Webcast Recap

From 2005 through 2008, 11,000 deaths have been blamed on organized crime in Mexico. The violence has been attributed to a sustained government policy of confrontation with traffickers and to warring between and within drug trafficking organizations. It has heightened public worries in Mexico about organized and common crime, as well as spurred fears that the public at-large may become a more direct target. At the same time, organized crime tied to drug trafficking is a growing concern in Central America and remains so in the Andean region, the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the hemisphere, including in the United States.

In an attempt to draw lessons from the experiences of other countries and to bring these to bear on current developments in Mexico and elsewhere in the hemisphere, the Latin American Program sponsored the conference, "International Efforts to Combat Organized Crime," held at the Wilson Center on March 13. Panelists analyzed efforts to deal with the Mafia in Sicily and with drug trafficking in Colombia in the 1980s, and provided instructive examples of counter-narcotics policies from Asia. Panelists also discussed how increased political competition in Mexico has disrupted historic accommodations between the Mexican State and organized crime, leading, in some cases, to new conflicts between crime syndicates and federal and state governments. They also emphasized the positive contributions to be obtained from an invigorated civil society and through the implementation of more robust transparency and accountability measures, particularly with regard to the police and courts.

Douglas Farah, Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, gave a pessimistic assessment of current efforts to crack down on organized crime. Counter-narcotics budgets are dwarfed by illicit drug proceeds on the order of 50-to-1. At the same time, anti-money laundering intelligence quickly becomes obsolete and lags behind the evolving technologies used by traffickers to legitimize proceeds and smuggle cash. Comparing Mexican drug trafficking organizations with the Colombian cartels of the 1980s, Farah said that the Mexico-based syndicates may be rich but that they have not amassed the same wealth as the Cali cartel because of the higher costs of doing business in Mexico. For example, post-9/11 bank reporting requirements have stymied the movement of massive sums of money, meaning that Mexican trafficking organizations must rely, to a far greater extent than Colombian traffickers, on multiple broker networks transferring small sums, which increases transaction costs. He added that stricter restrictions on international money transfers mean that a large share of drug proceeds collected in the United States are smuggled into Mexico in the form of bulk cash. Furthermore, around 80 percent of the estimated US$15-US$20 billion in illicit drug proceeds collected annually eventually returns to Colombia, principally in the form of contraband goods as part of different black-market exchange schemes generally involving other countries. Enforcement may raise the cost of money laundering but not sufficiently, mildly eroding cartels' abilities to corrupt judicial institutions in Mexico, he said.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Foreign Policy Fellow at the Brookings Institution, cited four possible outcomes that could lead to reduced drug violence in Mexico: 1) internal ordering and self-regulation within illicit drug markets through the ascension of a hegemonic trafficking organization, decreasing inter-cartel warring; 2) a state enforcement campaign that succeeds in weakening organized crime groups to the point where they become incapable of inflicting current levels of violence, reducing the need for state enforcement campaigns; 3) a return to the "corporatist" model of state-syndicate accommodation that predominated during the era of one-party rule and that favored an orderly modus vivendi; and, 4) the state abdication of its authority in certain areas, enabling these to be controlled unchallenged by organized crime. Felbab-Brown said that the experiences of some Asian countries may be instructive for Mexico, especially with regard to supply suppression. Successful eradication efforts in Thailand, a country which at its peak cultivated approximately the same amount in poppy as Mexico (15,000-20,000 hectares), may be particularly instructive, she said. Felbab-Brown added that given the scale of cartel violence in Mexico, an appropriate comparison is with 1980s-era Colombia prior to the implementation of the U.S.-funded counter-narcotics program, Plan Colombia.

The invigoration of civil society, the reclamation of the public sphere, and the activation of participatory forms of democracy are essential components of a strategy to uproot endemic organized crime, said Aldo Civico, Director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution. However such steps must operate in tandem with law enforcement efforts for such a strategy to be successful. A former adviser to mayors of both Palermo and Medellín, Civico compared the two cities' struggles with organized crime and indicated instructive lessons for the Mexico case. In his comparison Civico noted that both cities suffered from deep social inequality and from the presence of entrenched organized crime syndicates. In both cities the embedded quality of the mafia in all aspects of life made its corrosive presence endemic, imposing an orientation of values and conditions on society. To eradicate the mafia's pervasive influence, therefore, a reordering of civic and political cultures became necessary.

Luis Astorga, Researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, stressed that organized crime and politics are intimately linked In Mexico. He added that high levels of political plurality in Mexico in recent years have led to new political configurations and an atomization of power relationships between criminal networks and state actors, creating disruptions and distortions in the illicit drug market. Yet such destabilizing reconfigurations have taken place at a time when Mexico's judicial institutions are too weak to effectively control organized crime—a dynamic that contributes to the cartel-related violence afflicting the country.