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US report urges Mexico to single out ‘most violent’ cartel

May 8, 2012

Whoever wins Mexico’s presidential election on July 1, there will be one major issue that dominates their immediate agenda, perhaps even defining their entire term in office: how to confront organized crime.

A Washington think tank has tackled that very topic in an academic report published last month. Implementing legal reforms, focusing more on the trafficking of cocaine than marijuana, and singling out and pursuing the most violent of Mexico’s drug cartels are the main proposals in “Considering New Strategies for Confronting Organized Crime in Mexico” by the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Named after the 28th president of the United States, this non-profit, nonpartisan organization is supported by a mixture of private and public funding. It was established by Congress in 1968 as an international academic institute to link scholarship and policy via research, study and debate. Prominent members include U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Wilson Center report details how criminal penetration of the state has grown since the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) came to an end in 2000. “Criminal organizations were once limited by state authorizes and allowed to operate in a mutually beneficial manner,” it notes, but as Mexico became more democratic in the 1990s, increased political competition undermined the PRI’s grip on the state and its authority over the cartels.

While the government was weakened, the drug gangs grew stronger, “resulting in the submission of many local political elites to the interests and power of criminals.” Today, “the tables have been reversed and criminals now control important segments of state institutions.”

There has been some suggestion in Mexico – fuelled by alleged narco interference in last year’s state elections in Michoacan – that drug cartels will seek to influence the presidential race. Yet the Wilson Center argues this is more likely to take place in the local contests.

“The elevated number of local authorities killed by drug-traffickers suggests that their criminal interests are mostly local,” reads the report. “Criminals do not have an overeaching political or governing agenda but do participate in the financing and manipulation of local electoral processes. Usually they follow the Colombian model by investing in all political candidates or parties unless there is a specific reason to support one candidate or party in a particular region.”

The Wilson Center also addresses another common assumption: that Mexico’s biggest criminal organizations have expanded their activities beyond international drug trafficking “into local markets including extortion, kidnapping, and the retail drug market … in order to expand their profitability or as a reflection of declining profits in the drug business.”

“Given the profitability of supplying the U.S. market, it is unlikely international drug traffickers engage directly in secondary criminal activities that are much less profitable,” affirms the report. Extortion and domestic drug sales bring in much smaller profits in comparison, while “by one estimate, it would take roughly 50,000 kidnappings to equal 10% of cocaine revenues from the U.S. (There were approximately 1,300 kidnappings reported in 2010).”

The Wilson Center suggests that Mexico’s biggest drug trafficking organizations only benefit indirectly from these local criminal markets, by collecting “taxes” from secondary groups that operate independently. The report also notes that “competition for control of the domestic drug market tends to be much more violent than international drug trafficking … For example, trafficking a kilo of cocaine is not inherently violent, while kidnapping and extortion are by their very nature violent.”

With such violence having risen considerably in recent years, the Wilson Center offers several proposals for tackling organized crime more effectively.

According to Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence analyst, the total export revenue for Mexican drug trafficking organizations in 2011 was between 4.7 and 8.1 billion dollars, with 6.2 billion dollars the best estimate. Most revenue was generated by the sale of four drugs: cocaine (2.8 billion dollars), marijuana (1.9 billion), heroin (0.9 billion) and methamphetamine (0.6 billion).

“Revenues from cocaine trafficking are significantly more than marijuana, therefore, perhaps the current policy focus on marijuana should be replaced with one that more heavily targets cocaine,” suggests the Wilson Center report.

But, more significantly, the report advocates a law enforcement strategy focused “on stopping the most violent criminals and not those selling the most drugs.” With the support of Washington, the Mexican government should target the organization designated as the “most violent” under a transparent criteria.

This would create incentives for gangs to reduce violence so as to avoid this designation. Once the designation has been made, the organization in question would be weakened by a concentrated law enforcement effort, and might suffer commercial isolation as related criminal gangs seek more stable allies.

However, the Wilson Center also acknowledges that such a strategy involves the risk of violent “false flag” operations as rival gangs seek to incriminate one another, as well the possibility of manipulation of official statistics by corrupt members of government or law enforcement in favor of certain groups.

Furthermore, the public and political perceptions of such a strategy may be negative, as it would leave the impression that the government is favoring certain cartels by attacking their rivals. This is a charge that has already been leveled at President Felipe Calderon, who some accuse of protecting the Sinaloa Cartel and targeting Los Zetas.

The Wilson Center report also suggests that “efforts to bring the Italian Mafia under control can provide useful lessons for confronting Mexico’s current security challenges.” In the United States, “the increased power of federal government and growth in federal law enforcement, including the entry of the FBI into organized crime control, were major factors. Additionally, the adoption of specialized legal tools such as regulated wiretaps and racketeering laws; and newly formed organized crime strike forces were also important factors in weakening the Mafia.”

In Mexico, “the lack of public credibility among all aspects of the criminal justice system – police, prosecutors, judges, and prisons – undermines essential law enforcement capacity.” Therefore, the government must implement institutional reforms and “create incentives and mechanisms allowing agencies to monitor and investigate each other for corruption and unethical behavior.”

While the Wilson Center may not have all answers, its report does provide food for thought. Mexico’s presidential contenders should pull out their reading glasses.

To read the full report visit

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Victoria Ryan permalink
    May 12, 2012 15:40

    another home run article Duncan!

  2. May 12, 2012 22:27

    Thanks Victoria!

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