It's Time for Mexico to Change How it Pursues Drug Lords

Mexican authorities detain "La Tuta"

The recent detention of Servando “La Tuta” Gomez and Omar “Z42” Treviño was arguably the culmination of Mexico's high-value target strategy. However, the real work for Mexico's security apparatus has just begun, and it involves removing the incentives that drive crime lords to violence.

The arrest of Servando "La Tuta" Gomez and of Omar "Z42" Treviño has been reported as a potential death blow against the organizations they led: respectively, the Knights Templar and the Zetas. Their removal could plausibly spell the end of the two groups’ importance at a national level. The leadership of both groups has been buffeted by captures and deaths for many years, limiting the groups’ options for successors, and the Knights Templar in particular appear to have been heavily reliant on Gomez’s leadership.

This article was first published by InSight Crime. Read the original here.

Neither organization has an obvious successor to rival the prestige of past leaders, and both organizations operate in heavily contested regions, where rivals will be eager to exploit any perceived weakness of the Knights and the Zetas. This dynamic could spark waves of violence in states like Michoacan and Guerrero for the Knights, and Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas in the case of the Zetas.

Gomez and Treviño follow a long line of dominant figures in Mexican organized crime who are currently behind bars or dead: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Arturo Beltran Leyva, Ignacio Coronel, Miguel Angel Treviño (Omar’s brother), Heriberto Lazcano, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, and many others.

With some prominent exceptions, the younger generation of criminal leaders replacing the names are nowhere near as prominent as the names above. For Mexican policy makers, that represents a substantial opportunity.

InSight Crime Analysis

One of the defining factors of Mexican organized crime has been that it is led by fugitives. All of these men who have been captured were on the run long before their eventual demise. They did not have a Mexican indictment hanging publicly over their heads, but for a figure like La Tuta or El Chapo, their track record was spectacular enough that there was the universal understanding that once arrested, putting together a legal case was only a formality.

While this is accepted as normal in Mexico, it is not the only way for a government to combat organized crime. In the US, organized crime bosses typically operate with much lower profiles, and long manhunts for fugitive drug traffickers are exceedingly rare. (And unlike their Mexican counterparts, US crime bosses who do manage to evade long-term manhunts typically abandon their criminal operations.) Typically, in the US, what determines whether a crime boss is arrested is not whether authorities can find him -- as in Mexico -- but rather if authorities can put together enough evidence to indict and eventually convict him.

Although this may seem like a minor and meaningless distinction, these two models each create a radically different incentive structure for crime lords. A criminal boss in the US -- or other nations where fugitive drug lords are uncommon -- is encouraged to live as a member of his community, to maintain a low profile, and to avoid provocations, which would give the government more ammunition in building a case against him. This is not the case in Mexico: crime bosses simply don't face the same incentives to keep their heads down and minimize violence. After all, their primary motivation is to avoid getting caught, not to avoid committing atrocities that would result in a strong body of evidence against them in a Mexican courtroom.

For instance, drug lords like Heriberto Lazcano and Miguel Angel Treviño, erstwhile Zetas bosses who were killed in 2012 and captured in 2013, had been labeled Mexico’s top public security priority years before their downfall. At that point, their survival was entirely a matter of avoiding detection, and there was little disincentive to avoid violence. Not coincidentally, after essentially being named Mexico's public enemy number one, the Zetas were responsible for some of the most egregious and notorious acts of violence across Mexico. While Guzman was not as famous for wanton bloodshed, his group too was responsible for a number of highly aggressive strategic maneuvers that provoked thousands of deaths.

In the US, genuinely famous criminal bosses are all either historical figures like Meyer Lansky or John Gotti, or they are fictional characters like Tony Soprano or Gus Fring. That doesn’t mean that there are not powerful organized crime bosses in the US; clearly there are. But real life crime bosses --such as Johnnie “Big Cat” Williams, the late Chicago leader of the Black Kings gang profiled in "Off The Books" -- don’t seek the limelight. They manage their business in the most understated way possible, especially by limiting unnecessary violence.

This is, of course, because it is in their interest to so. And one key reason it remains in their interest to so is because a US capo has a reasonable chance of staying out of prison if he avoids the sort of aggressions that give detectives and prosecutors ammunition for their investigations. That dynamic -- which helps explain why Big Cat was much more peaceful than any Zetas plaza boss would be expected to be -- is inseparable from the fact that he was not a fugitive. For a fugitive crime lord in Mexico, the prevailing incentive is only to avoid capture, rather than avoiding violence that could lead to an indictment and conviction in a court of law.

The demise of the capos who sparked a virtually unprecedented wave of violence during the Felipe Calderon presidency presents Mexico with a golden opportunity. A new class of criminal leaders is rising to replace Guzman, Gomez, and the dozens of other capos who have been captured or killed in the past decade. If Mexico can move away from this so-called "fugitive drug lord" model -- and if Mexico can give drug traffickers a genuine self-interest in avoiding violence -- then the nation’s underworld can hopefully move toward a much more peaceful mode of interaction.

Unfortunately, it is not clear how much government policy can do to affect this change. There were a variety of reasons organizations like the Zetas and the Knights Templar employ hyper-violent tactics, from efforts to intimidate rivals to the breakdown in an organization’s chain of command. Many of these factors are not influenced by government policy.

But that does not mean policy makers are without tools. They can use informal back channels to communicate a change in philosophy, in which reputed criminals will not be arrested until there is ample evidence of their guilt. They can demand more rigor -- and if need be, restraint -- from their prosecutors and security officials, who have seen a number of prominent cases fall apart after arrests. When publicly discussing their criminal targets -- such as the officials’ comments about the hunt for Fausto Isidro Meza Flores -- they can include the references to the legal basis for target’s status.

None of these alterations would bring about an instant fix, and shifting the paradigm for how Mexico goes after its drug lords will inevitably be a mammoth undertaking. But nevertheless, Mexico stands at the perfect moment to initiate this effort.