Earlier this month, the Mexican navy announced the death of Heriberto Lazcano, the leader of Mexico’s violent Zetas drug cartel, during a firefight with the marines. The slaying was hailed as a significant victory for the government of President Felipe Calderón, which has made the elimination of top cartel leaders a priority in its fight against organized crime. But will a strategy to target drug kingpins pay off in the long-term? Baker Institute fellows weigh the pros and cons of the approach in a five-day installment of the Baker Institute Viewpoints series. Today, Nathan Jones, and Gary J. Hale, the institute’s Alfred C. Glassell III Postdoctoral Fellow in Drug Policy, argues that alone, the strategy cannot “effectively manage organized crime networks in Latin America.”
The kingpin strategy is a 20-year-old targeting methodology developed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1992 to target the command-and-control elements of major drug trafficking organizations. The strategy initially targeted cocaine trafficking organizations operating out of Medellin and Cali, Colombia, with most of the focus placed on the Cali cartel. As the strategy evolved and resulted in important gains, it was adopted as a model by Colombia and Mexico, with some variations. Components of the kingpin strategy model are still in use today, though it has been further refined and currently operates under the larger U.S. Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime as a means by which to disrupt and dismantle any groups that would bring harm to U.S. national security.
The original kingpin strategy was developed after reviewing the drug trafficking business cycle, which included certain successive critical nodes of activity, namely production, transportation, distribution and recapitalization of the enterprise — a process similar to any other commercial enterprise, such as a manufacturer of toys or furniture. In the case of drug trafficking organizations, the DEA reasoned that it was futile to attack the cartel’s business activities per se, and that the common thread among all of the critical nodes was the command-and-control elements that provided the leadership, authority, management and direction for those activities. It was decided that better success could be achieved by focusing on the people committing the crimes, and not the crimes themselves, especially given that many transnational criminal organizations are involved in multiple criminal activities around the world.
In the 1990s, the Medellín and Cali cartels dominated the cocaine business from the “source to the street” but by the end of the decade, both cartels were eliminated by the Colombian government. Several proof of concepts emerged from the binational campaign waged against those cartels. The best practices passed on by the United States to the Colombians, in the form of the kingpin strategy, were essential to the dissolution of the cartels. The Colombian application of the strategy focused on the destruction of the cartels — not for the purpose of stopping drug exports but rather, for the purpose of self-preservation, since the cartels were intent on destroying the government.
The Colombian government chose to employ their own version of the kingpin strategy to destroy the cartels — a strategy that hinged on locating, capturing and incapacitating the kingpins and key lieutenants, while vigorously attacking the vulnerabilities of their organizations, including disrupting their cash flow and sources of supply.
In the case of Mexico, President Felipe Calderón similarly describes his kingpin strategy as government efforts to arrest of key drug cartel leadership figures. The most common criticism Mexico’s kingpin strategy argues against the removal of command-and-control elements to debilitate an organization. Critics assert that arresting or killing cartel chieftains leaves a leadership void, fracturing the cartels and causing violence to increase in the areas of Mexico where the arrests took place. However, Calderón argues that removing kingpins does not increase the violence in states that are already among the most dangerous in Mexico.
The kingpin strategy has been proven effective in Mexico, when considered in the context of the Zetas’ evolution. When originally created, the Mexican Zetas began as the internal enforcement arm of the larger Gulf cartel. After splitting from the Gulf cartel in 2010, its leader, Heriberto Lazcano, greatly expanded the scope of Zeta criminal activities. Targeting the Zetas’ involvement in any one of of its expanded range of crimes — including drug trafficking, kidnapping, murder, extortion, liquor sales, prostitution, pirated DVD and CD sales, petroleum theft, corruption of politicians as well as “traditional organized criminal” activities — would have been much more difficult than targeting key leadership figures like Lazcano under the kingpin strategy.
By targeting criminals, not crimes, kingpin strategies and similar models have merit and have proved to be successful if applied properly against command, communications and control elements of the business cycle of transnational criminal organizations. When coupled with rule-of-law reforms and other law enforcement and intelligence institution building efforts, governments have a better chance of successfully confronting the criminality that affects national and regional security issues.
Kingpin strategies have become one of the most hotly debated tactics in the “war on drugs” and the “global war on terrorism.” Kingpin decapitations, or strikes as they are often called, disrupt illicit networks — but create instability and therefore unintended consequences such as increased homicide and kidnap rates. Additionally, illicit networks adapt to the strategy and restructure themselves accordingly. While kingpin strategies can fragment cartels, the root causes of drug prohibition and weak state capacity must be addressed in tandem to effectively manage organized crime networks in Latin America.
The notion of targeting insurgent or cartel leadership figures — also known as high value targets (HVTs) — has long been considered an efficient way to disrupt illicit networks. In warfare, it was historically considered “ungentlemanly” to target officers. Nonetheless, American revolutionaries targeted British officers to maximize the disruption, confusion and chaos in British units.
Targeting drug kingpins became a staple of Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Defense strategies to combat terrorist and narcotics networks in the 1990s. In Medellin, Colombia, the U.S. and Colombian governments targeted Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin cartel.
Colombian authorities did not target him for his trafficking but rather for the threat he posed to the state by engaging in car bombings, assassinations and the corruption of judges. As detailed in Mark Bowden’s Killing Pablo, getting Escobar was difficult until the intelligence given to the Colombians by the Americans was in turn fed to a paramilitary organization known as Los Pepes, which we now know was supported by the Cali cartel. Los Pepes began targeted assassinations of Escobar’s lawyers and accountants until Escobar was on the run and Colombian law enforcement authorities could kill him.
Networks adapt to these targeting strategies by increasing compartmentation. The Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in Algeria compartmentalized cells to a degree never before seen in the face of French capture and torture, as shown in the film The Battle of Algiers.
Networks that are no longer hierarchically organized (i.e., flat networks) challenge states by limiting the disruption that the arrest or death of one leader can accomplish. For example, Al Qaeda was disrupted by the death of Osama bin Laden, but the network continues, as the apparent Al Qaeda attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya attests. Hierarchies can also be resilient in the face of decapitation strikes because they have immediate succession mechanisms — but those successors, if known, can be simultaneously targeted, allowing the entire command structure to be eliminated in one fell swoop.
Mexico’s drug war
Mexico refers to its conflict in the drug war as a battle against organized crime, rather than a struggle against drugs. Like drugs, organized crime is a problem that can only be managed — though a war against specific organized crime groups is ostensibly winnable as opposed to wars on societal problems like terrorism, drugs and poverty.
The kingpin strategy is a key component of Mexico’s war on organized crime. Indeed, Mexico’s government has published a most wanted list with 37 cartel capos, 23 of whom have been killed or arrested by government forces. Additionally, rivals killed two, leaving only 12 of the original 37 remaining. The most recent kingpin killed was the head of Los Zetas, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, killed in Progreso Coahuila approximately two weeks ago.
Unfortunately, where the Mexican government has decapitated these cartels, violence has increased. The argument has been that various factions of the networks fight among each other for dominance, resulting in higher homicide rates. In an upcoming publication in the journal Trends in Organized Crime, I argue that in addition to increased homicide rates, one of the unintended consequences of kingpin decapitations is an increase in kidnap rates. This is the result of cells in networks that are cut off from drug-related profits; they then increase freelance activities by expanding into kidnapping and extortion. The El Teo faction of the Tijuana cartel in 2008 was a good example of this.
The administration of President Felipe Calderón argue that these short-term spikes in violence are to be expected after decapitations, but will eventually result in a more peaceful equilibrium. This argument has lost resonance among the Mexican population, which punished his ruling party July’s presidential election. The assertion may be true over a long enough timeline and, indeed, appeared to be the case in Colombia where, following the decapitation of major cartels, the disbandment of paramilitaries and the weakening of left-wing insurgents resulted in security gains. It should be noted that 300-400 cartelitos now handle drug trafficking out of the country in an efficient yet lower level of violence (Colombia has had traditionally high homicide rates, so the significant relative improvement might not be obvious to an outside observer).
Addressing root causes
There are two root causes of drug violence in Mexico: (1) the global drug prohibition regime, and (2) weak state capacity. The global drug prohibition regime has allowed high profits for drug trafficking networks that allow them to corrupt and influence the state. On the other hand, the Mexican state has traditionally had little capacity to address the basic social needs of the society and has lacked the security apparatus to address potential threats like cartels. During eras in which the government colluded with traffickers, this weakness, while present, was not apparent.
As the Mexican government transitioned to an equilibrium of many trafficking networks and many weak law enforcement agencies, it has had scant ability to control traffickers. The quality and size of those agencies must be dramatically improved in addition to improved social services and the expanded delivery of those services. Kingpin strategies have helped to improve state security capacity by forcing the Mexican government to invest in intelligence capacity.
Kingpin strategies will weaken illicit networks, but will also fragment them into smaller diversified criminal groups that necessitate improved state and local governance as they become hyper-violent local problems. The Mexican government is slowly but surely beginning to build improved state capacity. The final piece of the puzzle that will assist the Mexican government in achieving a more rapid and peaceful equilibrium as it weakens cartels and improves its own capacity is to address the fundamental political-economic source of profitable drug networks, the global drug prohibition regime.