The U.S. government has spent $1.6 billion to help Mexico end a war between drug
cartels that has killed 63,000 people south of our border in the past six years.
Yet many of our assumptions about this war are wrong.
As part of a study tracking the behavior of Mexico's organized- crime groups, a colleague and I created an algorithm that uses Google to explore blogs, newspapers and news-related Web content and extract detailed data about how Mexican drug cartels operate. Our tool reads everything published and indexed as part of Google News and collects all the information the Web contains about the activities of the cartels, including their routes of expansion, since the 1990s.
Our discoveries shocked us and surprised the U.S. officials who reviewed our findings. The United States may be helping Mexico fight the wrong war because we do not know who the enemy is.
At the heart of the Mexican government's strategy, which the United States has supported, is the belief that Mexico's drug violence is the result of antagonistic trafficking organizations battling to monopolize a territory. Thus, the thinking goes, trafficking organizations must be eliminated.
Yet it is not true that drug violence necessarily increases when more than one cartel operates in one area. In fact, in many areas, organized-crime groups share territory peacefully. Our data show that multiple cartels operated simultaneously in at least 100 Mexican municipalities in 2010, yet those municipalities did not experience a single drug-related homicide. Of the 16,000 assassinations in Mexico's drug war that year, 43 percent occurred in just eight cities.
What we learned is simple and powerful: Traffickers pick their wars.
War is not the unavoidable outcome of a profitable illegal industry. Violent criminal groups in Mexico are no different from other illegal groups that manage to operate with low levels of violence. Consider: Bolivia and Peru produce marijuana in larger quantities than do many other Latin American countries and still have murder rates among the region's lowest. The Japanese mafia controls the most profitable market of methamphetamines in Asia without major episodes of violence.
Because trafficking is a business and fighting is a business strategy, drug cartels choose to fight whenever war brings more benefits than costs. And the cost that governments can more efficiently impose on a criminal entrepreneur is prison. But south of the U.S. border, only 6 percent of all homicides produce a trial and judgment.
Mexico must craft a system of incentives, using arrests, sentencing and imprisonment, so that criminal organizations cannot find it profitable to kill. Rather than help Mexico fight an unwinnable war against criminal organizations, the United States must help its neighbor battle impunity.
Ours must be a war to make sure those who kill face consequences; a war to improve Mexico's justice system, because only 31 percent of the population believes it would be punished after committing a crime; a war against the sort of outbreaks where, in one day, more than 130 prisoners escape a jail near the Texas border.
The goal must be to make violent crime a risky endeavor, rather than a discretionary choice made by criminal businessmen. A war against impunity can be won. A war against drugs cannot.
Viradiana Rios is a fellow in inequality and criminal justice at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
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