Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Drug Cartels: A hopeful note in the chaos?

Here’s a guest post from Jennifer Bernal of CNAS regarding a recent Washington Post article about Mexican cartel operations inside the United States: By Jennifer Bernal Best Defense Drugs, Crime & Terror Beat Reporter The story caught my eye because beyond outlining the mind-boggling scale of certain Mexican cartel operations in the U.S., it illustrates ...

LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images
LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images
LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

Here's a guest post from Jennifer Bernal of CNAS regarding a recent Washington Post article about Mexican cartel operations inside the United States:

By Jennifer Bernal
Best Defense
Drugs, Crime & Terror Beat Reporter

The story caught my eye because beyond outlining the mind-boggling scale of certain Mexican cartel operations in the U.S., it illustrates a key question when fighting them: Does fragmenting groups ultimately make detecting and dismantling them easier or more difficult? In Mexico, Felipe's Calderon government has been repeatedly criticized for trying to take on all the country's drug cartels at once with agencies that did not have the capacity to do so. It is argued that the extreme flexibility of the cartels simply allows them to reconfigure, and they end up striking back with more horizontal and unruly violence.

Here’s a guest post from Jennifer Bernal of CNAS regarding a recent Washington Post article about Mexican cartel operations inside the United States:

By Jennifer Bernal
Best Defense
Drugs, Crime & Terror Beat Reporter

The story caught my eye because beyond outlining the mind-boggling scale of certain Mexican cartel operations in the U.S., it illustrates a key question when fighting them: Does fragmenting groups ultimately make detecting and dismantling them easier or more difficult? In Mexico, Felipe’s Calderon government has been repeatedly criticized for trying to take on all the country’s drug cartels at once with agencies that did not have the capacity to do so. It is argued that the extreme flexibility of the cartels simply allows them to reconfigure, and they end up striking back with more horizontal and unruly violence.

The story of the Flores brothers shows how associations between domestic gangs and international drug trafficking organizations can spring up in ad hoc ways, which contributes to easily-shifting alliances. In the case of the Flores brothers, their father and older brother ran drugs for the Sinaloa cartel. While the article does not explicitly state whether the brothers joined a local Chicago gang like the Latin Kings or the Two-Six, it’s easy to speculate that they would, with their family ties providing the necessary bridge between the two types of groups.

The story also takes us to the question of what happens when you take out a big drug kingpin. Almost always, someone else immediately will step in to take his place. In Mexico and abroad, much ado was made over the Mexican navy’s killing of Arturo Beltran Leyva, "boss of bosses" of his eponymous cartel and the Flores brothers’ ultimate leader. The achievement is definitely deserving of praise, but the government must be mindful to keep its eye on the next step. According to the Mexican Federal Police, Arturo’s role was immediately assumed by his brother Hector, previously the head of the organization’s money laundering division. Want to guess who took Hector’s place, in turn? His brother Carlos, who had previously not even figured among law enforcement’s ‘most wanted’ lists. This type of occurrence is not rare. While Hector has now been arrested as well, one can only wonder how many such rotations go unnoticed. Who knows how many more individuals are becoming empowered who can then operate all the more effectively under the radar of the government?

At the same time, this new story illustrates the other side of the same coin. Sometimes the Carlos’s of the drug world are very skilled, but it could be that they are decreasingly so. Although the story is vague on details, it suggests that the splitting of drug groups and green drug traffickers ultimately allowed law enforcement to infiltrate their operations. Could it be that the war on drugs actually (gasp) raises the information costs of cartels significantly? It has made groups more fragmented and violent, but it can also make them more vulnerable to detection and penetration. Whoever steps up to take the place of a previous leader can be a dangerous individual, but it can also be someone is more likely to mess up. Could it be that the cartels will eventually run out of their supply of able kingpins, as the government had originally hoped?

I heard much the same discussion in Iraq in 2005-2008. That is, we are racking and stacking these guys, so are we diminishing the quality of the foe’s leadership or improving it in a Darwinian process? Ultimately, I think, American commanders concluded that we had had conducted an elaborate pruning campaign in which the stupid and incautious were wiped out, and the leadership improved.

Meanwhile, following Jennifer’s recommendation, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan is merging the part of his office that goes after terrorism with the part that goes after international drug smuggling.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.