Targeting drug violence in Mexico

Can we make violence a source of competitive disadvantage, rather than competitive advantage, for Mexican drug traffickers?

I have an idea for getting the bloodshed in Mexico under control. It may or may not be a good idea, but as far as I can tell it’s precisely one more idea than anyone else has: nothing I’ve heard proposed has any chance of putting a dent in the homicide numbers over the next year or two.

The proposal is the sort of conditional threat David Kennedy and his colleagues used to reduce gang homicide in Boston. Send a simple message to the bad guys:  “Bloodshed brings trouble.” The point is to make violence a source of competitive disadvantage rather than competitive advantage to Mexico’s big drug traffickers.

Here’s a sketch of the idea.

Targeting Drug Violence in Mexico 12 22 11

Comments welcome.

[Yes, full legalization of all drugs would replace the current problem with a different problem. But since it’s not going to happen before thousands more Mexicans die, even if you think legalization is a good idea eventually it still ought to be worth thinking about what to do now.  So please post legalization rants elsewhere, and let’s try to keep the comment thread here for discussion of this option and its live alternatives.]

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:

25 thoughts on “Targeting drug violence in Mexico”

  1. Yes, but exactly what’s the idea? Make an idle threat? Is this the same philosophy the President is employing to such effect with respect to Iran and North Korea? Surely you can do better. Or maybe not.

  2. For the convenience of Redwave and others with reading disabilities, I’ve moved the link to the full sketch of the idea above the fold.

    1. Thanks for the link. I have read the plan. It seems that there is an awful lot of fact finding and research needed before it is a “plan” as apposed to an “approach.” That doesn’t mean the research shouldn’t be done. If we really know that little about Mexican based drug origination and distribution, it would be very useful to embark upon the research you suggest.

      As for operationalizing the approach, I have my doubts. It seems a bit too academic and theoretical. Also, removing certain branches of demand in the US will only open up opportunities for others who could profit by capturing that supply – sadly, there is no shortage of US distribution points.

      I think one point made that I agree with is that the problem can not be addressed without greatly increased cooperation between Mexican and US authorities. The trick for us will be to get that involved while resisting the urge to control the whole operation. It has to be a true partnership.

      At the risk of violating your specific request, I do think decriminalization for user violations (as opposed to distributor) is part of the answer.

  3. The last time you posted about this, I had some queries about the feasibility of this proposal. Fortunately, the sketch document identifies those concerns. But it doesn’t (attempt to) resolve them.

    From “PLANNING PROCESS” in the document:

    1)b)i) Can DEA actually assign to each substantial U.S. drug distribution network one or more sources in Mexico?

    1)c)i) Can the authorities convincingly attribute most killings or other violent gestures to specific organizations and sub-units?

    1)c)iii) How much pressure could the combined efforts of the two governments put on any one designated organization?

    1)c)iv) How great a competitive disadvantage would that level of enforcement pressure create?

    3)b) Data elements must be transparently verifiable and minimally subject to “false flag” operations.

    Even if you accept that the final & outside reception of the idea is unknown, you must think enough of it in order to put it out there. So how do you contend with the above concerns?

    1. I’m not proposing that we do this tomorrow. I’m proposing that we expend the effort to figure out whether those questions have answers. The idea isn’t logically unsound; whether it’s practically applicable is not something that can be determined by someone (like me) who doesn’t speak Spanish.

  4. Not a bad plan. There is another plan, easier and probably more realistic to execute though. Just go back to how the PRI used to run things. Stop using the military and police against the cartels. Eventually, one will kill the others into submission. Once there’s a monopoly, or a bunch of regional ones, violence will go down. Now, I imagine it won’t be popular here because it’s “surrender” or whatever. But violence was unquestionably lower under the old way.

  5. I am not convinced Violence/Money is a good metric. I would suspect that breaking into a violent scene requires a greater degree of violence, the present networks aren’t going to just give up territory, so up and comers would have to out intimidate the present networks. This seems to indicate Violence/Money would target newer organizations.

    Next you may need to take into account how long it takes to destroy an organization. Are bigger organizations easier (faster to take down) because there are more potential informers? Or are they harder (slower to take down) because they require more work to bring down entirely instead of just a branch? This may also cause focusing on certain organizations over others but transparency and public support would seem rooted in steep and immediate declines in violence.

  6. Mark, you probably wouldn’t have thought ten years ago that a religious group using a Schedule I substance would have a chance to exist in the US.

    But now the UDV is here, and it’s partly because of your efforts, which were singled out by the judge in O Centro as exceptionally persuasive.

    At what point does not putting your intellectual energies into considering scenarios that include legal availability of drugs actually constitute an unreasonable deprivation to the rest of us? 🙂

    1. Matthew, I’ve been putting my intellectual energies into thinking about legal availability for 30 years now. See the “Laws” chapter of Against Excess or my essay in Daedalus [not on line, but the cite is Mark A.R. Kleiman, Neither Prohibition nor Legalization: Grudging Toleration in Drug Control Policy. 121 DAEDALUS 53, 55 (1992)].

      Except for cannabis, which I’d like to see available under some non-commercial format (grow-your-own plus co-ops or state stores) and the hallucinogens and MDMA (which call for a completely different approach) I’m mostly persuaded that legalizing the currently illicit mass-market drugs (opiates, cocaine, amphetamine-type stimulants) is a bad idea.

      The Daedalus essay assumes as a design goal the legalization of cocaine, and concludes that the available options aren’t very attractive. That may be wrong, but no one has ever bothered to write out a point-by-point refutation, or to offer a policy design for cocaine legalization without a massive increase in cocaine abuse that passes the giggle test.

      If I thought that across-the-board legalization was a good idea, but politically infeasible, I’d say so; that’s my view about policies to raise alcohol taxes and deny sales to people with drinking-related criminal convictions. If it thought it was politically feasible, then I’d at least have to list it among the ways of reducing Mexican drug violence in the medium run. But since I think it’s both wrong and unpopular, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it in detail.

      1. Mark, I appreciate your answer. It’s fair to say you don’t explore policies you don’t believe will work. I do think your taxing violence idea is a good one, and I said so when you mentioned it here a while back. Now, intrigued by the fact that you did an article in Daedalus, I’m going to have a look.

      2. Mark, I’m curious to know, if you could make alcohol illegal, would you?

        I don’t understand the difference you see between alcohol and “currently illicit mass-market drugs (opiates, cocaine, amphetamine-type stimulants),” unless those drugs are more addictive? People do a lot of bad things when drunk too. Maybe you’ve answered this before, but I have forgotten, so apologies if this is a repeat.

  7. Mark’ proposal puts a lot of effort into ensuring that the violence scoring is fair and transparent. Why? Ivan the Terrible randomly picks a drug gang, says “I adjudge you to be exceptionally violent, now die”. You still get a race to the bottom to stay inconspicuous.

    Perhaps greater procedural fairness than this is needed to get all the law-enforcement parties on board, and prevent the targets escaping by bribery. But procedural fairness in enforcement priorities is not a right of the targets.

    1. Perhaps not, but it’s a necessity for the government, especially given Mexican history. The public will be inclined to believe that the target-selection process reflects the sort of move back to the old corrupt deal that Ryan Cooper recommends above. Transparency is a way of at least dampening that perception.

  8. I don’t know how likely this is, but I would worry that it might become a good business decision for cartel X to dress up as cartel Y and kill a lot of people. The risk might be especially worth taking if my cartel is near the top of the list. Again, the ability of the US government to successfully determine who is committing what acts of violence, even if cartels try and game the system, is paramount.

  9. I think it has some real potential, but I’m not sure the incentive is good enough. The cartels currently see the use of violence as an important tool for their operations, and the notion of giving up that advantage in the hopes of merely being further down the list for being targeted may not be enough.

    I think for this to work, you need the carrot and the stick, not the stick and the really big stick.

    The carrot, in this case is that any non-violent operation will see an “active” hands-off approach from the government, even to the point of actually increasing the ease of moving and selling their drugs.

    Political dynamite, to be sure, but if you really want to limit the violence when it has gone this far, it seems the focus must be on addressing the violence even to the exclusion of other governmental interests.

    1. Eh, it’s only political dynamite if the media are willing to report it. You’d think giving guns to Mexican drug cartels would be political dynamite, too, but so far it’s been something of a squib for that reason.

      I guess that means the program would last only so long as a Democrat was in office, though. Probably too short a time to have much effect.

      1. You’d think giving guns to Mexican drug cartels would be political dynamite
        Yeah, and you’d think the whole drugs-and-guns-for-hostages Iran-Contra political dynamite would have blown up any chance of remaining active and powerful in politics for any of those involved, wouldn’t you?
        It’s a crazy world.

        1. That it is. My point is simply that the press exposing this is not really a serious problem: It presumes that we have a press which is interested in exposing things like this. They’re not, it’s too much like work. Otherwise our politics would look very different on both sides of the aisle.

          I’d say the biggest problem with this proposal is the lack of effective intelligence to implement it. That is to say, it’s not a case of, “We know who we ought to be cracking down on, but don’t have the manpower to crack down on all of them at the same time.” It’s a case of, “We don’t know who to crack down on.”

          You can’t selectively target people you can’t identify in the first place.

          That’s always been the fundamental problem with all prohibitions: Law enforcement relies on cooperation from victims to identify perpetrators, and if you’re going after both ends of the transaction, you’re not going to get that cooperation. If the “victims” want to be “victimized”, you’re not going to get that cooperation.

          That the vast amount of money to be made makes corrupting law enforcement and politicians comparatively affordable, so that soon they’re not really trying to enforce the law, is strictly a secondary issue compared to that.

          That said, you did ask for suggestions, and I do have one:

          We don’t have the capacity to identify the distribution network in the US. If we did, we could simply shut down the market, instead of going after it selectively. But the drugs distributed by that network have to cross the border, and that is a limited area, (Yes, yes, it’s 2000 miles long. Compared to the population of this country, that’s tiny.) which could be effectively policed, if other priorities, such as enabling illegal immigration, didn’t prevail.

          Build the border wall, achieve genuine border security, and then you can let drug shipments through from approved cartels, and block them from the more violent, even if you’re going to (ineffectually) go after them once they’re in the distribution network.

          Is this bad PR? One would presume so, but one would presume that Fast and Furious would end any administration which committed it, and it hasn’t. So we know that bad PR is not really an obstacle in dealing with the cartels.

          1. Yes, and my point is simply that it doesn’t seem to matter what the media exposes or how much effort they put into pursuing a story. Iran-Contra got plenty of media coverage, Congressional investigation, and even criminal trials, but it didn’t “end any administration which committed it” as you say “one would presume that Fast and Furious would”.

          2. “Apple, meet orange”

            Seriously? You think miles of border per capita, or per billions in GDP is not a useful metric for determining how much you can afford for border security? That we’re no better positioned to police that border than a nation with a tenth the population or economy would be? Seriously?

            That we’re a large nation with a large border suggests the border is unmanagable only to innumerates. The border grows as X, capacity as X*X, large nations have an *easier* time managing their borders than small nations.

  10. Seems like a lot of “ifs” in this proposal.
    IF the government of Mexico can make “properly informed decision[s]” regarding targeting.
    IF, as “it might be hoped”, the US government will “fully cooperate” and “abide by the Mexican determination”.
    IF we can determine the extent to which cartel violence is centrally-controlled.
    IF we can determine with certainty which of Mexico’s cartels the US distributors are buying from.
    IF Mexico can properly attribute killings to specific cartels.
    IF the proposed complicated scoring system can be implemented transparently enough that the public will support it (assuming they even understand it).
    IF a highly coordinated and politically complicated joint US-Mexico combined effort can put enough pressure on a specific cartel to create a “competitive disadvantage”, and
    IF said competitive disadvantage is enough to take down that cartel and persuade others against violence.

    Quite a bit of iffy-hopey there, and that’s just what’s identified in the proposal. A few more ifs (no doubt there are more):
    IF, once “the winner” is “clearly announced”, they don’t just amp up the violence in response, eroding public support for the program (what’s their deterrent to violence, once identified as the #1 target?).
    IF, once eliminated, the example of what happened to them is strong enough to minimize violence in the inevitable turf war to take the target cartel’s place (the vacuum WILL be filled). There are examples of governments doing very unpleasant things to violent drug dealers all the time – it doesn’t seem deterrent enough to stop the practice.
    IF the inevitable changes in tactics and relationships of the targets on both sides of the border can be accurately tracked and responded to by both governments.
    IF the political will is there for an unproven and expensive program that would “adopt a strategy so radically different from the strategies of the past”.

    The whole proposal seems to say “We have come to the realization that we can’t stop illegal drug trafficking, but we’d like to do something about the inherent violence of the black market, so let’s see if it’s possible to use our failed drug enforcement tactics and infrastructure to concentrate drug enforcement efforts in such a way as to reduce violence instead of trying to reduce drug trafficking as first priority”. Not a bad sentiment, but I don’t have much hope for it’s success in the real world. Would it have worked during alcohol prohibition?

    But at least it’s a “live” proposal, not something (presumably dead, undead, or otherwise not-live) that is “not going to happen before thousands more Mexicans die”. Oh, wait….
    I’m not proposing that we do this tomorrow. I’m proposing that we expend the effort to figure out whether those questions have answers.

  11. Philip K. Dick, who knew drugs from the inside out had two things to say, one in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and the other in A Scanner Darkly, which are apropos if not taken too literally.

    “You call grass a drug?” and “Kill the dealers.”

  12. I think there are many things that you do not consider. One of them is that some cartels not only make money from selling drugs, some also use extortion, kiddnappings, and theft. How could that be added into your plan? It needs to be more realistic . Good luck.

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