Analysis: The string of high-profile arrests of alleged drug kingpins won't end the drug war.
Standing 6-foot-6-inches with broad shoulders and a wild
beard, the arrested drug lord known as “El Grande” or “King Kong” made a bulky
prize for the Mexican government when he was shown on TV screens Monday flanked
by masked marines.
Sergio Villarreal, who had a $2.3 million reward on his
head, is the latest alleged kingpin to be detained or shot dead by Mexican
security forces, adding credence to President Felipe Calderon’s claim that he
is winning his war on drug gangs.
In December, marines gunned down Villareal’s old boss,
Arturo Beltran Leyva; in January, federal police nabbed Tijuana mobster Teodoro
Garcia; in July, soldiers shot dead Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel; and in August,
police grabbed the smiling beefy Texan Edgar Valdez, alias “The Barbie Doll.”
However, on the bullet-ridden streets of Mexico, weary
residents ask a pertinent question about these arrests — do they really mean
the Mexican government is regaining control or will they only lead to more
The question underlines a central issue with the war on
drugs — and the tactics that have been developed during its four-decade
In the optimistic 1970s, when U.S. President Richard
Nixon first made a declaration of war, officials were convinced they could stop
the flow of drugs by taking down the big fish like Villareal. It was a victory
defined in absolute terms.
“Our goal is the unconditional surrender of the merchants
of death who traffic in heroin. Our goal is the total banishment of drug abuse
from the American life,” Nixon said in 1972.
After decades of arresting kingpins and failing to stop
the rivers of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crystal meth, drug warriors
created a new rationale: limiting the power of drug gangs.
This strategy was honed in Colombia, where gangsters such
as Pablo Escobar became so powerful they were blowing up airplanes and
American and Colombian officials worked together to take
down Escobar and the string of mobsters who came after him. They now argue that
while cocaine still flows north, no Colombian kingpins have the power to
challenge the government.
“Escobar was running a cartel for 15 years. Now the
kingpins in Colombia only last about 15 months,” an American law enforcement
official told me recently in Bogota. “If you get on the radar, you will be
It is a bit like a giant hammer constantly swinging down.
Gangsters will move drugs, but anyone who gets too big will be struck by the
President Calderon appears to be using a similar strategy
for Mexico: hammering the kingpins to reduce the power of the drug mafia.
Drug analysts call this cartel decapitation — or cutting
the heads off so that the trafficking organizations fall apart into more
manageable little chunks.
Calderon concedes that this tactic may mean more violence
in the short term as rival gangsters fight to take over the routes of fallen
Such turf battles are blamed for the majority of the
28,000 drug-related murders since Calderon took office in December 2006.
But in the long term, Calderon argues, the power of the
government will prevail and violence will go down.
Residents who have watched daily executions and gun
battles all hope that he is right.
But there are two factors in Mexico that signal the
Colombian strategy may not ease the situation here.
The first is the sheer number of cartels.
In Colombia in the 1990s, there were two main trafficking
organizations: the Medellin and Cali cartels.
In Mexico today, there are seven major drug gangs. All
appear to maintain billion-dollar trafficking routes and hundreds of men at
arms and to threaten the power of the government, at least on a local level.
For Mexico, to “decapitate” all these organizations, it
would have to take down some 15 high-level gangsters in a relatively quick
Another problem is that several Mexican gangs have
developed into cell-like organizations that depend less on kingpins and more on
their brand name and structure.
Among these is the dreaded Los Zetas gang, which is
blamed for the brutal massacre of 72 migrants last month. The quasi-religious
La Familia is also organized along similar lines.
The Mexican and U.S. governments both promise other
methods to aid the fight, such as reducing American demand for illegal drugs,
slowing the flow of U.S. guns to the gangsters and rebuilding poor Mexican
communities where mobsters flourish.
However, such promises have yet to be met by any results.
Until they are, many more kingpins like Villareal are likely to be shown off in
front of the cameras, while many more corpses scatter the Mexican streets.