Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Kingpin Strategy

Borderland Beat

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.


  1. How about looking at the consumers? Why do so many people in the US want to get wacked out? No, that would be too simple.

    1. @10:29 Drug prohibition is a new and failed concept when considered in a historical context. People have always used mind altering drugs for various reasons and always will. The problem is with who is tasked with supplying them. -el blanco guy

  2. Once the kingpins are gone the crooked police and govt officals dont know who to protect. You can never let any drug dealer get that powerful again. There will be a more violence but let them kill each other off. There is no other way of fighting this.

  3. stop believing that Lazca is dead

  4. @1:02 PM jajajajaja Now there's a comment for you. Stop believing lazca is dead. jajajajajajaja

    ok, lazca lives, now what, shit for brains. Stop believing in the Easter bunny?

    I just love the deep thinkers.

  5. Lazca is DEFINETELY DEAD so chill with the z propaganda nobody cares. The captures and deaths of cartel leaders the past few years will not stop new leaders from taking over and cartels from growing more powerful and richer. That's a pipe dream. I guess it gives writers something to do for a living but no way will it end organized crime and drug trafficking.

  6. Great post. The assessment makes sense. I just did a summary addressing what Calderon see with respect to the problem in Mexico. From his perspective, he sees the situation improving. He respects the fact that the drug war approach cannot win, but a focus on broad-based building of effective governance. Calderon cites some statistics to support his argument, but I'm not sure I agree with all he says from the context he appears to take. That post is here... . Cheers, and keep up the great work.

  7. la maldita ya esta lista arrancale al venado el venudo le va poner el topo.

  8. It is very hard for me to believe that in this day and age that a "drug war" cannot be won.

    With all the technology and information obtained through informants, wire taping, interrogations etc....That a government is able to secure.

    Is it because too many high level government people are involved? Why not target them as well?

    I believe it's a war that to SOME EXTENT does not want to be won. Too much $$$ in it for high powered individuals??

    Someone explain, please.

  9. The level of wanted Capo's will rise again.....

  10. And what of the Adolescent Zebra...where does he fit in all this? is it really dead or is it just playing dead underneath Lazca?

  11. The Mexican government should just try to come to a understanding with this cartels.and go back to the 90s wher just drug trafficking was the problems . Now it's every move this cartels
    Make let's make it a
    Money business mater after al that's why they all here for right???

  12. So when is chapo,mayo or azul gonna get caught or killed! If ur gonna clean house dnt favor anybody!!

  13. "Anonymous said...
    How about looking at the consumers? Why do so many people in the US want to get wacked out? No, that would be too simple."

    OMG!! these mexicans!! stop blaming the addicts, Canada sends a lot of drugs too and better quality than the shit you guys flush through the toilet(the cartels send the shitty drugs). And why the canadians don't have all these BS cartel violence? o yea because their poleticians have a minimum of decency and care about their PEOPLE. unlike mexican governors with their motto "mucho dinero porfavor".

    1. U mean Canada smuggles cocaine,crystal,heroine,meth to the u.s of a? I Miss the regular weed.

  14. This article is too looooong.
    Stopped reading at midway.

    American Teen

  15. Oh please!

    The "kingpin strategy" is the least of mexicos problem. The reason its having so many problems is that its full of broken homes, no emphasis on education, systemic corruption, and the judicial system is broken. Taking out a kingpin is probably the best thing mexico has going for it.

  16. article too long time. cartels will cartels grow bigger in multiple groups.

    Ami Chin-Liu

  17. Crazy how they predict that it will splinter into many small Cartels. It's happening already with one cartel. Once the get more big fish it will happen with the Mexican cartels. I wonder if that does come to play will it be much safer to visit Mexico??? Anyone have an opinion on this? What's your take? More corruption?

    1. Yes its thees violence in mexico guns bullets and druga thats all you hear from the media. Im from mexico and my city right now its hot. But ey you think thats stop us from partying and going to bars. Lol funny dont believe what you hear or see. I have cousins partying every weekend. Jus mind your own business and u live longer.

  18. How much more will be exposed once these big leaders are taken down?

    Look at the South Texas incident. I've bee saying it for a long time, there is corruption in the USA side but no one wants to admit.

    I predict that in a couple of years we will be hearing of how cartels penetrated the American justice system.

    Chivato Kojudo

  19. will the kingpin strategy work? the answer is simple ... watch what happens with the Zetas now. will they get Z-40, and will that cause the Zetas to crumble and disappear? That is your acid test right there. Will Trevino even survive until Christmas, or will he be around for another 5 years? we will see.

  20. 4:34 AM
    "OMG!! these mexicans!! stop blaming the addicts, Canada sends a lot of drugs too and better quality than the shit you guys flush through the toilet"

    How dare you say that,that is blatant anti-Mexican rhetoric?"err,no its not,im just telling the truth"
    You comment with basic common sense,but in some scenarios common sense goes out the window,and is replaced with sinister,negative nationalism and race issues that have nothing to do with the subject?But try telling that to some people.I will not be surprised to see inflammatory replies to the comment.Never mind common sense issues

  21. "Is it because too many high level government people are involved? Why not target them as well"?
    Are you being sarcastic or unbelievably naive?
    You do not need some higher sense of thinking to figure out what is facilitating all this madness?
    It is a culture of corruption,it is the way it has been done for ever in Mexico.Corruption is in every government in every country on this planet.It just happens to be somewhat more extreme in Mexico,so extreme that it is to the detriment of the whole country and its people.But,if you are not Mexican and you point things like this out,you are generally attacked as some kind of anti-Mexican race hater?Hence,this is also part of the problem,the ultra-nationalism verging on the extreme to the point that nothing can be talked out or discussed without it being sidetracked with animosity.It is a cultural thing that only Mexicans can deal with,if they so choose,until then the blame game exists and that just creates negativity and a wall that you cant get past?

  22. As we can morbidly see, if we're gonna have crime: organized crime is much better than disorganized crime. Que no?

    Ah... Dare I say it? How many a BB blogger fondly remembers the good old days of the PRI; where everyone was on the take; but only a select few met their fate at the end of a gun. The gringo got his drugs and we were all a big happy drug trafficking family.

    In my opinion, the Kingpin strategy is a more effective strategy against instability causing "interloper organizations" (like the z) because the guys in the middle or at the bottom of those gourps aren't as "organization oriented;" they aren't as committed to the organization's survival and the preservation of their "value adding activities (i.e.: traditional trafficking);" seems their goal is only everybody for themselves and everyone get whatever they can get. La pinche maña.

    In fact, it is in the DNA of these "Johnny come lately" DTO's not to develop leadership opportunities that would help it through key leadership losses. "Non-traditional" DTO's seem to have more than their share of "young, dumb and full of c*m... very low value teen and twenty-something rank and file soldiers that are made up of NI-NIs and common caga-palos; deadly quick tempers and backstabbers. These weaknesses are unlikely to be the makings of organic leadership structures that will sustain them through the rough patches. If the organization has weak leadership, any losses at the top are devastating down the line (vis-a-vis organizational cohesion).

    On the other hand, DTO's ala CDS or CDG have a more (although not completely) traditional leadership due to familial, geographic and political relationships: within limits, new members grow up respecting the long established leader's power and everyone's place in the order succession. Challenges for leadership are quickly decided; and life goes on business as usual with minimal interruption to bread and butter activities.

    In an attempt at an opinion on another poster's question:

    As long as this problem continues to be considered a "war" (where you either have it "won" or are "loosing" the war; this subject is going to be a source of endless frustration and anxiety for those with a Dick Tracy (good guy versus the bad guy) mentality. If you consider the "war on drugs" a zero-sum game (an unrealistic standard where narcotics are either completely eradicated or it a "loss"), this subject will continue to be politicized; then the bullshit cycle begins again.

    Answer me this: How do you win the war against obesity? Halitosis? Flagellence? You can really only "control" these physical ailments. The drug war's "secreto a voces" is that you can only "control" the problem; this will never be a war to be won. A consistent program of maintenance is what the goal should be.

    ...well whatever, never-mind...

  23. Wow, there is allot of ignorant comments on this thread!

  24. Wow I'm speechless....good article but lacks common sense audience.

  25. "Wow I'm speechless....good article but lacks common sense audience"
    "Wow I'm speechless"
    Thank fuck for that,small mercy's.

  26. 7:39 PM
    "I have cousins partying every weekend. Jus mind your own business and u live longer"
    Ey man,meet me at LAX,you buy me an aircraft ticket from Europe and ill fly over,awright man?
    C,mon man don't be like that,buy me a ticket?
    See ye at LAX


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