Recent boasting by government officials in Mexico about the country’s success in capturing criminal bosses has reopened a longstanding debate about the strategic goals of Mexico’s organized crime policies.
The administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto recently disclosed that during his five and a half years in office, 107 of 122 high-ranking members of organized crime groups have been either arrested or killed.
These include Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán; El Chapo’s right-hand man Dámaso López Núñez, alias “El Licenciado”; Servando “La Tuta” Gómez, the founder of the Knights Templar; Juárez Cartel leader Vicente Carrillo; and Héctor Beltrán Leyva, the leader of the eponymous Sinaloa offshoot organization.
The capos now dead or behind bars represent a wide swath of the elite criminal landscape, though arguably Mexico’s government is disproportionately failing to target the Sinaloa Cartel’s foremost figures, a major criticism of the policy under prior administration, headed by Felipe Calderón. The group of Sinaloa bosses still at large reportedly includes Sinaloa bosses Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan José “El Azul” Esparragoza, the latter of whose death was the subject of unconfirmed rumors in 2014, and Chapo Guzmán’s sons, Iván Archivaldo and Alfredo.
Another major figure still outside of government control is Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) boss Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes. While he enjoys a lower profile than many other criminal suspects, his group has emerged as one of Mexico’s most formidable over the past couple of years, fighting for territory across western Mexico.
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The Peña Nieto administration painted the results in detaining major criminals as a sign of its firmness and success in combatting organized crime, but the reality is far more complicated.
Taken at face value, the figures are indeed impressive. Few prominent gangsters have managed to escape the government’s grasp, and Mexico has created an environment in which becoming a notorious capo almost always leads to becoming a detained or deceased capo. This reflects the state’s fundamental superiority over its outlaws, something that has appeared uncertain at times in Mexico’s recent history. In the long term, this would seem a prerequisite for Mexico definitively overcoming its public security challenge.
But though a necessary condition, it is not sufficient to put Mexico on a path to domestic tranquility; the ability to track down criminals does nothing to address corruption nor the absence of economic opportunities in marginalized communities, to say nothing of the drug prohibition that has kept prices high and therefore created stratospheric profit margins. Without addressing these and other issues, it is unlikely the broader strategy will have much success.
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Worse still, there is ample evidence suggesting that the government’s success in decapitating gangs feeds a cycle of violence. The logic behind this conclusion is clear: A capo’s arrest or killing weakens incumbent gangs, which in turn encourages rivals to push them out of their territory. Worse still, this weakening sometimes leads to civil wars within the crime groups, as the erstwhile lieutenants fight to take control of a leaderless organization.
In most cases, the statistics also support the theory that taking down kingpins leads to a short-term spike in murders. Since former President Felipe Calderón made the so-called kingpin strategy a centerpiece of his crime policy, Mexico has undergone a sustained increase in violence. In 2007, Calderón’s first year in office, the country registered fewer than 11,000 murders; for the past five years, the figure has typically topped 20,000 and has never dropped below 15,000. This increase has been fueled in large measure by a newly-destabilized organized crime landscape.
The kingpin strategy’s unfortunate side effects are evident on a smaller scale as well. The removal of one or multiple capos has sparked upticks of violence around the country, including in Sinaloa, in Michoacán, and in Guerrero. The decline of the previous hegemonic gang, a phenomenon inextricably linked to the kingpin strategy, helped fuel years-long wars in Tijuana and Juárez. While there are some counterexamples, generally speaking, kingpin arrests lead to bloodshed, and have done so for years.
The recent disclosures from the government also show the hollowness of Peña Nieto’s supposed strategic shift away from Calderón’s crime priorities. According to his campaign promises and his initial declarations as president, Peña Nieto sought to turn the page on the prior aggressive approach, focusing less on capos and more on violence prevention. His team promised to tackle the crimes that most impact Mexican society, such as extortion and kidnapping.
But in reality, all Peña Nieto was offering was a Calderón-esque approach with a different sales pitch. And while he succeeded in getting Mexican citizens and the international media to lessen the constant focus on insecurity for a time, this was a superficial accomplishment that was ultimately undermined by the government’s myriad missteps and its lack of strategic direction.
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