Controlling Mexican drug violence: a dynamic strategy

Hold their dealing revenues hostage to reduced violence, by first taking down the most violent organization and then telling the others that you’re choosing a second target on the same principle. Repeat as needed.

Drug-related violence has claimed 35,000 Mexican lives since 2006, and the level of bloodshed is still rising. With legalization not in the cards and an all-out crackdown unlikely to succeed, good options seem to be scarce.

Here’s a candidate, based on a strategy of dynamic concentration:

Mexico should, after a public and transparent process, designate one of its dealing  organizations as the most violent of the group, and Mexican and U.S. enforcement efforts should focus on destroying that organization. Once that group has been dismantled – not hard, in a competitive market – the process should be run again, with all the remaining organizations  told that finishing first in the violence race will lead to destruction. If it worked, this process would force a “race to the bottom” in violence; in effect, each organization’s drug-dealing revenues would be held hostage to its self-restraint when it comes to gunfire.

This is parallel to David Kennedy’s “pulling levers” strategy to deal with gang violence.

Would it work?  Hard to guess. But it might.  That’s more than you can say for any of the other proposals currently on the table.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

33 thoughts on “Controlling Mexican drug violence: a dynamic strategy”

  1. Mexico should, after a public and transparent process, designate one of its dealing organizations as the most violent of the group, and Mexican and U.S. enforcement efforts should focus on destroying that organization.

    What if this group has the most tentacles implanted in the government? And what is there to indicate that the honest & conscientious officials aren’t already (informally) conducting this strategy?

  2. “.. more than you can say for any of the other proposals currently on the table…” How about expanding the table a little, then, and propose to make drugs legal here? It gets grown in Fresno and North Carolina, 1 per cent of US power consumption is freed up from current indoor marijuana growing, Mendocino and Humboldt counties become violence-free Edens, and we get as a bonus to stop destroying Mexico. I guess cocaine needs a more tropical climate, but we would import that from legal growers, and Central America would be saved.

    I remain unconvinced that any of the drugs we currently make illegal are markedly worse than alcohol, and (though it took us years and years, and the growth of the Mafia in our cities) we did figure out that the cure was worse than the disease.

  3. How do we tell which violence is committed by which cartel, and what’s to prevent one from taking steps to make it look like something was done by another? The obvious cartel strategy of buying local law enforcement and using them to pin violence on one’s competitors, thereby getting damn cheap anti-competition help from two governments, sounds like this could end up doing more aid than harm to the most powerful cartels.

    Full-on legalization and regulation is the only sane option. Anything else cedes control of the market to criminals, and that’s precisely why the industry is so violent. You don’t hear of rival tobacco dealers having gunfights in the streets, same with alcohol since prohibition ended, which should have taught us a lesson. Why is it easier for high school kids to get marijuana than alcohol? “Who controls the market?” answers that question. Drug prohibition has had 90 years, and the “war on drugs” 40 years, to prove their effectiveness. The street violence has predictably escalated in proportion to enforcement efforts, time and time again.

    So I think it’s wrong to concede that “legalization [is] not in the cards”. It’s the only effective option. It needs to be in the cards, on the table, and we need to keep insisting on it until it is. There is no reasonable alternative, no possible compromise that will remain effective. We shouldn’t be considering wasting any more time, effort, treasure, and lives on variations of policies which have been proven to fail.

  4. Mark: I love this idea and I have been thinking the same thing. How do we address Freeman’s point about accurately assigning responsibility for crimes to the guilty cartel?

  5. Good ideas all around. Before the 2008 US presidential election I saw drug policy as one area where the Democrat might outperform the Republican. Alas. Like Libya, why are we in this war?

  6. When we reach the point that Mexican drug traffickers try to conceal their violence rather than boasting about it, we will have made great progress.

    The fact that alcohol is more dangerous than some of the currently illicit drugs would be comforting if either:

    1) Legal alcohol did less aggregate damage than illegal cocaine.
    2) Increased cocaine use would substitute for alcohol.

    Alas, neither is true.

  7. “finishing first in the violence race will lead to destruction”

    Very nice application of Kennedy’s general principle and some of the ideas you’ve developed. Some potential pragmatic problems, if I’m not mistaken: (1) assumes capability of Mexican military to make a difference OR requires market manipulation; (2) the latter in (1) would require the government to be a player in drug distribution, wouldn’t it?; (3) the “tentacles problem” [daksya] could decide — maybe Bentham would say, “So what?” but I think morally most people would object.

    Would it work? I don’t know enough to make an educated guess. But it’s important to be thinking in terms of such strategies. The Schelling in you…? No, just the Kleiman in you, I guess.

  8. I believe this proposal could easily cause more drug violence.

    If this proposal were enacted, current drug gangs could form a coalition whose only purpose were to become the most violent drug gang, drawing away enforcement resources. Eventually this gang would disband, allowing the government to claim a Drug War Victory, and reform under a different name.

    A rolling sequence of temporary ultraviolent drug coalitions could permanently distract enforcement resources.

  9. This also assumes that the Mexican government isn’t sufficiently corrupt already that the cartels wouldn’t see competing to bribe the government to attack their competitors on the pretext that they were the most violent as more profitable than competing to avoid being the most violent.

    I’d suggest that the violence will continue until re-legalization is returned to the deck. The only workable solution doesn’t stop being that, just because you remove it from consideration.

  10. “…With legalization not in the cards and …”

    Mark, why are you so certain that legalization is a non-starter? The country did pull back from Prohibition, after all. Prohibition was also an effort to save people from the consequences of their lack of will, with real harm done by the banned substance, but for which we decided the ban had worse effects than easy availability.

  11. Dave: The primary drug of profit for the cartels is cocaine, which provides more revenue than all the other drugs put together. To legalize cocaine in the U.S. would take a majority of both house of congress and support from the president. You couldn’t get 5 people in either house to sign on to a bill legalizing cocaine (look how long it took just to partially correct the crack-powder disparity). Public support for cocaine legalization typically polls in single digits. It is not going to happen. Period.

  12. Legalization is in the cards. Momentum is growing and eventually the U.S. will be incapable of forcing other countries to adhere to its extremist prohibition policies.

  13. A very real and achieveable plan to solve, but to what extent would us law enforcement be able to assist within their jurisdiction? And mexico i would think has very real fears about us hegemony with military involvement. So what can we do NOW? Is boycott too drastic considering the frailty of mexican sovereignty?

  14. Mark, you’re assuming the number one goal is saving Mexican lives and not complying with the U.S. DEA and State Dept interests (“Stop all drugs from getting to the border”).

    Your strategy is an obvious life-saver, but it fails to “stop drugs” and “punish all the bad guys”, and I can’t see Mexican authorities being given the go ahead to “look the other way” for non-violent drug operations.

    Another option is for Mexico to semi-regulate illicit trafficking up to the border and tell the U.S. “it’s your turn to stop drugs on your side.” That option has the advantage of not requiring any action from the U.S. and puts us in the awkward position of saying, “You know, we really preferred how it was working for you before”.

  15. Steve: State and DEA would be thrilled to see less death and violence in Mexico, the entire USG would, you are construing their interests too narrowly. And don’t forget that the strategy Mark is suggesting is already been used in many cities *in the USA* with explicit endorsement from federal officials. It’s not that radical, it’s simply smart law enforcement.

  16. I think the first comment has it, only worse. What kind of open and transparent process could you put in place that would make it more plausible for a gang to submit to observation rather than just intimidate or kill all the observers and analysts?

  17. Mark,

    Great post as usual. I’m circulating it as widely as possible down here. Regarding Keith’s concerns about properly assigning violence, I would posit there are several ways around the monitoring problem:

    1)Given the high potential cost of the marginal murder, I would bet that cartels themselves would provide a wealth of information as to who did what, when, and to whom, either to reduce their total or increase the total of the rival gang.
    2) In case of doubt, for accounting purposes, just split the murder into as many parts as there are gangs present in the relevant municipality.
    3) Count disappearances (known locally as “levantones”)as murders, unless and until the victim reappears alive.

    None of those solutions is perfect, but ultimately, you don’t need scientific precision, just a broadly correct impression of who is behaving worse.

    Best regards.

  18. The drug gangs thought of this first. They target the people in charge of enforcement until they are removed. Then they target the next person to step up. And soon the applicant pool for Police Chief dwindles to college students like Marisol Valles (who is now MIA herself). I think this would make more sense if law enforcement in Mexico were not being actively targeted for retribution. Perhaps they have some coordination advantage that the other players don’t have, but it’s not clear that they don’t fit neatly into the existing equilibrium of “violations” (where each side views violence against their own faction as a violation). I’m not an expert and would appreciate being corrected if this objection is wrong or irrelevant. It’s an interesting idea.

  19. I still think more needs to be done on the consumer side in the U.S. I find most people who use illegal drugs are also among the most socially conscious consumers. Why is it that these people can boycott BP for an accidental oil spill that kills a few thousands birds, but will consistently and deliberately turn a blind eye to the fact that when they buy Marijuana, they are giving their money to the people responsible for the destruction of Mexico. Weed smokers seem to think that if they can just get enough people to use Marijuana, the government will throw their hands up and legalize it, but at what cost? How many people have to die before pot smokers will just face the fact that it’s illegal, that their money goes to Drug Cartels, and either cut back, or stop using a drug that is supposedly not as addictive as alcohol or tobacco so that we don’t have another 35,000 deaths.

  20. I don’t know which illegal drug users you know, but besides being socially conscious we’re also quality conscious. Neither I nor anyone I know has intentionally smoked Mexican weed. The reason for most of us is because California weed tastes better and is more potent. Also it would be a lot easier to boycott Mexican schwag if it came with a gov’t mandated “Grown in Mexico” label. The “how many people have to die” shit cuts both ways: how many people have to die before the government stops throwing people in jail for smoking or selling the wrong kind of plant?

    It’s possible though that this was just dead-pan and I didn’t get it, in which case I apologize for taking this seriously.

  21. @Keith, of course the USG has interest in peace in Mexico, I’m just just doubtful they would stay quiet long about a policy that allows a surge of drug shipments up to/through the border, as you certainly would see if most enforcement attention was removed from some of the cartels.

    I know dynamic enforcement works where it is worked, but Mexico seems to be a very different environment. Will’s comment about the gangs doing the selective targeting (even running authorities out of town) is worrisome; the gangs seem to know on their turf *they are* the authorities and can set up the incentives to their benefit.

    While I’m cynical about the governments of both US and Mex doing the Right Thing here, I’m hopeful, too.

  22. Lake,

    Nope, not dead-pan. It doesn’t matter where weed is grown, just because it’s grown in California doesn’t mean the money still isn’t going to Cartels. It’s more profitable for Cartels to grow it in U.S National Parks than to grow it in Mexico and have to smuggle it across the border. Your point about weed not having a label on where it was grown, or more accurately: by whom, is the conundrum pot smokers face; you have very little information about who is profiting from your marijuana purchase, so how can anyone definitively say they don’t buy from Cartels? Obviously someone has to be buying from them, right? Mexican drug cartels had $8.6 billion in revenue in 2006 from Marijuana alone. I’m not anti-weed. I’m not pro-war on drugs. I just think if pot smokers can’t be absolutely sure their money isn’t going to a cartel, the choice is simple: don’t buy it.

  23. Somewhere (I *think* it was in Martin Caidin’s *Black Thursday*) I read that the Luftwaffe was toying with a policy of concentrated attack on either the first or last bomber in a group, rather than having each fighter pilot pick their easiest target. He wonders why they never followed through on the idea, as it would have been a virtual guarantee that the crew of the targeted bomber would either be killed in their plane, or find themselves parachuting out of it to face Lord only knew what sort of adventure on the ground.

    The writer notes that the cumulative effect of this policy on the aircrews’ already shaky morale would probably have been huge, to the extent of affecting the Air Force’s ability to muster crews without the stated threat of a firing squad. I know that it’s easy enough for an anonymous commenter to extrapolate all sorts of results from something that never happened, but I think the writer’s logic was sound enough, and it certainly looks like it validates the dynamic concentration thesis.

  24. No, it’s not exactly simple. First, weed grown hastily in large quantities in a national park is unlikely to be half as good as cannabis grown in the emerald triangle or grown indoors. Generally thugs are better at shooting people than gardening. Thus quality is a generally good indicator of whether or not the profits accrue to cartels. To address your point that people do buy from cartels; yes I didn’t mean to imply otherwise, I shouldn’t generalize too much from my social circle. However my point is that it is possible to be a socially conscious consumer and even if you don’t have a med. card you can still discern the origin of your product. Second, ignorance about the potential negative effects of your consumption in a source country is hardly unique to cannabis. It is impossible to purchase gas with any certainty that you are not supporting undemocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia or unstable, corrupt regimes in impoverished places such as Angola. The growing of grapes for wine for “two buck chuck”or any other kind of wine, requires the exploitation of migrant workers. Computers and cellphones use heavy metals mined (sometimes by children), are assembled by poorly paid factory workers and then disassembled by children who breathe in toxic metals in order to extract precious metals. Hopefully you consistently carry though your “how many people have to die” moralizing to these (and many more) products. Much more productive then blaming individual consumers is understanding the systemic factors that result in the problems you’re seeking to address. This is relatively simple with weed, it only causes harm because it is illegal. Yes, if people stopped smoking it the cartels would lose 8.6 billion dollars. And if people stopped buying consumer electronics from places without strong labor laws then we could close sweatshops. But it’s not going to happen and accusing millions of pot smokers and ipod owners of complicity in murder and child labor is hardly going build a coalition capable of addressing those systemic issues.

    I think we agree though that it is morally unconscionable to consume without addressing the consequences of your consumption. And I agree that too many smokers just assume that someday it will be legal because there are so many smokers. I just think we’ll be better off when we work to legalize it, not divisively accuse each-other of supporting violence.

  25. The one and only one ,gulty of this is the PRI party,wy? because the have a school of what do you want how live ,and is easy,,corrupcion,rober, lies,they tell us in theeirs lives ,we do not love our coutry¡¡¡ this is the aswer.
    Los unicos culpables son los del pri durante 70 años solo robaron,mintieron,engañaron corrompieron ,y sigen tratando de engañarlos ,este partido gobierna los estados mas corruptos com tamaulipas nuevo loen coahuila,chihuahua,veracruz y san luis potosi ,y creame hay mas tunbas aqui en miguel aleman ,cd. mante en todo tamaulipas.

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