Michael Busch

At Insight Crime, Patrick Corcoran has a piece up arguing that Mexico needs to rethink how it pursues leaders of the country's drug trade. At root, Corcoran suggests that the Mexican government would do well to follow the American model of targeting major crime bosses. He writes:

In the US, organized crime bosses typically operate with much lower profiles, and long manhunts for fugitive drug traffickers are exceedingly rare. (And unlike their Mexican counterparts, US crime bosses who do manage†to evade long-term manhunts typically abandon their criminal operations.) Typically, in the US, what determines whether a crime boss is arrested is not whether authorities can find him--as in Mexico--but rather if authorities can put together enough evidence to indict and eventually convict him.

Although this may seem like a minor and meaningless distinction, these two models each create a radically different incentive structure for crime lords. A criminal boss in the USóor other nations where fugitive drug lords are uncommonóis encouraged to live as a member of his community, to maintain a low profile, and to avoid provocations, which would give the government more ammunition in building a case against him. This is not the case in Mexico: crime bosses simply don't face the same incentives to keep their heads down and minimize violence. After all, their primary motivation is to avoid getting caught, not to avoid committing atrocities that would result in a strong body of evidence against them in a Mexican courtroom.

How might Mexico go about adopting a new posture of crime control that minimizes violence? For Corcoran, policymakers are key.

They can use informal back channels to communicate a change in philosophy, in which reputed criminals will not be arrested until there is ample evidence of their guilt. They can demand more rigor--and if need be, restraint--from their prosecutors and security officials, who have seen a number of prominent cases fall apart after arrests. When publicly discussing their criminal targets--such as the officialsí comments about the hunt for Fausto Isidro Meza Flores--they can include the references to the legal basis for targetís status.

But time is of the essence:

The demise of the capos who sparked a virtually unprecedented wave of violence during the Felipe Calderon presidency presents Mexico with a golden opportunity. A new class of criminal leaders is rising to replace Guzman, Gomez, and the dozens of other capos who have been captured or killed in the past decade. If Mexico can move away from this so-called "fugitive drug lord" model--and if Mexico can give drug traffickers a genuine self-interest in avoiding violence--then the nationís underworld can hopefully move toward a much more peaceful mode of interaction.

This all sounds good, but it's hard to take seriously.

Fundamentally, the violence of Mexico's drug gangs has less to do with the law enforcement approaches to battling them than with the market demands conditioning their behavior. It is certainly the case that Mexican cartels have responded to the use of force with force of their own. But to suggest that eliminating manhunts would substantially reduce the overall levels of violence doesnít add up. 

Like state actors, cartels employ violence to seize territory and secure market control from competitors. This is especially the case when various groups, including the formal government, are vying for power over particularly lucrative markets, and looking to expand their reach--as is the case currently in Mexico. When one outfit emerges the winner, levels of violence frequently drop dramatically, as happened in Ciudad Juarez, once the "murder capital of the world." 

Even if it were simply a matter of rolling back the "manhunt" policy of Mexico's "kingpin strategy," Mexico's capacity to methodically pursue crime bosses through other legal channels is seriously in doubt. The overwhelming question Corcoran does not address is the endemic corruption characterizing Mexico's judiciary. Authorities might communicate to criminal outfits that prosecutions wonít take place until ample evidence has been collected, as Corcoran suggests. How the country guards against criminal syndicates paying off investigators to ensure evidence never comes to light is the stickier wicket to get around. 

Of course, cartel violence will continue whether or not the government persists in targeting certain syndicate leaders. A move towards focusing on building cases against cartel chiefs would likely do little in a judicial system crippled by corruption and graft. 

If we remove the problem of corruption from the equation for the sake of argument, there is still the problem of Mexico's judicial design. As Ana Laura Magaloni once memorably observed, "democratic Mexico has a criminal justice system that is only equipped to work for authoritarian Mexico." Unlike the United States, for example, Mexican courts place the burden of proof on the defense. No criminal has an interest in courts where the bar of prosecutorial conduct is low--least of all those running illicit outfits and operations. Until serious reforms are put in place, hope for new approaches to dealing with organized crime is fleeting. 

This is hardly news to Mexico's governing class. Last fall, in a desperate attempt to shore up dwindling public support, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto urged local governments to fast track judicial reforms that had been approved by the congress six years earlier.  The reforms were designed "to end behind-closed-doors trials and implement public proceedings where prosecutors and defenders present evidence." Unsurprisingly, little had been done to ensure any of this would come to pass, nor will it. All of which underscores the deep sense held by many that the government, at every level, has little interest in actively protecting the public welfare.

Demonstrated connections between state officials and organized crime, both of which have ties to the country's wealthy elite, have further heightened public suspicion of government action. Some see the militarized war on drugs as a tactic employed by the state to help certain cartels consolidate power over illicit markets. Others believe it to be a smokescreen designed to justify coercive clearing of territory for foreign and domestic investment and exploitation. There is likely some truth in both these explanations.

Whatever the case, any change in the government's response to organized crime won't stand a chance of success unless the root structural causes driving the trade in drugs--and the violence it engenders--are properly confronted. Given that this is highly unlikely, adopting new policy postures to combat the caertels will be ineffective, and seen by many as likely benefitting elite interests, legal or illicit.

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.

Image via Associated Press.