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From El Chapo to The Snail, Is It Time to Stop Celebrating the Arrests of Drug Kingpins?

Experts have long decried the kingpin strategy, but governments find it difficult to resist.

The drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera, El Chapo, looks at the press, guarded by members of Mexican Navy is moved to a helicopter. El chapo, was arrested Saturday at 6:40 hours at a hotel in Mazatlan, Sinaloa in Mexico city, Mexico, on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg
The drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera, El Chapo, looks at the press, guarded by members of Mexican Navy is moved to a helicopter. El chapo, was arrested Saturday at 6:40 hours at a hotel in Mazatlan, Sinaloa in Mexico city, Mexico, on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has had a very good week that could lead to a few very bad years. Last Thursday, Eduard Fernando “Boliqueso” Giraldo, a notorious gang leader from Cali, was arrested in Brazil. On Monday, Colombian police apprehended Peruvian gang leader Gerson Adair “El Caracol” Gálvez Calle. Then on Tuesday, Boliqueso’s successor, Weimar “Manila” Ramírez was captured in Cali.

Gálvez, whose name translates to “The Snail,” was a particularly big catch, having been dubbed “Latin America’s new ‘El Chapo’” by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. El Chapo, whose real name is Joaquín Guzmán, headed Mexico’s infamous Sinaloa cartel before his Jan. 8 arrest. But while they make for great optics, the celebration of high-profile arrests like these are often shortsighted.

Experts have long argued that the so-called kingpin strategy of arresting big crime bosses as a way to hamstring a criminal network, and reduce violence and crime, hasn’t worked. What’s more, the immediate aftermath of the arrest may bring even more crime.

“What happens is you’ve got a mad scramble for some of these very lucrative businesses. The result of that can often be more violence,” said Steven Dudley, co-founder of InSight Crime, a research organization devoted to monitoring and analyzing organized crime in the Americas.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Dudley explained that cartels use local and international criminal activity as a way to fund what is essentially an army. The top leaders, who work at a transnational level, are often essential to managing a transnational crime network. When the leader of an organization is arrested, if there is no clear line of succession within the organization, criminal organizations must fill in that gap with local crime.

And the options available to cartels on a local level are plentiful: theft and resale of goods, prostitution, contraband liquor, contraband petroleum products, human trafficking, local drug peddling, kidnapping, extortion, assassination for hire, arms trafficking, trafficking in precious metals, organ trafficking, illegal adoption — “do you want me to go on?” Dudley asked.

Governments can try to prevent this kind of blow-back by arresting mid-level members of the criminal organization at the same time they arrest the kingpin. However, this is “very, very difficult to do,” Dudley said, and often Latin American governments lack the financial resources to even try.

This leaves governments in a bind when it comes to arresting kingpins. Whether it ultimately is a winning strategy or not, targeting cartel leaders is necessary “to subvert these organizations,” said Dudley, who called kingpins an existential threat to the state. “The way to do that is to go after high-value targets.”

Yet even jail time can be an excellent opportunity for crime bosses. “Prisons are a place where groups can reorganize. They can run their operations from prisons, they can recruit, they can restructure. It’s an area of respite. Oftentimes they’re safer in prison,” Dudley said.

Sometimes, arresting a boss has little to no effect on the greater organization, said Omar García-Ponce, a postdoctoral fellow at The Center for Global Development, a think tank devoted to reducing global poverty and inequality. Following Guzmán’s arrest, for example, the Sinaloa cartel he ran already had another leader lined up: Mayo Zambada, who controls the business side of the operation.

“Nothing changed,” García-Ponce said. “The Sinaloa Cartel remains strong. They did not even feel the absence of a leader.” The cartel is estimated to control 25 percent of the drugs that enter the United States through Mexico and to have an annual revenue of $3 billion. Guzmán himself is thought to be a billionaire.

García-Ponce said arresting cartel leaders often leads to an uptick in violence because rival cartels see the organization as weak and move to claim its power.

“It seems to be total nonsense to follow that strategy,” he said of primarily going after kingpins.

García-Ponce advocates a multipronged law-enforcement strategy that targets criminal networks’ two main sources of power: arms and money. “These organizations rely on two main things,” he said. “One is intimidation power, which is the access they have to very powerful weapons, and the other is financial power.”

Cutting these sources of power would mean strengthening gun laws in the United States, where criminals in Mexico often procure their arms. It would also rely on better understanding criminal organizations’ financial flows. “There is no clear policy on money laundering. There is not even good data on money laundering,” García-Ponce said.

But a real end to violence, García-Ponce said, can come only with decriminalization of drugs and a health-based approach to drug addiction. Many Latin American leaders would agree. In April, a trifecta of former presidents from Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil called for a global move toward decriminalization at the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. And Santos called the refusal to reconsider failed prohibitionist policies “insane.” Santos and Peña Nieto have moved toward a harm-reduction approach, by legalizing or attempting to legalize medicinal marijuana.

However, international funding, especially from the U.S., has long been weighted toward a kingpin targeting strategy. García-Ponce said Latin American governments face not only financial pressure, but also extreme diplomatic pressure from Washington to follow the kingpin strategy — even if leaders know it doesn’t work.

When he took office in 2012, for example, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration decried the kingpin strategy of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said the strategy had served only to fragment criminal groups, making them “more violent and much more dangerous.”

Even so, Nieto’s administration told the Los Angeles Times that the strategy would continue. And it has. Meanwhile, violence in Mexico has increased.

Yet what president can resist declaring “mission accomplished,” as Nieto did after Guzmán’s third arrest? And what Twitter user can resist poking a little bit of fun at a violent criminal whose nickname, “Boliqueso,” translates to “cheeseball”?

So given the resources dedicated to capturing a kingpin won’t necessarily translate into a major impact on drug crimes or a decrease in violence, should the strategy continue?  

“The question is whether that capture makes a difference, whether it makes the organization more vulnerable, and whether it translates into reducing violence, reducing drugs,” García-Ponce said. “And I think the answer to all of those is no.”

Photo credit: SUSANA GONZALEZ/Bloomberg

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. @megan_alpert

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