Even within a cartel known as the most ruthless in Mexico, Ángel Treviño Morales stood out for his brutality.
He claimed responsibility for the deaths of thousands as the leader of Los Zetas, and he was reportedly fond of putting enemies in 55–gallon drums of oil and cooking them alive.
Recently, Treviño was arrested near Nuevo Laredo, a Mexican city with a U.S. border crossing that makes it important to both legal trade and illicit drug trafficking.
Treviño is just the latest in a series of drug lords recently captured or killed, leading some to proclaim that we've reached a turning point in the drug war. However, as laudable as these efforts are, neutralizing cartel leaders won't do anything to actually solve the problems caused by the drug trade, and in some regards, may even make things worse.
Here, five reasons why capturing drug lords won't help us win the war on drugs.
1. Even without leaders, cartels will continue to thrive. To eliminate cartels, we need to do something besides simply removing their upper management. Finding replacement leaders isn't difficult. The position, while dangerous, carries the promise of wealth and power. Joaquin Guzman Loera, head of the Sinaloa cartel, is a billionaire and consistently appears on Forbes' list of the world's most powerful people. Unsurprisingly, Treviño's successor is already lined up — his younger brother Alejandro, who is equally ruthless.
But even if it were hard to find a leader to head the entire organization, its many gangs scattered across the country would still operate with little problem thanks to the Zetas' organizational structure. As The Wall Street Journal reports, outposts throughout Mexico "often work like franchisees, paying Zetas leadership fees to use the name and the right to run local rackets." The autonomy enjoyed by local gangs means that targeting cartel leadership won't do anything to derail the organization as a whole. Just last October the previous leader of the Zetas was killed in a shootout with security forces. The cartel quickly replaced him with Treviño and had little problem keeping itself on course.
2. A perceived power vacuum will lead to more violence. Mexico's primary concern when it comes to dealing with cartels is containing the violence that has skyrocketed since 2006, when former President Felipe Calderon began combating trafficking with the military. While the totals are unknown, estimates place the number of homicide victims from 70,000 people to more than 100,000.
Eliminating drug lords may only increase such violence. Competing cartels, including Sinaloa, the Gulf, and La Familia, will see this as an opportunity to contest territory held by the Zetas. As criminals vie for power, fighting between gangs will escalate. At the same time, new rounds of violence targeted at civilians will rise as the cartels try to intimidate local populations into submission.
3. If cartels fragment, drugs and drug lords will be harder to track. The illegal drug industry is a sprawling and complex system, but fighting crime is easier when you only have to keep tabs on a few large actors. This is one of the few encouraging characteristics of the situation in Mexico — authorities know about the handful of major cartels and the territories they control, and intel is constantly improving thanks to continued cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico.
If taking out kingpins breaks up these large groups, it would simply lead to a proliferation of small outfits still engaged in the same illicit activities, but exponentially more difficult to track. This very situation happened following the arrest of Viktor Bout, a major Russian arms dealer who was, for a time, the biggest name in international smuggling. Once he was behind bars, new criminal groups sprang up to fill the hole he had left in the market, and international police forces had a much more difficult time tracking the movement of illegal goods.
4. Drugs will still flow to the U.S. Whereas Mexico is focused on reducing violence, the American government is primarily concerned with reducing the flow of drugs into this country. Even if it were possible to completely shut down imports of illicit substances from Mexico, drugs will still flow into America from southeast Asia, northern Europe, or Latin America. The balloon effect — tightening policing in one location just to have activity shift to another — remains a real problem in combating drug trafficking, especially when consumers in the U.S. remain willing to purchase drugs, regardless of their provenance. Which leads to the final reason...
5. The drug problem is a demand-side problem. The American government, however, treats it like a supply-side issue. By acting like drug users exist because drug dealers do, the U.S. is blinding itself to the real causes of the crisis. Instead of engaging in narco-imperialism, trying to mold other countries to fit the DEA's prerogatives, we need to focus on solutions at home that will reduce demand and hurt cartels' bottom lines. These include investments in education and treatment, multilateral cooperation with other countries affected by the drug trade, and massive overhauls of U.S. drug policy.
It is undoubtedly a good thing that Treviño is behind bars. A violent criminal is off the streets, and victims can get the justice they are owed. However, we must stop assuming that by capturing drug lords it automatically follows that we are combating the ills of the drug trade. If we truly want to stop the violence, curb addiction, and cease the flow of capital to criminal organizations, we need to focus on smarter solutions that treat the roots of the problem and not just its symptoms.