A new report from a prominent analyst of regional security issues provides a detailed analysis of the limitations of a deterrence-based strategy in Mexico, something the Peña Nieto administration seems to be testing in its first year in office.
The report, titled “Focused deterrence, selective targeting, drug trafficking and organised crime: Concepts and practicalities,” was published by the International Drug Policy Consortium earlier this year. Its author is Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institute Fellow and a veteran of Mexican security issues who has appeared before Congress and did extensive field work during the Calderon administration.
A deterrent or dissuasive approach to organized crime holds that the government should not treat all criminal groups and activities the same, but rather prioritize the most dangerous gang or the crimes that most affect the society. Elements of this approach appeared to be absent during the early years of the Felipe Calderon administration (2006 - 2012), in which the government placed a lot of emphasis on a frontal assault and utilized rhetoric promising not to “take one step backward” in combating criminal groups.
Calderon's strategy included a sharp uptick in arrests related to drug consumption, which has caused Mexico's jails to balloon and pushed many to liken his approach to that of the United States. But unlike the US, which began to see a steady decline in violent crime beginning in the early 1990s, Calderon’s term also coincided with a sharp increase in the rates of murder, extortion, and kidnapping, among other crimes.
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In response, many analysts called for a new approach, in which the most harmful groups would be made a priority. The specifics of the deterrent proposals varied, from the general calls to go after the Zetas (or any group perceived to be the "most violent") to specific and elaborate programs, such as Mark Kleiman’s proposal for a scoring system used to determine the most harmful gang in Mexico, which would then be targeted for destruction by US and Mexican authorities.
Elements of the deterrent approach have steadily made their way into the Mexican government’s strategy, first under Calderon (who prioritized the Zetas and the Familia Michoacana in the latter years of his presidency) and now under Enrique Peña Nieto (who has declared violent actors in general his foremost target). Unfortunately, as Felbab-Brown demonstrates, this has not translated into substantial security gains in Mexico.
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Deterrence has a long history of success in different locales in the US, most famously in Boston. The logic of deterrence, in which naked self-interest leads gangs to adopt less violent operations, is sound. Why, then, has it apparently not worked in Mexico?
Felbab-Brown offers a number of possible explanations, many of which are interrelated. One major impediment to a Boston-style dissuasive program is corruption: if the state agents charged with attacking crime are instead encouraging it, the logic of deterrence falls apart entirely. Corruption, of course, remains a serious problem in Mexico, both at the level of grunt troops and soldiers charged with carrying out the strategy and the higher-ups charged with designing it. If corruption is more of a rampant scourge than a minor nuisance, any security policy, no matter how well designed, is going to struggle.
The Mexican landscape also differs from US cities in that there are a large number of exceedingly violent and powerful actors, making it much harder to distinguish the groups who should be targeted first, thereby setting an example for the rest. As noted, Calderon focused primarily on the Zetas and Familia Michoacana, both of whose conduct warranted special attention. Nonetheless, this policy tacitly favored the Sinaloa Cartel, the group behind a disproportionate share of the violence during the Calderon era, including in Juarez, which became the world’s most violent city. It’s not clear that Calderon was unjustified in targeting the Zetas, but any deterrence policy that rewards the Sinaloa Cartel naturally incentivizes very dangerous conduct.
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Felbab-Brown also notes that concentrating government resources effectively in Mexico is a challenge. In other words, the executors of the strategy are not capable of fulfilling their role. Extinguishing a group like the Sinaloa Cartel or the Zetas, which combine international scope and local entrenchment, is a monumental undertaking. Furthermore, Mexico’s forces are, to a certain degree, makeshift: constant institutional changes, from judicial reforms and police reorganizations to the recent shift toward relying heavily on the armed forces, mean that the state agents who should be arresting and deterring the criminals are learning on the fly.
Another possibility, which doubles as the most encouraging and the most difficult to prove, is time. In Boston, a relatively contained criminal environment whose total metro population is just 4.5 million, communicating the new set of incentives among the different criminal groups is a relatively rapid process. Likewise, coordinating activities among the relevant agencies operating in Boston, so as to establish the deterrent, is a relatively simple exercise.
In Mexico, there are several relevant federal agencies, from the Procuraduria General de la Republica or PGR (equivalent to the Justice Department) and the Interior Ministry, to the different branches of the armed forces; 32 different state governments, each of them with several of their own respective departments playing a role; and 2,438 municipal governments. Even discounting rampant corruption, coordinating activities among such a vast number of actors is a lengthy process.
Similarly, with so many criminal groups operating in Mexico and such a dramatically altered landscape from one year to the next, establishing enduring modes of interaction among the many gangs is inevitably more complicated than in a city. Some groups may absorb the government’s message that keeping violence down is rewarded, but their competitors may see this as an opportunity to push a "softer" group around. In other words, even more so than with the agencies, it inevitably takes a long time to get so many disparate groups operating according to the same incentives.
It may be, then, that with a bit of patience, the sought-after drops in the crime rates will soon become evident. If time is the greatest obstacle to the deterrent approach, this is fortunate: in such a scenario, the positive results will inevitably manifest themselves, and the current president, nine months into a six-year term, can afford a bit of patience.