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 ...
Here's a guest post from Jennifer Bernal of CNAS regarding a recent Washington Post article about Mexican cartel operations inside the United States:
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 is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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