Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Drug cartel violence is only the tip of the iceberg

Two very important reports were issued recently, but they seem to have received very little publicity. I think anyone interested in the state of US society should read them, particularly if you're involved in law enforcement or security in any way. They'll open your eyes to the reality underlying today's newspaper reports.

The first report is 'Drug Trafficking Organizations and Counter-Drug Strategies in the U.S.-Mexican Context' by Luis Astorga and David A. Shirk. It's published by the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It gives a great deal of background on how the Mexican drug cartels evolved and developed over the past half-century, and why they're now so dangerous, even outside Mexico. Here's a brief extract from its 29 pages.

The 1980s were an important turning point, as the protection and involvement of key government actors and institutions became critical to the evolution of Mexican DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations]. Thanks to single party rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico’s power structure was extremely centralized and hierarchical, which had important implications for the locus and effects of official corruption. With a complete lock on control of the Mexican state, the PRI held a monopoly on legitimate use of force, territorial control, and the power to grant impunity to organized crime. Of course, while the PRI regime was not tolerant of criminal activity in general, such activities were more likely to be tolerated or even protected when they promised a substantial payoff to corrupt government officials. Moreover, since corruption frequently occurred at very high levels, this produced a substantial “trickle down” effect, creating a blanket of impunity that offered considerable protections to those organized crime groups that could afford it. Particularly significant was the Federal Security Directorate (Dirección Federal de Seguridad, DFS), which oversaw domestic security matters from 1947 to 1985. DFS was a primary instrument of social and political control for the central government, and enjoyed vast, relatively unchecked powers. During the 1980s, under President Miguel de la Madrid (1982-88), Mexican DTOs developed especially close ties to the DFS, then headed by José Antonio Zorrilla Pérez. Complicity between the DFS and Mexican DTOs ensured that organized criminal activity was extensively protected and well regulated.

As such, Mexico’s integration into the extremely profitable cocaine market in the 1970s and 1980s enabled Mexican DTOs to achieve a level of prosperity, access, and protection beyond the wildest dreams of Colombian traffickers. As Colombians DTOs fractionalized and imploded in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mexico emerged as the hub of drug trafficking into the U.S. market, with Mexican DTOs increasingly controlling both the forward and backward linkages. Moreover, thanks to the protection of the state, competition among Mexican DTOs was significantly limited, with territories and markets often clearly demarcated, leading some to refer to these organizations as “cartels”, a term that we avoid here for several reasons. This relative harmony was possible in large part because of the explicit and implicit arrangements with government officials that established “plazas” and rules of the game.

. . .

After 2000, the degree of competition and conflict among the major Mexican DTOs intensified dramatically. We noted above that this dissolution was partly attributable to reorganization of Mexico’s police agencies in the late-1980s, but also important was the rise of political pluralism in Mexico and the destabilizing effects of counter-drug enforcement efforts on drug trafficking networks. Over the 1990s, a gradual trend toward pluralism at the local and state level created a more diverse and complex political landscape. With the 1997 defeat of the PRI in the federal legislature and the 2000 election of President Vicente Fox, a candidate of the National Action Party (PAN), this trend advanced to the national level. In some cases, political change increased the political impetus to promote transparency, good governance, and a tougher approach toward organized crime; in others, it merely disrupted political connections to favor one organized crime group over another.

To be sure, none of Mexico’s major parties remained ethically or genetically immune from corruption. Today, a look at Mexico’s political map after the 2009 elections shows us that the trafficking corridors for cocaine and other drugs are concentrated states still governed — in most cases without interruption — by the old ruling party ...

. . .

In addition, recent years have seen the proliferation of lower level organized crime networks, with new groups and gangs operating at the street level and contributing to the growing phenomenon of “narcomenudeo,” or small-time drug dealing. Moreover, as Mexican DTOs have become more decentralized and fractionalized, their operations have diversified to include other criminal activities, such as kidnapping and even petty crime that would have been below such organizations in the past (e.g., bank robbery, grand larceny, etc.). Above all, each successive disruption of drug trafficking networks has intensified conflict and competition among organized crime groups, thereby contributing to unprecedented, high intensity violence.

There's more at the link.

The second report, longer and wider in scope than the first, is 'Crime Wars: Gangs, Cartels and U.S. National Security' by Bob Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal. It's 84 pages long, and is published by the Center for a New American Security. Here's a short extract.

Criminal networks linking cartels and gangs are no longer simply a crime problem, but a threat that is metastasizing into a new form of widespread, networked criminal insurgency.1 The scale and violence of these networks threaten civil governments and civil societies in the Western Hemisphere and, increasingly, the United States as well.

American policymakers have been slow to recognize the evolution of the drug cartels and gangs from purely law enforcement problems to the strategic threat they now pose. Drug trafficking is variously described solely in terms of a drug problem, a challenge to other countries or a problem for states along the United States' southern border. Drug trafficking groups are, in fact, a threat across all these categories – they are part of networks attacking the United States and other friendly countries on many fronts. Although the U.S. government is currently implementing measures to address the separate pieces of this problem – for example, deploying National Guard units to the border – it has yet to craft a truly comprehensive domestic and foreign strategy to confront the inter-related challenges of trafficking and violence reaching from the Andean Ridge to American streets.

. . .

Five conclusions emerge from the study.

First, crime, terrorism and insurgency are interwoven in new and dangerous ways that threaten not just the welfare but also the security of societies in the Western Hemisphere. Scale and the capability to destabilize governments have made the cartels an insurgent threat as well as a criminal one. The United States must lead a hemisphere-wide effort to confront and defeat the cartels’ threat to civil society.

Second, the huge geographic scope of the criminal networks makes this challenge multinational.

. . .

Third, any U.S. strategic effort must include appropriate assistance to Latin American states to strengthen security and law enforcement institutions.

. . .

Fourth, the United States must focus on cleaning its own house. America should support more effective policing operations against cartels, effectively reduce the use of illegal drugs, and fight to reduce the influence of gang culture, particularly in schools and among young people.

. . .

Fifth, defeating the cartels and their allies will take a long time.

. . .

There is an apparent contrast between increased global trade and a trend toward growing social and political disintegration as weaker states buckle under the strain of corruption, weapons, population pressure and technology. At the beginning of the Information Age, informed observers speculated that state power would wither away in favor of benign and progressive international bodies and instruments. That has been the case in some areas, but there have also been more malign repercussions as the flood of crooked money into weak states has undermined the rule of law and set back the emergence of civil order. Fragile states struggling to control their territory are in many cases losing the fight. In 1996, only 11 states were judged to be "failing” around the world. By 2006 the number had increased to 26, and the number of “not quite failing” states with weak governments and “ungoverned spaces” continues to grow. Other states accommodate criminality to such an extent that their economies depend on the illegal economy.

. . .

Criminal cartels, gangs and other illegal armed groups are today spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to undermine governments. When corruption proves insufficient, they turn to intimidation and violence. Increasingly, in Mexico and occasionally in other states, they challenge governments directly by attacking legitimate armies and police forces, as they have in Colombia for decades. While the states of Latin America are under direct threat, cartel activities in the United States have not yet reached that level (though some Los Angeles police officers and others in frontline cities would question that assertion).

American policymakers, though, have been slow to recognize the evolution of the drug cartels and gangs from a problem for law enforcement to a strategic threat. Cartels have shown themselves to be adaptable to changing markets and opportunities. They are leading entrepreneurs of violent crime at the wholesale level. Transnational gangs in the United States conduct wide-ranging “retail-level” crimes of all types, including robbery, prostitution, murder, rape, home invasion, auto theft and others as well as drug distribution. Most of these crimes are violent and most focus on profit. Elimination of drug income alone, therefore, would slow but not stop these adaptable and entrepreneurial criminal networks.

Indeed, the activities of criminal networks have in many places acquired the characteristics of insurgency. Many people, including some military experts and senior policymakers, misunderstand the word “insurgency” as an attempt to take over a government. That is not necessarily the case. An insurgency is actually an attempt to weaken or disrupt the functions of government, which accurately describes the actions of Colombia’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the Mexican cartels and some transnational gangs. Insurgencies are a type of armed conflict – of war – between belligerents trying to gain power over one another. The struggle between the cartels and some states in the Western Hemisphere is not solely about illicit drugs, or about crime, but has escalated to such a degree that it has become a struggle for power among cartels, gangs and civil government.

. . .

Meeting the cartels’ challenge will require, first, recognizing the new, broad and varied scope of the new face of violent crime in the Western Hemisphere, from Venezuela’s support of narco-crime to gang recruitment in U.S. schools and neighborhoods. Second, the United States must see the problem for what it is – a criminal insurgency against the foundations of its own society and those of states like Mexico, Colombia and others in between. “Profit” is now a motivation for insurgency, along with religion, ideology, nationalism and other causes. Finally, the U.S. government must shift the focus of its decades-long “war on drugs” to lead a broadly based, hemisphere-wide and long-term effort focused on defeating the criminal cartels and their networks of gangs.

Again, there's much more at the link.

Both reports are very highly recommended reading for anyone with an interest in security, particularly from a law enforcement perspective, but also anyone wanting to keep their family safe on the streets. These reports illustrate the reality of the worsening security situation that's likely to come to our streets over the next few years. I believe they're very important.



perlhaqr said...

So, 40 years of utterly failed Drug War later, all we've managed to accomplish is the enrichening of criminal gangs so utterly ruthless they're willing to fight entire governments to feed the American public's demand for drugs.

As things stand now, we can't even keep illicit drugs out of actual prisons. Even turning all of America into one giant prison, with absolutely no freedom for anyone (a "solution" I'm absolutely unwilling to contemplate) won't solve this problem. That paper's demand to "effectively reduce the use of illegal drugs" is as plausible as the deep down Brady Bunch desire to rid America of guns. It's just not going to happen.

So, the smart thing to do would have been to get out of this 20 years ago, before we'd built this enemy up so strongly. We didn't do that. We could get out now, and simply legalise everything and cut the profit margins by a factor of 100, just like when Prohibition ended, but frankly, we probably won't do that either.

So, we'll probably keep making this enemy stronger and stronger until they finally overrun us, or we destroy ourselves trying to police things we shouldn't be policing in the first place.

Charlie McDanger said...

A-men to the first comment.