The Kingpin Strategy and U.S. Assistance to Mexico’s Drug War: Visible Results, Hidden Costs

Latin America and the Caribbean

In the span of less than one week, Mexican security forces captured two of the most notorious and feared drug cartel leaders in the country. But does the Drug War tactic known as the Kingpin Strategy, a policy supported by the U.S. government and supplemented by billions of dollars in U.S. aid, actually make Mexico safer?

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) created the Kingpin Strategy in the 1990’s to target the leadership and funding of drug trafficking organizations. First used in Colombia to cripple the Cali and Medellín cartels, it was embraced by Mexican President Felipe Calderón in 2006 and became a mainstay in Mexico’s war on organized crime.

Upon taking office in 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto tried to publicly distance himself from the more militarized security strategies of his predecessor and the Kingpin Strategy, but the capture of almost a dozen cartel leaders throughout his tenure suggests otherwise. High-profile arrests during Nieto’s presidency have included the capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman of the Sinaloa cartel, Miguel Angel “Z40” Treviño of Los Zetas, Nazario Moreno González and Enrique Plancarte Solís, both of the Knights Templar.

Most recently, the arrests of Servando “La Tuta” Gómez of the Knights Templar in Michoacán, and Alejandro “Z42” Treviño Morales of Los Zetas in Nuevo León have sparked media attention.Source: AFP/Getty

With the Nieto administration in dire need of a win following continued global attention on the mismanaged case of 43 missing Ayotzinapa teachers college students last fall, which implicated a number of high-level officials as well as local leaders, the media fanfare surrounding the captures is likely a welcome diversion. However, according to Latin Correspondent, the broader Mexican public has grown wary of high-profile cartel arrests. Some believe the captures are cynically timed to boost the administration’s political capital. Mexico’s Excelsior newspaper explained that high-profile arrests often “look like a smokescreen to distract society from other problems.”

Moreover, these arrests do not tackle the central issue of unchecked political corruption that propels organized crime. “It doesn’t really matter if you capture the kingpin if you don’t go after the support network,” says Dwight Dyer, a senior analyst at control risks.

Many security experts agree, what Mexico sorely needs is a government that does not allow criminals to operate with impunity. To achieve this, capturing High Value Targets, or kingpins, must be accompanied by reform at the local level. Jorge Chabat, a drug and security expert at CIDE, a Mexican research center, offered a succinct explanation for the limits of the Kingpin Strategy in the broader context of Mexican politics, “if you dismantle the criminal groups but not the political groups offering them protection, they will grow again.”

Kingpin victories have not only been perceived as a calculated diversion amid political unrest, but they can have unintended and harmful consequences. Historically, ousting the head of a top crime syndicate has often led to fragmentation of larger cartels and power vacuums in which smaller criminal elements grow, or violence among and within established cartels spikes. As InSight Crime director Stephen Dudley noted, “Just because these groups are fragmented, does not mean they are any less violent. In fact, their fight for these smaller, local criminal spaces is what motors the violence…”

Under President Calderón, who fiercely pursued the Kingpin Strategy with Mexico’s armed forces, the country saw the appearance of sixty to eighty new trafficking gangs and homicide rates double that of the previous administration. There is also evidence that the Kingpin Strategy will not lower rates of international drug trafficking.

The state of Michoacán is a telling case of how quickly conditions on the ground can deteriorate when security policies that rely heavily on armed forces to curb crime, like Kingpin, are not combined with institutional reform. Frustrated with the government’s unbridled corruption and inability to provide security against Michoacán’s then-chief criminal organization, The Knights Templar, “autodefensas,” or citizen vigilante groups emerged in the state in early 2013 (See InSight Crime for a breakdown of Michoácan’s current criminal landscape). The autodefensas gained support, particularly from businessmen and rival cartel members. With few good options, the government attempted to formalize the autodefensas into “Rural Police” forces that would work alongside federal security forces.

The Knights Templar was eventually weakened by the efforts of autodefensas, federal forces and rival cartels. However, what followed in Michoacán was easy infiltration of offshoot criminal organizations such as The Viagras and a messy splintering of armed factions, with many former cartel members joining the ranks of militias. Intentional homicide rates increased 10% from 2013 to 2014 in the state. In some municipalities, the murder rate registers 57.42 per 100,000 inhabitants, four times higher than that of the national average.

A similar narrative has unfolded in Michoacán’s neighboring Guerrero, home to the Nieto government’s most damning crisis, Ayotzinapa. In Guerrero's largest city Acapulco, several major cartels have been broken down through Kingpin captures and autodefensa movements since 2005. However, the city had Mexico’s highest homicide rate last year, and has been plagued by a spike in violent turmoil this year. There is speculation that upcoming June elections in Guerrero will be boycotted. The unrest in these states shows that a government facing a mass crisis of legitimacy cannot root out violence and instability with force alone.

President Nieto will likely continue to tout Kingpin victories. “The arrest strengthens the commitment to the rule of law in the country,” Peña Nieto tweeted after Z42’s capture. However, President Nieto has shown scant concern for the “rule of law” when it comes to the rampant corruption and impunity a majority of Mexicans believe have increased over the last two years.

U.S. authorities have also showered the Mexican government with praise in the wake of the recent Kingpin victories. In a statement, the DEA called the arrest of La Tuta, “another win for Mexico in the fight against brutal criminal cartels.” The Capture of Z42, the DEA wrote a few days later, “should serve as yet another warning that no criminal is immune from arrest and prosecution.”

U.S. military assistance to Mexico through the State Department, including funds for the Mérida initiative, a counter-narcotics plan originally designed to last three years, totaled just about $2.4 billion between 2008 and 2015. This number excludes money earmarked specifically for economic development assistance, but does include funding for programs that support initiatives like justice sector reform. The Defense Department added an additional $500 million in military support during this time. U.S. support to Mexico is now largely in the form of training and direct arms and equipment sales through contracts with U.S.-based defense firms. Recent reporting indicated that Mexico has become the largest purchaser of weapons from the United States.

But given the current state of affairs in the country, it might be time to re-evaluate how the United States supports its southern neighbor.

Beyond worthwhile questions of effectiveness, there are serious human rights concerns about U.S. assistance to Mexico. According to internal reporting on Mérida implementation, the program consistently overlooks, ignores or hides connections to organized crime, a grim implication that the United States is routinely evading its own regulations on providing aid to individuals and groups involved in systematic human rights violations.

Since 2008, 15 percent of funds from Mérida have been subject to withholding each year over human rights concerns. Although the State Department continues to receive reports on the kidnappings, forced disappearances and human rights violations that have become routine in Mexico, the Secretary of State still certifies that the country is meeting its human rights requirements.

As calls to restructure or cut off drug war funding begin to Mexico grow louder in the United States in the wake of Ayotzinapa, the global attention garnered by the tragedy may finally force leaders to face these issues with more honesty. So long as Washington and Mexico City refuse to jointly and publicly acknowledge endemic corruption, Mexican citizens will bear the burden of the costs. 

To date, however, the White House has not held the Mexican government accountable for its country’s turmoil. Peña Nieto’s visit to the White House in January 2015 was anti-climatic and disappointed many hoping for more direct words from President Obama on corruption and human rights abuses. The leaders’ security discussions focused on drug cartels, not government failures or missteps. The President has also called for another $120 million for Mexico in FY 2016, with a sizeable portion allocated for security at the country's southern border. 

The Kingpin Strategy has yielded results, but the captures of a few dangerous men represent a short-lived victory for Mexico. The limitations of relying on the Kingpin Strategy to create public safety are evident in states like Michoacán, where the strategy has essentially fulfilled its objective against the continued backdrop of untrustworthy institutions and escalating violence.

Mexico requires thorough social, economic and institutional reform, not increased support for military operations against drug cartel leaders. While U.S. assistance has funded reforms for Mexican police and judicial systems, these institutions remain riddled by corruption and are wracked by issues of transparency, effectiveness and politicization. 

Conditions will persist without buy-in from the Mexican government and genuine political will to root out the corruption supplying oxygen to criminal networks. Mexico’s efforts to protect its citizens from organized crime must account for the complex dynamics that fortify these organizations.

From Security Assistance Monitor:

U.S. Counternarcotics Programs aid to Mexico, 2011-2014

Source: Security Assistance Monitor

U.S. Deparment of Defense aid to Mexico 2011-2014

Source: Security Assistance Monitor