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Column 061509 Corcoran

Monday, June 15, 2009

'Cartels': A Counterproductive Mexican Drug War Misnomer

By Patrick Corcoran

·   Cartel: An agreement among two or more firms in the same industry to cooperate in fixing prices and/or carving up the market and restricting the amount of output they produce. (From Essential Economics)

No word looms larger in the discourse about the war on drugs than "cartel,” which is unfortunate; the label is a misnomer that doesn’t merely cloud our understanding of Mexican drug traffickers, it confuses the solutions to drug violence.

The inapplicability of the traditional economic definition of “cartel” to Mexico’s drug traffickers is self-evident. There is no known example of different gangs teaming up to restrict output and fix prices; indeed, the competing Mexican groups ordinarily agree on nothing beyond the tacit understanding that each will try to kill the other. As Luis Astorga, author of several books on the drug trade told me recently, “There’s not even a single group that has control over the price, from the production to the distribution. That’s a police fiction.”

Of course, many words stray from their formal definitions when used colloquially, but “cartel” is equally misleading in its euphemistic form. When one mentions a drug cartel, the mind leaps to a hierarchical, pseudo-military band of assassins under the orders of one kingpin, a la Pablo Escobar’s Medellín gang. Escobar’s organization was not a cartel in the classical economic sense, but since he controlled 90 percent of the cocaine flowing from Colombia into the US the term was not such an ill-fitting label.

Today, the so-called Mexican cartels are highly fluid organizations that share little with the Escobar model beyond a profit motive and violent tactics. The prevailing scenario today is not a small group of quasi-armies fighting over smuggling routes, but a constellation of organizations making and breaking alliances according to the necessity of the day. Mexico is much closer to a season of Survivor than a game of Risk.

This is not a trivial complaint; misunderstanding drug gangs as highly structured organizations is to be ignorant of the reality of the Mexican drug trade.

According to a RAND Corporation report released in April, “Drug trafficking in Mexico has historically been dominated by four major drug trafficking organizations (DTOs): the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel. However, the constellation of DTOs in Mexico is changing as these larger cartels break into atomized units.” (Security in Mexico: Implications for U.S. Policy Options, RAND Corporation)

Reducing the drug trafficking industry down to a small number of cartels overlooks this vital nuance, disregards the increasing importance of regional gangs like the Michoacán Family, and imposes a false rigidity on a fluid situation. Take the aforementioned Sinaloa Cartel: the simple label belies the fact that the two foremost drug traffickers from Sinaloa, erstwhile allies Arturo Beltrán Leyva and Joaquín Guzmán, have been warring for more than a year.

The notion of cartels as monolithic groups operating on the margins rather than organic parts of society helps maintain the fiction that, by arresting all the leaders, drug gangs can be cut out like so many tumors. When the alleged leader of Tijuana’s Arellano Félix gang was arrested in 2006, a DEA spokesman triumphantly declared, “We've taken the head off the snake.” Evidently, the head grew back; Arellano Félix henchmen still operate in Tijuana, which, incidentally, seems far more dangerous today than it was three years ago.

Or consider the Gulf “cartel” and its infamous band of assassins, the Zetas. The group’s leader was arrested and extradited years ago, and most of the Zetas’ founding members have been captured or killed, but Gulf traffickers remain among Mexico’s most powerful. Why? Because the people who once worked for Osiel Cárdenas have linked up with the Carrillos, the Beltrán Leyvas, and even Italian and Spanish gangs. Other groups demonstrate a similar capacity for adaptation.

According to Mexico’s Secretary of National Defense, 500,000 people make their living off the drug trade. Yet we kid ourselves into thinking that arresting a handful of capos and 40,000 street dealers will make a dent in the traffickers’ ability to regroup, realign, and continue sending drugs northward. This is partly because we insist on interpreting Mexico’s drug problem as a contest between a few well-organized cartels whose defeat is a couple of arrested kingpins away.

In fact, Mexico is not facing an organized opposition. It is essentially confronting a well-armed, ultra-violent chamber of commerce, not a handful of top-down, pseudo-military cartels. It’s time we adjust our vocabulary to acknowledge that fact.

So call Mexican drug smugglers gangs, syndicates, mafias, or DTOs – but don’t call them cartels.


Patrick Corcoran (corcoran25@hotmail.com) is a writer who resides in Torreón, Coahuila.  He blogs at Gancho (http://www.ganchoblog.blogspot.com/).