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Mexico’s kingpin strategy: A costly failure

Nemesio Rubén Oseguera Cervantes keeps a low profile, unlike many of his flamboyant counterparts who are known for collecting menageries of exotic pets or buying luxury cars.  Known as “El Mencho,” Oseguera Cervantes is the head of a powerful Mexican drug cartel, the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG). This group, one of the most brutal Mexican criminal syndicates, is infamous for shooting a Mexican state police helicopter out of the sky and dumping dozens rival cartel members’ corpses on the freeway at rush hour. Within the last few years, Oseguera Cervantes landed on the radar of the US and Mexican governments, which are offering millions of dollars for information leading to his capture in the latest manifestation of the bilateral cooperative plan known as the kingpin strategy.    

Throughout the last two decades, the US and Mexico have invested billions of dollars in the so-called “kingpin strategy,” which focuses on capturing or killing heads of criminal organizations, like Oseguera Cervantes, to weaken the groups as a whole.  Experts claim this strategy is essentially a public relations stunt for the government, which backfires by causing splintering and more violence within cartels, while doing little to address the country’s real problems.  Recently, the two countries reemphasized their commitments to take down drug trafficking organizations and to continue kingpin strategy, but as the six-year term of current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto wraps up and President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador prepares to take office in December, changes could be on the horizon. 

Taking out the upper leadership of a cartel is more like cutting a leg off a spider than cutting off the head of the snake – most of its business will continue as usual.  Yet internally, this strategy creates a vacuum as various factions within the organization fight for power.  The leadership of the cartel also controls external violence.  Without them, members are more likely to use their own judgment when it comes to attacking rivals or regular citizens.

“The analogy would be, what does it mean that a CEO of Exxon or Microsoft quits?” said University of Houston political science professor Jeronimo Cortina.  “Well, nothing, right?  The organization is still going to be operating.  These guys are going to still be doing what they do.  The question is, what’s going to happen if you don’t have a leader?”

Violence has reached an all time high in Mexico over the past few years.  According to the Interior Ministry of Mexico, 29,168 people were murdered in the country last year – the highest figure since records began in 1997.  The second-highest death toll, with 27,213 homicides reported, was in 2011, and was widely regarded as the height of the drug war.  A 2017 background report from the Council of Foreign Relations says that the war on drugs has seen a body count of over 100,000 since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón began his crackdown on drug cartels.

The kingpin strategy became widely implemented to combat drug trafficking during Calderón’s presidency, from 2006 to 2012.  It continues under Peña Nieto – whose presidency has been characterized by a rise in violence – despite his administration’s claims that it intended to pivot and focus on other strategies such as strengthening state institutions, developing social programs and fighting corruption.

When the government captures or kills a cartel leader, it uses the event as a mark of progress to prove that Mexico takes action to end drug-related violence.  During Peña Nieto’s years at the helm, he has used high-profile arrests like those of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán from the Sinaloa Cartel or Miguel Ángel “Z40” Treviño, from the Zetas, to bolster his approval rating. Peña Nieto’s administration listed 122 criminals as targets and in the course of his presidency, security forces captured or killed 110.

“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.  “When what you have are a limited number of security forces that are good at tracking down individual bad guys and apprehending or killing them, you don’t have the capacity to do all the other things you need to do.”

The US government also has a stake in the kingpin strategy – by the end of 2017, the US had spent $2.9 billion in aid to Mexico since 2006 under the Mérida Initiative, which focuses on assisting Mexican efforts against drug cartels by helping with technical assistance, police training, investigations and judicial reform efforts. Along with the Mérida Initiative, the State Department maintains the Narcotics Rewards Program, an initiative that started in 1986 and offers rewards up to $25 million for information leading to arrests or convictions of high-level drug capos.  So far, the 28 out of 35 Mexican drug traffickers targeted by the program have been captured or killed, and seven remain at large, including Oseguera Cervantes. The State Department has paid over $108 million to informants through the program.

And efforts like these show no signs of slowing down.  The US and Mexico recently reinforced their cooperation on anti-drug trafficking strategies at a meeting and press conference this August in Chicago where drug enforcement officials from both countries introduced new measures they intend to take focusing on cartels’ financial infrastructures, cracking down on the flow of US guns over the border and opening a new enforcement group in Chicago.  Emphasis on the kingpin strategy still predominates.  Both governments are prioritizing the capture of Oseguera Cervantes in an effort to disrupt the CJNG, which traffics in methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl and uses innovative tactics to transport their products across the US-Mexico border and to reach new markets. CJNG began operating in 2010 but rose to prominence in the vacuum following the capture of El Chapo and the deterioration of his Sinaloa Cartel – an example of how the kingpin strategy can backfire.  The Mexican government announced a $1.6 million reward for his Oseguera Cervantes.  The US government is offering $5 million.

As Peña Nieto waits out his last few months in office, he acknowledges that he “didn’t meet the objective of finding peace for Mexicans across the country.”  López Obrador will take the helm come December, and he says that the “failed strategy of combatting insecurity and violence will change.”

During his campaign, Lopez Obrador flirted with the idea of giving amnesty to nonviolent offenders of drug-related crimes – a proposal that infuriated those impacted by narco-violence across Mexico.  He says his administration will begin consultations with human rights groups, religious leaders and the United Nations to effectively strategize how to deal with cartels. And he has suggested other measures to combat the drug black market such as decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana and legalizing the cultivation of medicinal opium – as well as long-term approaches to addressing the poverty that often forces people into drug trafficking.  However, his plans thus far have been vague, and experts express concern over the effectiveness of Lopez Obrador’s policies – especially because strategies like legalizing marijuana won’t affect groups that primarily traffic psychotropic substances.

“It seems likely that Mexican government efforts will shift away from arresting high-level drug trafficking operatives,” said David Shirk, director of Justice in Mexico, a human rights research initiative. “The thing that nobody really knows is what those efforts will shift to.”

Experts say that changes must occur on a broad structural level to reduce violence in Mexico, and these alternatives to the kingpin strategy would be complex and slower to achieve.  They would involve holistic approaches like tackling corruption, fighting poverty and providing well-paid employment opportunities while simultaneously encouraging the US to curtail demand for drugs and building up state and local institutions like policing and prosecution.  This would also need to guarantee more personal security – “No one wants to be a prosecutor if you know that you’ll end up lying in the ditch,” Cortina said.   Yet with Mexico’s history of corruption, its lack of resources and weak judicial system, none of these seem likely to happen.

“Mr. Lopez talks about focusing on improving policing and strengthening communities,” said Shirk. “But that kind of approach requires a diligent and sustained effort unlike anything we have seen from any Mexican government in historical memory.”

Photo: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

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Clara Wend McMichael

Clara McMichael is a New York-based journalist who covers foreign policy, social justice, crime and immigration in the United States and Latin America. Her work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Documented and the Laredo Morning Times. McMichael graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.