How to “win” the drug war?…by guest blogger N.J. Blake

| 1 Comment

An irresistible headline popped up on the Washington Post blog on April 12: “How to Win the Mexican Drug War” by Viridiana Ríos, a Harvard PhD candidate. Those of us living down here would REALLY like to know how to win this war and thus go back to the peaceful days of Mexico before “the war”. Imagine my disappointment when I read the article and discovered no shining new idea, strategy or approach.


My first quibble with the article is actually the title. Shall we define “win” in this context? Does “win” mean drugs are no longer bought and sold on the black market and are sold legally, or that the sellers have a change of heart and decide to forsake violence? Or does winning mean everyone stops sniffing, smoking, shooting or snorting drugs period? Like the War on Terror, this is a protracted conflict where some battles may be won, but never the war. However, I’ve long suspected that people who spend their lives in the ivory towers of academe are susceptible to these myopic Eureka! moments that leave people in “the real world” cynically rolling our eyes.

The article opens with some “facts” about the so-called war unleashed by former president Calderón that not even the Mexican government acknowledges knowing – the number of dead, the amount of money spent. All of the figures released by the government are estimates that most watchdog organizations consider very conservative. No one knows exactly how many are dead and missing and the figure for the money spent would have to be attached to a start date, a budget and so on. Though Ms. Ríos makes no mention of these uncertainties, we can all agree that a lot of people have died, a lot of money has been spent and at least according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, production and consumption aren’t exactly going down.

According to the Washington Post article, the United States may be helping Mexico fight the wrong war because “we do not know who the enemy is.” While it is certainly true that in this kind of war, “the enemy” may be harder to identify than a Redcoat, I would guess that people living in cities heavily affected by drug violence can pick out the criminals pretty easily (the ones driving a Lobo pick-up truck that happens to have men armed with AK-47s in the back.) Any citizen who has had to suffer through the kidnapping of a relative, had to close a business and flee when unable to pay extortion money, or who has been hauled off a bus and offered plomo o plata, definitely knows who the enemy is.

Perhaps the confusion stems from the use of the word “war” – we need a working definition of war – what criteria need be met for a conflict to become a war? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, war is a state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state. That’s nice and broad, a workable definition, if criminals and delinquents can be considered specific enough groups. mentions military forces. The former president unleashed the military, so that must count for something. A civil war is more specific and maybe more to the point in the case of Mexico since it involves the citizens of the same country. But that leads us to the concept of citizenship which by definition is the state of being vested with the rights, privileges, and duties of a citizen.

These people are outlaws, they live outside the law. This poses a new academic question: if you choose to ignore the laws of your country, are you still a citizen of that country? Technically yes, since no one else will claim you, but someone on a campus somewhere, far from those madding gunfights, is probably pondering this very question. No wonder these academics never seem to actually solve real problems.

Ms. Rios and her colleague “created an algorithm that uses Google to explore blogs, newspapers and news-related Web content and extract detailed data about how Mexican drug cartels operate.”  As Molly Molloy of Frontera List put it: “The only thing you can accomplish by scooping up everything on Google is to have a really big archive of what is on Google. If it is stuff about drug organizations that is findable by Google, there’s little likelihood that it is operational information… It is just a collection of open source stuff. What drug cartel with any smarts would do business via open source? Any criminal operating anywhere along the border knows that ALL communications are scooped up by EPIC and other security apparatus. I think that very little of the real business is handled without cooperation from security operatives on both sides of the border.”

So what have the Harvard students gleaned from their algorithm? “At the heart of the Mexican government’s strategy, which the United States has supported, is the belief that Mexico’s drug violence is the result of antagonistic trafficking organizations battling to monopolize a territory. Thus, the thinking goes, trafficking organizations must be eliminated. Yet it is not true that drug violence necessarily increases when more than one cartel operates in one area. In fact, in many areas, organized-crime groups share territory peacefully.” This is not only hard to believe, it’s just about impossible to document. How does one track these peace-loving criminals? Is there a data bank of crimes not committed?

Rios goes on to say: “Our data show that multiple cartels operated simultaneously in at least 100 Mexican municipalities in 2010, yet those municipalities did not experience a single drug-related homicide.” Now that statement implies some serious investigation, a top notch CSI team – Mexico’s forensic capabilities are in their infancy, primitive enough to be able to make a statement like that and get away with it. Unless Ms. Rios simply picked up the phone and called el municipio de Ixtapalametzalcoatepetl and asked how many drug-related homicides there were. At which point the director of tourism, who doubles as the receptionist, would have promptly replied: “None, senorita. Not one.”

“Of the 16,000 assassinations in Mexico’s drug war that year, 43 percent occurred in just eight cities. A single city, Juarez, accounted for 8 percent of the deaths.” Here’s another eyebrow raiser – 16,000 assassinations? No one knows how many have died, how many are missing. Cities might have a general idea, but who is counting out in the campo? Who has kept track of the Central American migrants caught in the crossfire? Google stats?  There are undoubtedly dozens of narcofosas yet to be discovered and no way of knowing exactly why or when these people died.

Rios goes on to say: “What we learned is simple and powerful: Traffickers pick their wars. Battling is a strategic choice for cartels — and they frequently choose peace.”

Choose peace? Are we to assume that any town, village or city that isn’t experiencing daily gun battles is at peace simply because the various DTOs all get along? Maybe – if Google says so it must be true.

To be so extraordinarily helpful, Google would have to be downright psychic since a vast majority of crimes in Mexico aren’t even reported to the authorities. And even if they do happen to get that far, there are also large swathes of the country where local journalists have stopped reporting on the violence. In other words, the stories just won’t make it to Google. Does Harvard have a GoogleSnoopTool?

“War is not the unavoidable outcome of a profitable illegal industry,” says Rios. Again, depending on the definition of war, this might be true, but it would be a short list. Consider Prohibition, prostitution, human trafficking – perhaps not war in the textbook sense, but plenty of violence It may not be unavoidable, but it’s certainly not unusual. Ríos points out that there is little crime in countries like Bolivia where a lot of illegal drugs are grown – but it should be pretty clear by now that the violence stems not from the cultivation of marijuana or coca, but from its smuggling across borders into the hands of users. She also points out that the Japanese mafia controls the most profitable market of methamphetamines in Asia without major episodes of violence, but the key word here is “controls” – if they didn’t have control, there would be a battle to gain it.

This brings Ríos to one of her conclusions: “Because trafficking is a business and fighting is a business strategy, drug cartels choose to fight whenever war brings more benefits than costs.” This seems a simplistic statement – because “fighting” involves eliminating the competition and the competition cuts into one’s profits – isn’t it generally profitable to fight? Particularly when there is a seemingly endless supply of cannon fodder.

Her recommendation to the Mexican government?  “The cost that governments can more efficiently impose on a criminal entrepreneur is prison.” She clearly hasn’t spent time in El Torito. Not only is there absolutely nothing efficient about the Mexican prison system, many of them are actually run by the prisoners (aka drug traffickers) themselves. It’s a great place to hone ones skills and make new contacts.

Rios recognizes that killing the competition can indeed lead to increased profits and she’s aware of the lack of judicial follow-through south of the border: “only 6% of all homicides produce a trial and judgment.” That’s probably generous. “Cartels have chosen to fight in certain areas of Mexico because it makes business sense. In short, war pays in Mexico.” What really pays in Mexico, Ms. Rios, is crime.

“So the right way to fight a drug war in Mexico is not to aim at eliminating criminal organizations, as many have assumed, but rather to create conditions in which war does not pay.” Only the remarkably naïve believe that criminal organizations can be eliminated, they have been with us since time immemorial and without them the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of jobs in some way connected to their eradication would also be eradicated. We all agree that there will always be criminals just like there will always be terrorists and other nasty people.

“Rather than help Mexico fight an unwinnable war against criminal organizations, the United States must help its neighbor battle impunity. Mexico must craft a system of incentives, using arrests, sentencing and imprisonment, so that criminal organizations cannot find it profitable to kill. The goal must be to make violent crime a risky endeavor, rather than a discretionary choice made by criminal businessmen. A war against impunity can be won. A war against drugs cannot.”

That’s it! The Holy Grail, the sword in the stone, the light at the end of the tunnel: break out the magic wands and let’s vaporize impunity. Why has no one come up with this before? Oh wait, they have. A war against impunity can be won? Wrong. Impunity is as treasured by those who possess it as any criminal fiefdom and there is an historical framework that holds it in place. Top-down reform legislation looks good in the press, but so far its effectiveness in cleaning out everyday corruption has been minimal. Ms. Ríos is right: the fact that crime has few negative consequences in Mexico and money and power trump justice has flamed the fires of drug violence. But God save us all from starting yet another “war” that can never be won.