Baker Institute Blog, 6/26/2012

In recent debates, all of the current Mexican presidential candidates have claimed they will shift from a counter-narcotic policy to a counter-violence policy. What would it mean in practice to emphasize violence reduction in lieu of a counter-narcotics policy?

Four potential counter-violence strategies

There are four possibilities for what a real shift from a counter-narcotic to a counter-violence strategy might look like:

First, the Mexican government could form pacts with organized crime to reduce violence in exchange for tacitly accepting drug trafficking. This was effective in Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s when the authoritarian PRI party and its Direccion Federal de Seguridad (equivalent to the FBI) managed and protected traffickers in exchange for bribes and low levels of violence.

Similar agreements have proven effective for short-term reductions of violence recently in El Salvador. To address high levels of violence, the El Salvadoran government appears to have negotiated a reduction in violence with the Central American gang MS-13 in exchange for better prison conditions for gang leaders, according to Alejandro Hope, an analyst for Insight, a website that tracks organized crime in the Americas.

There are obvious problems for Mexico if it were to pursue this type of counter-violence strategy. As a democracy it cannot make credible long-term promises to traffickers and its law enforcement apparatus is too diffuse, as Brown University’s Richard Snyder and Angelica Duran-Martinez argue. Such a strategy also runs the risk of leading to what Georgetown University professor John Bailey calls “state capture,” where organized crime becomes so embedded and powerful in the state that it effectively controls it.

Second, the Mexican government could target the most violent trafficking groups, as Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson Center has argued in a recent report. By targeting groups like Los Zetas that have expanded their criminal activities into kidnapping and extortion, the government could punish these groups in the hopes that cartels in Mexico would compete to be perceived as the least violent and thereby avoid federal attack. Mark Kleiman, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has argued that U.S. law enforcement should target the U.S. customers of the most violent Mexican trafficking groups, thus bypassing the institutional weaknesses of Mexican law enforcement.