaced without too much difficulty, because the lower-level lieutenants are already responsible for the day-to-day operations of the organization. The article does nothing to address that concern.

Taking down kingpins is certainly a part of an comprehensive crime policy, and Calderon’s failure to do so in the early years of his presidency was something for which he was rightly criticized. But the opposite extreme, trumpeting attacks on capos while downplaying their sometimes messy consequences, and failing to tackle the gang’s operational structure, is no better.

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