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by Peter Moskos

December 17, 2009

"The rising death toll is a sign the drug gangs are weakening"

Of coooourse.
Washington says the rising death toll is a sign the drug gangs are weakening under President Calderon's military crackdown, which has seen some 49,000 extra troops deploy across Mexico.
You see the rising death toll in Mexico is always a sign that the drug gangs are weakening because, well, when the gangs are weak, they lash and kill lots of people. And when the gangs are strong, then they don't kill anybody. So we want to attack the drug gangs so they become weak and kill more more people, which is how how we know we're winning the war on drugs. Or something like that.

Logic like that makes my head hurt.

I do know we're not winning the drug war. In Mexico 14,000 people have died in drug-prohibition violence in the past four years. You know, ever since President Calderon started his military crackdown to win the war on drugs. And they must be winning, because a whole lot of people are getting killed.

Anyway, one of Mexico's bad guys, a most wanted, a "boss of bosses," he was killed by the good guys. Another stirring victory. Keep up the good work. Drive safely. Sleep well. Tip your waitstaff. War is Peace! Ignorance is Strength!

And there's another sure sign the drug gangs are weakening:
Separately, the severed heads of six policemen were found near a church in the north of the country, police said.

[Update: And more about prohibition murder in Mexico, if you needed it.]


Jay Livingston said...

OK, increased violence is not a sign that they are all weakening. But it might be a sign that the balance of power among gangs is shifting, which means that some are weakening. When drug gangs act like any good cartel and settle their differences and carve up the market in some agreed upon way, violence goes down, no?

PCM said...

Jay, absolutely law enforcement can cause increased violence by breaking up establish drug trades and leaving the rest to fight over the spoils. I have no doubt that bad and short-sighted law enforcement can increase drug prohibition violence. So therefore that’s what we shouldn’t do.

[I will, right at this moment, coin the term: "piñata effect." Law enforcement is a big stick bashing apart the piñata, which is a more organized system of control that holds it all together. Oh, the chaos of people scrambling for the candy when it breaks out, especially if kids are involved!]

If law enforcement increases violence, then perhaps they’re doing the wrong thing! Law enforcement is saying it is good for society to trade more people getting killed for holding more arguably “bad guys” in prison. I don’t buy that that (or want to pay for it).

At want point does the drug market get so disorganized that it becomes violence free? As soon as we achieve a “drug free America,” that’s when. So basically never.

Police should prevent violence and save lives. That’s a pretty safe cardinal rule.

The other thing that bothers me about law enforcement and drugs is the hypocrisy. I’ve yet to hear a police chief admit failure with violence goes down. So really, which one is it? You can’t have it both ways.

I’ll let the DEA and the feds set their own standard for success. But then please: no changies! (see, for instance, my posts on the price of cocaine).

If we’ve really reached a point where we accept it when police say they’ve created more violence and this is good, then I fear more than ever over our perpetual war.

PCM said...

Let me put it another way.

Three general goals of the drug war are to 1) lock up drug dealers, 2) decrease drug use, and 3) decrease violence.

We need to prioritize those 3, 2, 1. Right now we're really only doing only number 1, which has no effect on number 2 and actually makes number 3 worse.

This is screwed up. And we shouldn't let law enforcement get away with defining number 1 as more important than numbers two and three.

Jay Livingston said...

I know nothing about the Mexican drug scene. I was just suggesting that it was plausible that law enforcment "successes" led to an increase in violence.

I completely agree that most US law enforcement is too narrow in its focus and its definition of success. I'm writing this from Sarasota, where the front-page story in the local paper is a police sting operation the resulted in the arrest of a reggae singer (noted for his anti-gay lyrics) who was lured into buying 20 kg of cocaine. The police and DAs are extremely pleased with themselves, but I'm skeptical as to what, if any impact, this arrest will have on cocaine traffic here or in Jamaica.

Ann T. said...

Dear PM,
I agree all this sounds stupid. And I think in most cities and regions, police aren't really stopping crime so much as practicing containment of crime.

However, if these groups consolidate, they tend to "buy" police departments, customs officials, bankers, and so forth. Part of the reason they're going after this in Mexico City is that it is a war of legitimate vs. illegitimate government. If the illegitimate factions are fighting each other, that becomes (not peace-keeping or crime containment) but the war of all against all on their side. The strategy then is to arrest the rest.

To me, the mistake is that every one of these busts seems to be an "okay, it's over, score one for us." It's not a freaking basketball game, it's a war between legitimate and illegitimate government.

I wonder if you would comment.
I enjoy your educated approach.

Ann T.

PCM said...


I don't quite follow your questions.

But generally I think police do stop crime and not just contain it (though there's some of that going on, too).

And I don't know if I buy the black and white distinction between legitimate vs. illegitimate government.

I have no problem picturing illegitimate, but I don't know if there clearly is a "good guys" in Mexico. What about an otherwise good politician or policeman who happens to be on the take? Which side is he on? What if the choice is between looking the other way or being killed?

You still might be a good cop or politician the rest of the time. There are no angels in the drug war. What about Calderon? Is he on the side of good? He started a policy that has resulted in many deaths and the breakdown of civil society. Where does that put him?

Do we get judged only in intention or should the consequences of our actions matter? I would hope we would take the latter into account.

I've posted about it on this before, but I strongly recommend reading "God's Middle Finger" to learn some about the drug war as it works in Mexico. And it's a great read.

"It's not a freaking basketball game." I like that line!

Ann T. said...

Dear PCM,
Thank you for the comments. I will check that book out. My reading list is starting to grow up and fill out.

I didn't mean "containment" to sound like an insult. On the local level, I do believe law enforcement is stopping crime, but affecting the markets seems to be the biggest challenge. I see a disconnect between the local effort and the international one. That is what I am trying to investigate.

No government would pass the white glove test, but there is a point where government fails--where the syndicates run government instead of the other way around.

Thanks again,
Ann T.