Mexico’s drug problem, and ours

The latest Foreign Affair has my essay offering some ideas about drug policy, at right angles to the drug warrior/legalizer debate.

The latest Foreign Affairs has my essay offering some ideas about drug policy, at right angles to the drug warrior/legalizer debate. It’s behind a paywall, but I can supply a .pdf on request.

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:

15 thoughts on “Mexico’s drug problem, and ours”

  1. Your article has many important points and I hope the approach of targeting violence and serious users will be tried. (Even though I still don’t understand why we treat alcohol differently, if it’s just as addictive. Is it, though?)

    Also, how did the meth dealers in Hawaii react to their customers disappearing? (Or was it just one guy?)

  2. I am very interested in reading your essay and would appreciate the opportunity of getting the pdf version.

    Thank you and congratulations on your research.

  3. Can you please send me your essay? The description at FP looked really interesting. Thanks!

  4. Mark,

    Really great piece. It’s sure to have great impact down here in Mexico. I do, however, have a couple of minor qualms about the Mexican portion of your proposal (some of which we have already talked about):

    1. Monitoring who is doing what to whom is becoming increasingly challenging. The number of drug-related criminal gangs in Mexico has grown significantly over the past year and a half: in Acapulco, for instance, there are probably no less than eight or nine different groups –some national, some regional, some strictly local– fighting it out for control of the local drug retail market. Some of the minor groups claim (sometimes falsely) affiliation to the larger cartels; in the state of Jalisco, for instance, there is one specific group (La Resistencia)that claims affiliation to three diffferent cartels. In Ciudad Juárez, it’s not clear whether some of the locals gangs (e.g., Barrio Azteca) should be counted as part of one the cartels or as independent players. Corpses with specific messages identifying the responsible group account for probably no more than 10% of the total and some of those messages are extremely cryptic. Moreover, there have already been some instances of “false flagging”, i.e., one group putting the blame on another for some particularly grisly crime. This does not detract from the larger point of focusing on the more violent groups, but it does require a clear strategy on how to deal with some of those complexities (maybe setting up a series of regional contests, instead of a national one, might be a way around some of the monitoring issues).

    2. There needs to be a relatively broad menu of sanctions. For some of the smaller groups, threatening their drug export revenues is not likely to be an effective deterrent, given the fact that they tend not to smuggle drugs in the first place. So we need to think hard about the sort of threats that might work in those instances.

    3. I wonder if there are other ways of using a focused deterrence framework. For instance, instead of singling out a group that behaves particularly violently in a given period of time, focusing on specific types of violence. The Mexican government (with the explicit support of its US counterpart) could potentially declare that it would give special treatment to a subgroup of multiple murders (five or more victims in one incident), including some form of rapid collective punishment for the group responsible for the deed (e.g., transfer of prisoners to high security facilities, ramped up enforcement in some ports of entry into the US, etc.). Arguably, wouln’t that lead to murderers stopping at the fourth victim, at which point the authorities could extend the threat to include other subtypes of murders (say, three or more victims in one incident), and so on and so forth? I’m thinking here of a strategy more akin to the NYC subway graffitti story than to Operation Ceasefire. Any thoughts?

    Again, congratulations and best regards.

  5. Please send a .pdf of your article. It is amazing how the 1960’s is the cultural gift that keeps on giving as far as the Right is concerned.

  6. Alejandro has made perfectly valid points to Kleiman’s approch on Mexico’s violence. I just have a doubt on the small/multiple cartels point. Alejandro, Castañeda presented a data analisys, in which internal consumtion in México is totally insignificant for the DT’ bussines. You mention, “For some of the smaller groups, threatening their drug export revenues is not likely to be an effective deterrent, given the fact that they tend not to smuggle drugs in the first place.” How did you implied this? How can we reconcile yor claim with Castañeda’s analisys? Great points though!

  7. Mark, I wonder if you could explain a bit more about the “focal point” activity concept. I think that it means that drug dealers and buyers find one another in specific locations, and each goes to that location with the intention of making a drug transaction. “Both sides benefit when their numbers overwhelm the police. Once established, such a market is stable, but if the pattern of expectations that hold it together is disrupted, there is no natural mechanism to bring it back into existence.”

    On the surface, this sounds as if the parking lots and street corners which are notorious for drug activity can overwhelm law enforcement. If the police mounted a large surprise raid on that parking lot, disrupting its expectations, there would be a temporary decrease in the number of transactions; however, there does appear to be a natural mechanism to bring it back into existence, namely moving the market to a parking lot half a mile away.

    I may be misunderstanding what is meant by disrupting the “pattern of expectations,” or maybe I am missing the meaning of “focal point” activity. Can you illustrate what is meant here in a more detail?

    One key lesson of this essay is in the section about the great asymmetry. “The United States is central in Mexico’s drug problem, whereas Mexico is incidental to that of the United States.” Mexico became a main source of drugs for the US market following the efforts of the US to curtail the Caribbean drug trade. That is a point worth remembering.

  8. Ed, the short answer to your question is that when the expectation on both sides is broken for a sufficient length of time – which in empirical fact doesn’t have to be very long – the focal point goes away and the swamping effect also goes away, which makes the newly quiet area quite easy to maintain. Buyers and sellers may each return, but not in volume, so they’re easy to deal with using normal resources. Because these kinds of illicit markets can’t advertise, buyers and sellers are not in contact outside their momentary market transactions, the markets need special local conditions to flourish, and folks in other potential market areas aren’t overwhelmed and can resist the emergence of new markets, they cannot simply move. And, in empirical fact, they don’t just move. A lot of the research in fact shows diffusion of benefits: other areas improve.

    For a much longer answer, see here:

  9. Sergio,

    Revenues accruing from domestic drug consumption are probably equivalent to no more that 10% of export revenues (and 10% may be an exaggeration). The big game is indeed large-scale drug trafficking, but not everyone is allowed in. Most of the smaller organizations that have sprung up in the past year and a half (CIDA, La Resistencia, La Mano con Ojos,Los M’s, etc.) are mostly devoted to controlling retail drug markets and rent-extraction activities (kidnapping, extortion, robbery, etc.). And yet, a significant portion of the additional violence of the past 18 months has been provoked by those very groups: Acapulco has probably surpassed Ciudad Juárez as México’s most violent city. So, my point is: what happens if ts he scoring system proposed by Mark ends up putting on top of the pile one the non-trafficking organizations? Granted, it’s unlikely, but not totally impossible, particularly in a second or thir round. If that were to happen you would need to have in place a set of sanctions that are not focused mostly on disrupting some drug export flows. You would need things such as low-intensity interventiosn against local drug markets, transfer of prisoners, etc.

    Best regards.

  10. Thanks to David Kennedy for the explanation and the attached article. I suppose that there are forms of drug markets which are less toxic than others, but I wonder what counts as an overt drug market. I had the misfortune a few years ago to have next door neighbors dealing drugs out of their rental house. The house owner lived in another state and the local property manager was indifferent to what was occurring as long as the rent was paid. However, there was considerable distress under my roof arising from people driving up at all hours of the day and night, honking their horns, and running inside for a couple of minutes before emerging from the house and driving away. Most of the block residents were unaffected by the dealing. The police were impotent, since the dealers only sold drugs to people they knew, and they could not make a drug bust without a sale to an undercover agent.

    One neighbor across the street emerged to find his SUV window smashed one morning, but rather than try to put pressure on law enforcement to do something about the local drug trade, he simply told his landlord that he was moving away. Fortunately, the dealers moved away, the house was sold, and a nice young couple moved in. A three year nightmare was over. Apart from some minor vandalism to two cars, the physical damage to my household was minor, but the enjoyment of our front yard was badly impaired.

    This market was not overt and disorderly; the distress it caused was not even noticed two doors down the block. My point is that even orderly drug dealing can cause considerable local distress.

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