What an Ex-DEA Official Gets Wrong About Mexico

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A former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official says Mexico’s next head of state should escalate President Felipe Calderon’s fight against organized crime, but he addresses none of the justifiable sources of criticism of Calderon’s approach.

The message of Robert Bonner’s op-ed, “Cracking the Mexican Cartels,” published in the New York Times on April 15, is clear: Calderon’s strategy has proven extremely successful. Such a conclusion is at odds with much of the recent analysis of Mexico’s crime policies, and indeed there are serious flaws in Bonner’s logic.

The first problem is that Bonner, who served as an administrator in the DEA under former President George H.W. Bush, views the situation in Mexico as a binary choice between winning and losing, stating early in his piece that “Calderon has made huge gains toward defeating” the gangs. The article makes multiple references to winning and losing, when in fact, in the military or athletic sense of the word, there will be neither victory nor defeat in Mexico. There will never be a decisive triumph over the drug gangs, nor are the criminals capable of or interested in defeating the government. For the foreseeable future, organized crime will always exist in Mexico, and the range of possible outcomes is not qualitatively different from today. Improving public security and imposing the rule of law is a permanent slog rather than a race to the end zone, and the perpetual goal is marginal improvement from one year to the next. Any analysis seeking signs of a decisive victory or defeat is necessarily flawed.

Bonner cites several institutional reforms that supposedly illustrate Calderon’s success, but this depiction is also misleading. Of the police, he writes: “To win this war, Calderon needed cops he could rely on… Fed up with the corruption of the AFI [Federal Investigations Agency], he abolished the agency in May 2009 and created an entirely new force under the secretary for public safety and security.”

While there are certainly some promising elements to the recent improvements in the federal police, Bonner ignores that every Mexican president for a generation has embraced sweeping police reform. The AFI for example, was created under Calderon’s predecessor. In its time, it was supposedly a permanent replacement to the corruption-riddled Federal Judicial Police. Simply creating a new police body is in no way the mark of a transformational president. Furthermore, while there were some purges of AFI commanders under Calderon, this was not an “entirely new force,” it was more like a reshuffling, with many of the old AFI rank and file continuing to serve under the new agency.

Bonner goes on to say that one of the most significant oversights of Calderon’s strategy is the lack of an aggressive asset-seizure program. But like many advocates who say fighting money laundering is the key to a safer Mexico, Bonner neglects to explain how this will decisively tilt the playing field against the drug traffickers. As InSight Crime has noted, a handful of factors make it unlikely that targeting dirty money will radically change the landscape. One problem is that the size of the drug trade relative to the economy as a whole is quite small. The most credible estimates for Mexico drug export revenue range between $4.7 and $8.1 billion, yet Mexico’s GDP is roughly $1.2 trillion, and trade with the US measured $460 billion in 2011. Against this backdrop, with or without the proper legislation, the odds are always stacked against finding dirty money.

And even conceding that asset-seizure programs could be more effective, taking several of his boats away won’t suddenly make Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” a non-threat. Indeed, attacking his money and his assets only incentivizes further criminal activity. If a drug trafficker’s profit margins drop from, say, 20 to 15 percent on the average shipment of cocaine, the rational gangster will look to recover that lost income by trafficking more or by engaging in other activities, from oil theft to extortion. In this sense, drug trafficking is fundamentally different from terrorism, which is often pointed to as a model for how cracking down on money laundering can bear fruit. Limiting terrorists’ access to cash reduces their ability to pull off attacks. With drug traffickers, however, attacking their assets doesn’t prevent them from otherwise harming society; the harm is already done once the money has been earned.

In short, while there’s nothing wrong with going after the gangsters’ “houses, ranches, airplanes, boats, vehicles, and otherwise legitimate businesses”, it’s hard to see how it can be the “essential element” to a more effective approach, and could even perversely incentivize further crime.

Bonner has long been a vocal proponent of the so-called “kingpin strategy,”  through which the government targets the leading figures in the most notorious groups. He once more voices support for such an approach in his op-ed, saying that Calderon ”has waged an increasingly effective campaign against the cartels by employing what is known as the kingpin strategy, which Colombia used to defeat its drug cartels in the 1990s.”

While arresting wealthy and violent gangsters is a necessary function of any effective police force, this alone is not enough. Unfortunately, Bonner makes little mention of the insufficiency of this approach, nor its negative side effects. Contrary to his assertion, kingpins are frequently easily replaceable, and the gang that suffers the loss rebounds without much upset. Meanwhile, the decline of one group, be it the Medellin Cartel or La Linea, inevitably leads to its replacement by others. As many analysts have pointed out, this process, for which there are literally scores of examples, is necessarily destabilizing and typically violent.

Bonner points to Colombia as an example of the kingpin strategy successfully deployed, yet close to 13,500 people were killed in 2011, good enough for a murder rate of roughly 30 per 100,000 residents. In Medellin, the supposed site of a historic public security miracle brought about in part because of the application of the kingpin approach, more than 1,600 people were killed in 2011, a larger figure than in Juarez. In contrast, Mexico, for all its notorious travails with criminal groups, had a rate of about 20 murders per 100,000 residents last year. If Colombia’s “victory” is actually a model for Mexico and not just a convenient comparison, why is the state of public security in the former nation so precarious?

Bonner’s piece has other weaknesses, but most glaring is that he makes no mention of Mexico’s recent spike in violence whatsoever, though he does refer dismissively to the “negative headlines” early in the piece. His point seems to be that the violence receives too much attention, and that bloodshed notwithstanding, Calderon’s strategy has proven very effective. But while may be an easy argument to make while living in Washington, the case is rather more difficult to make in Juarez, Acapulco, or Torreon, and Bonner never examines the counter to his point. The two perennial goals in security policy — in a nutshell, weaker gangs and safer streets — are often in conflict, and reasonable people can disagree as to which of the two is more important in a given moment. However, no reasonable analysis entirely ignores either objective, which is precisely what Bonner has done here. As far as we can tell from his piece, spikes in violence don’t matter, period.

Given that the historic increases in murder, extortion, kidnapping, and other crimes in Mexico provoke no self-reflection from Bonner, it’s worth asking if there even exists a threshold at which Bonner would begin to question the soundness of Calderon’s approach. It appears that there is not, which, to anyone who has followed Mexico with an objective set of eyes over the past five years, is simply baffling.

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