Reducing Drug Trafficking Violence in Mexico

Brandon Fuller Brandon Fuller

To reduce the intolerably high levels of drug-related violence in Mexico, the United States and Mexico should focus drug enforcement on the most violent drug-trafficking organization (DTO) in Mexico. Unlike full-scale legalization, this approach has a chance of being implemented. Unlike current enforcement strategies, it has a chance of working. That’s the argument advanced in an interesting new paper (gated) by Mark Kleiman and Steven Davenport in the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis.

Kleiman and Davenport actually discuss two approaches.

1. Reduce the intensity of the anti-smuggling effort in the Caribbean with an eye toward shifting the flow of illicit drugs away from Mexico. The increased flow of drugs to the U.S. would be minimal but this approach would obviously present new problems for Caribbean countries and Gulf Coast states. 

2. Choose drug enforcement targets in the U.S. and Mexico by emphasizing violence rather than drug quantities.

Some combination of the two approaches might work as well but what the first approach lacks in operational difficulty it more than makes up for in political problematics.

Under the second approach, the key to reducing violence lies in creating market conditions that favor the least violent DTOs. To do this, Kleiman and Davenport suggest that the Mexican government develop and publish a scoring system for DTO violence. It would then establish a violence score for each DTO, publicly announcing the most violent DTO as a target for destruction.

“Destruction” in this case might mean arresting and convicting the leadership of the designated group, but it might involve much less drastic action. All that would be required would be the imposition of sufficient differential enforcement pressure to make the target organization uncompetitive within the illicit drug-trafficking industry.

The authors point out that, once the scores are publicized, enforcement on the U.S. side of the border might actually play the most important role. U.S. agencies would shift enforcement efforts to the domestic drug distribution organizations that are supplied by Mexico’s most violent DTO. This would give domestic organizations a strong incentive to find less violent suppliers, effectively shutting the most violent Mexican DTO out of the U.S. market for illicit drugs.

The destruction of the first DTO, would have to be followed by a new round of public scoring and the announcement of a new target. The process would give the remaining DTOs a strong incentive to reduce their violence levels to avoid being singled-out.

The strategy would be an explicit but appropriate adjustment to enforcement priorities, a very public acknowledgement that, while drug volumes and usage matter, they matter less than drug violence. As the authors acknowledge, the proposal is not without challenges — getting accurate data, maintaining transparency, and avoiding corruption to name a few. But given the shortcomings of the current strategy and the logical possibility that this approach could lead to better outcomes, I tend to agree that a bit of experimentation is in order.

An earlier, non-gated, version of Kleiman’s thinking on this issue can be found in a volume titled Rethinking the War on Drugs Through the US-Mexico PrismKleiman’s chapter starts on page 125. He’s blogged on the topic as well.

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