Michael Busch

The internet came alive this past week with reaction to word out of Mexico that Miguel Angel “Z-40” Treviño Morales—leader of the sensationally violent Zetas cartel—had been arrested. The capture is big news. Aside from Chapo Guzman, the world’s wealthiest drug trafficker, Z-40 was the most wanted man in Mexico. Even the United States got in on the action, offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest. And still, the takedown of one of the most sadistic criminal bosses in Mexico was surprisingly peaceful. Not a shot was fired when Treviño was apprehended, a surprise considering the increasingly violent confrontations between traffickers and security forces in recent weeks. 

The commentary surrounding Treviño’s capture has been predictable, principally falling into two categories. One argues that the recent arrests of Treviño and other crime bosses signals the progress and efficacy of Mexico's “kingpin” crime-fighting strategy, and vindicates the approach taken to the drug war by President Enrique Peña Nieto. The second suggests that, sensational arrests aside, the strategy will prove ineffective and possibly counterproductive over the long haul (a position with which I personally sympathize). As the Institute for Policy Studies’ Sanho Tree recent told Rolling Stone, “On the trafficking side of things, it's going to have little to zero effect, and in fact it may ultimately exacerbate it in terms of lowering the barriers to entry for rivals.” In other words, violence is going to continue; drug flows will remain robust. 

Then there's a third silo of analysis that seeks to engage a more academically inclined policy audience. A good example of this appeared in yesterday’s World Politics Review, where editors interviewed “global insider” Brian Phillips about what Treviño’s arrest could mean for Mexico’s future. Phillips provides standard issue stuff about the context and consequences of Mexico’s kingpin strategy, and sprinkles the discussion with the findings of academic research to bolster his arguments. Fine. But on the question of what policies might ameliorate the worst consequences of Mexico’s violent political economy, Phillips goes marching off into the wilderness without a compass, offering a conventional checklist of items—police and judicial reform, greater US involvement, and a continuation of the kingpin strategy—without a clear sense of whether any of these recommendations might actually produce meaningful results in the real world.        

This isn't to single Phillips out for criticism. What else is he supposed to say? But it is to suggest that mainstream English-language experts are in a bad place, spinning their wheels in hopes of gaining traction amidst uncertain terrain. The truth is that no one has a good sense of how to begin tackling the challenges facing Mexico as it continues its transition from authoritarianism to democracy. What’s clear is that getting the violence and drug trafficking under control is an overwhelmingly complex agenda item that won’t be easily or quickly resolved. Less obviously, it isn’t a problem that fits comfortably within the parameters established by policymakers and a great deal of professional opinion. These parameters, therefore, should be reexamined and possibly redefined with a view to thinking more creatively about how to address the challenges ahead. As a first step in this direction, there are at least three issues that demand consideration.   

The first problem is conceptual. This particular horse may be dead, but I’m going to kick it a few more times anyways: As long as analysts persist in dichotomizing the fight against drugs into a battle between the state and criminal gangs, any recommendations are sure to fall flat. No state is a monolithic structure populated by actors operating in concert around a common set of interests, least of all Mexico, where the overlap between state actors and illicit markets is extensive and deeply entrenched. And yet, there’s a strange dissonance in discussions around Mexican drug corruption. Everyone acknowledges that it’s endemic to the country’s politics to the point of bureaucratization. When the federal military and police—themselves institutions corrupted by the drug trade—are ordered to take the fight directly to particular cartels, however, few question the motivations of those responsible in the decision making. Is government action designed to give certain trafficking groups an upper hand by going after their rivals, as some in Mexico contend? Perhaps.       

Treviño Morales was arrested in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico on July 15th, 2013.   

Whatever the explanation, one thing is certain: The drug war isn’t a fight pitting “the government” against “the cartels,” the good guys against the bad. In some cases, they are one and the same. As Robert Saviano argues in a forthcoming book Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, the war on drugs “has been nothing more than a blood battle between feuding fiefdoms. A war between one, often corrupt, part of the state against another corrupt part of the state. Hence, the war on drugs has not been a war on criminal cartels, nor did it weaken the strength of the cartels. On the contrary, it strengthened it.”      

The second problem is political. Phillips is absolutely correct to suggest that market dynamics directly affect the power of organized crime. But while he speaks in vague generalities about these dynamics (“If U.S. demand were substantially reduced, or alternate supply sources arose, this could diminish Mexican DTOs’ income and therefore influence”), he refuses to address the most important variable in the criminal marketplace—prohibition. Instead, he advocates for a law-and-order approach of aggressively confronting the most violent criminal actors, a strategy which effectively doubles down on the failed policies of Felipe Calderon. You can’t kill an illicit market. You can, however, effectively regulate it through legalization and, in all likelihood, reduce violence along the way.      

This possibility, though, is currently off the high table of international relations, and for strictly political reasons. Until legalization becomes a matter of serious consideration amongst policymakers in Mexico and, more importantly, the United States, there’s not much left to do than continue playing whack-a-mole with the heavy hammer of military force—a bloody and ineffective approach to be sure. Instead of trying to tweak bad policy, experts could spend their time more valuably by thinking through the problems and possibilities following the end of prohibition. Good theory and data should lead to good arguments, which might help shift the political ground on which international prohibition currently stands firm. 

The third problem is philosophical. If the possibilities for legalization are little to none, the question needs to be asked: What role for the state in a violent democracy? One answer has already been highlighted above. It’s the one paraded through the op-ed pages and reporting of American media outlets and in the analysis of centrist think tanks. The state, according to this view, is the guardian of law and order, and should behave accordingly by stemming illicit drug flows and capturing or killing the captains of criminal industry. But if law and order approaches don’t work, and the state can’t be trusted to impartially administer justice or meaningfully reform itself from within, continuing to have faith in it doesn’t make much sense.  

A better approach would be to seriously map the landscape of Mexican civil society, and begin identifying ways to support its development and capacity. This may seem like common sense, but with the exception of a few scholars like John Ackerman, analysts haven’t consistently made the point. Civil society is noticeably absent in discussions of Mexico’s current predicament, and where it does feature, it still plays second fiddle to the hope that recent elections have ushered in better governments than in years past. This shouldn’t be allowed to continue. While the pathologies of state power in Mexico are seemingly resilient to top-down efforts of reform, Mexico exhibits a remarkable history of change from the bottom-up. There’s no reason why that tradition can’t continue into the future.

The urgency of coming to terms with these problems couldn’t be more apparent. Mexican security forces can capture and kill a thousand more capos just like Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, but the stream of potential replacements—and the politicians, judges and cops ready to protect them for a price—is endless and will not subside so long as obscene fortunes can be won by successfully playing the drug game. Still, there’s hope. Progress can be realized, but only if there’s a sea change in mainstream thinking about the Mexican drug trade and the policies it engenders. Until then, its business as usual on the ground and in the commentariat, where flawed analysis all too often masquerades as informed comment.