A leaked internal report from U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that the arrests and deaths of Mexican kingpins have no bearing on the flow of drugs into the U.S., throwing the government’s anti-drug strategy into question.
The unclassified report was found and published by a hacker group calling itself LulzSec. The document recorded monthly drug seizures from January 2009 through January 2010, to measure the effect when capos were taken out of action.
While there were significant swings in the size of the annual seizures, these had no visible correlation with the fall of major players such as Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias “El Teo,” and Arturo Beltran Leyva. The report also took a more detailed look at the daily seizures along the border over the same time period, but again a correlation between the flow of drugs, and the arrests or deaths of capos, failed to emerge.
The report concludes, “The removal of key personnel does not have a discernible impact on drug flows as determined by seizure rates. [Drug trafficking organization] operations appear to have built in redundancy and personnel that perform specific duties to limit the damage incurred by the removal of any one person. By sheer volume alone, drug operations would require more than one individual to coordinate and control the process.”
In one sense, this seems to be a striking admission by a prominent government agency that the so-called kingpin strategy — focusing on the capos heading the largest drug trafficking groups, rather than the networks supporting them — has failed to achieve one of the main objectives of U.S. drug policy.
The report does not address whether this kingpin strategy could succeed in limiting the flow of drugs over the long term. Furthermore, the CBP doesn’t distinguish between the revenue streams of different capos; removing a criminal boss who relies less on drug traffic than, say, human smuggling or extortion, would have less of an impact on the flow of drugs.
Apart from its limited impact on the drug supply, one constant criticism of the kingpin strategy has been that it destabilizes the drug trafficking industry, therefore provoking more violence as the deposed capo’s adversaries and erstwhile allies scramble to take over the remains of his network. The Mexican government has vehemently denied that its takedowns of criminal bosses, which have accelerated noticeably over the past year and a half, are responsible for an increase in violence.
Poire and a colleague first argued in the Mexican magazine Nexos that the death of Ignacio Coronel, the Sinaloa boss in the Pacific states of Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit, actually reduced the upward trend of violence. He followed up on that argument in his series of blog posts on drug war “myths,” saying that of 10 recent takedowns of drug capos, violence has accelerated beyond the previously existing trend in only three case.
However, the time periods upon which Poire bases his conclusions — six months or less — are often not enough to draw definitive lessons. In many cases, the violent chain reaction set in motion by capo’s death or arrest will take years to manifest itself. For instance, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel did not start warring over the empire of Osiel Cardenas until three years after his extradition, and almost seven years after his arrest. This doesn’t mean that taking down capos is a bad idea, but a clear and open debate regarding the negative side effects is worthwhile.
Ironically, the failure to capture or kill kingpins was previously a frequent criticism of Calderon’s strategy, and the explicit focus on the highest level traffickers was not identified as a part of government policy in the administration’s strategy roll-out in June 2010.
However, starting with the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva, who was killed by the marines in December of 2009, the government has arrested or killed a succession of top-level figures: Garcia, Ezequiel Cardenas, Coronel, Sergio Villarreal, Edgar Valdez, Nazario Moreno, and, in June, Jose de Jesus Mendez, among various others.
It is not clear whether the increased pressure on the capos reflects greater governmental capacity — the development of trustworthy units capable of building intelligence and tracking a capo over long periods of time without leaking the info to enemies — or a change in tactics.