The Mexican Marines in an operation against the Los Zetas cartel.

On September 6, 2006, members of La Familia Michoacán—a drug cartel based in the southern Mexican state of Michoacán—entered the Sol y Sombra night club and threw five human heads onto the dance floor. Four months later, newly sworn-in Mexican President Felipe Calderon called for a War on Organized Crime—or War on Drugs—as drug-related violence spiked in Michoacán and other regions of Mexico.

Mexico is now a decade deep into that war—a cousin of the U.S. War on Drugs championed in 1971 by President Richard Nixon. Since 2006, the DEA, FBI, and other American agencies have collaborated with Mexican authorities to seek and arrest cartel leaders and members.

All wars are dependent on strategy, and this one is no different. The methods used to combat the cartels have changed minimally, even as the cartel landscape has changed dramatically since the dawn of the 21st century. Nevertheless, the strategies used in the War on Drugs have remained effective. The United States has gathered substantial intelligence about cartel operations, many leaders have been arrested or neutralized, and individual cartels have splintered, balkanized, and weakened.

From Colombia to Mexico

For decades, Colombia was home to some of the most powerful drug cartels in the world. At the height of his power, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was said to supply 80 percent of the cocaine within U.S. borders. Eventually, the DEA cracked down on the Colombian cartels and blocked the influx of drugs through the Caribbean. In an end-around of U.S. authorities, however, South American cartels increasingly turned to Mexico as a channel through which to pump their product into its northern neighbor.

Seeking to stem the flow of drugs, the DEA and the Colombian government implemented the kingpin strategy to combat the Colombian cartels. Law enforcement targeted the leaders of the cartels—eliminating the kingpins—to disorient leadership in hopes of weakening their military, productive, and distributive powers. “It really helped diminish the power, specifically of the Medellin Cartel,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of geopolitical intelligence firm Tactical Analysis at Stratfor, in an interview with the HPR. “The group got far less violent, and they didn’t pose the same sort of threat to the Colombian state that they did when Escobar was still in charge.”

But the fall of Escobar left a void in the criminal underworld. Since then, Mexican cartels have filled the vacuum, assuming control over both means of production and distribution. “There were two big cartel groups in Mexico—the Guadalajara Cartel and the Gulf Cartel. After the torture and execution of DEA agent Enrique Camarena by the Guadalajara Cartel, the Americans specifically enacted decapitation,” Stewart explained. They took out the leadership of the Guadalajara Cartel in retribution for the Camarena killing, and that led to the breakup of the Guadalajara Cartel into several, smaller organizations, one of which was the Sinaloa Cartel.”

The Sinaloa Cartel quickly rose to military dominance in turf wars with the Tijuana and Juarez operations. The splintering of Los Zetas from the Gulf Cartel left the latter weak, allowing the Sinaloa Cartel—under its most visible leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera—to dominate the Mexican cartel landscape. After the third recapture of El Chapo in January 2016, there are worries that the Sinaloa Cartel will itself splinter as its predecessor did and plunge Mexico back into drug-related chaos as cartel leaders fight to control key routes. Others observers, such as Steven Dudley, co-director of the non-profit investigative journalism organization Insight Crime, contend that his recapture was a result of preexisting fragmentation and that such fragmentation is a sign of cartel weakness. “One of the reasons that he is captured at all is because of the fragmentation,” Dudley told the HPR. “The fragmentation is what makes him more vulnerable … the fact that there are numerous pieces of that puzzle, and that there is not a single vertical structure with him at the top pulling all the strings.” Small, disjointed cartels mean easier pickings for anti-drug forces, according to Dudley.

Strategies on the Ground

The United States translates the war south of its border as the “Mexican War on Drugs.” In 1971, Nixon explicitly labeled drugs and illegal substances as the nation’s enemy. However, the enemy is much broader in Mexico. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon had declared a “war on organized crime” in 2006 to eradicate drugs and the cartels. In 2012, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said that stronger national security was the priority in Mexico’s “war on drug trafficking.” Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong called it “an inappropriately titled war on drugs that has led to an increase in violence.” The lack of a single name for this war reflects the cartels’ criminal diversification into areas other than drug trafficking. “They had to go into other crimes to support themselves, because they [couldn’t] make their money just smuggling drugs anymore,” said Stewart. When the Sinaloa Cartel moved into Ciudad Juarez, the Juarez Cartel’s “reduced ability to traffic and increased need of resources to fend off [the Sinaloa Cartel] caused them to dramatically increase practices such as kidnapping [and] extortion.”

Dudley noted that differences in operational abilities also affect the fight against the cartels. The different criminal economies and organizations of the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas reflect their end-goals, he explained. “The Zetas have an end-goal of controlling territory [to tax] criminal and non-criminal business entities and others. So they are going to have a larger military structure [that is] dependent on controlling physical space.” The Sinaloa Cartel, however, focuses on “gathering [government] contacts and [moving] large amounts of drugs across vast expanses of territory.”

The diversity of operations and organizational structures among cartels makes finding a one-size-fits-all strategy difficult to find for U.S. and Mexican officials. In the 1990s, it was easier to decapitate the cartels with the kingpin strategy because they focused on drug production and distribution. Now, since they have many operations and revenue streams, removing one is futile. Today, the DEA classifies the cartels as “Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations,” or TCOs, because of the violent offshoots that have sprung from cartel balkanization. In an interview with the HPR, Russel Baer, staff coordinator in the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs at the DEA, mentioned that the “targeted kingpin strategy is no longer a DEA initiative. We still target the commanding control elements of the drug trafficking organizations … wherever they may be,” but the once dominant approach has largely been replaced.

The kingpin strategy was first used by the DEA in 1992 to target the cartels’ “most vulnerable areas—the chemicals needed to process the drugs, their finances, communications, transportation, and leadership structure.” Kingpins were prioritized to disrupt, weaken, and destroy their organizations and strike the drug trade. However, because of the DEA’s limited resources, it has since adopted the consolidated priority targeting model, or CPOT. The U.S. Attorney General established the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces Program “to mount a comprehensive attack against organized drug traffickers.” The OCDETF compiles the Consolidated Priority Organization Target List annually. The DEA then uses the CPOT List to focus its resources onto the drug-trafficking organizations that are most responsible for importing illegal substances into the country. By focusing on the largest and most powerful TCOs, that DEA is able to maximize its impact on these organizations and the drug trade, as well as use its resources efficiently.

Who’s Winning the War?

Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his successor Enrique Peña Nieto have received criticism for prolonging the War on Drugs. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, soldiers, and criminals have been displaced during a decade of drug warfare. However, despite the costs, the DEA and Mexican authorities have collaborated to combat Mexican TCOs with success. The DEA has offices in Mexico with special agents, administrative support staff, intelligence analysts, and program analysts “all working towards the same goal in terms of the identification, targeting, and the arrest of these major organizations operating throughout Mexico,” Baer explained. “We’ve had a number of highly successful results throughout Mexico targeting the various drug cartel elements, but it’s a collaborative effort.”

Examples of collaboration between the United States and Mexico include Project Reckoning in 2008 and Operation Xcellerator in 2009. According to a DEA press release, Project Reckoning targeted the Gulf Cartel in Mexico and resulted in the apprehension of over 500 individuals from the United States, Mexico, and Italy, as well as the seizure of illicit money and substances. Similarly, Operation Xcellerator, in collaboration with Mexican and Canadian authorities, led to the arrest of over 700 suspects.

More recently, intelligence gathered and shared by the DEA made possible the Mexican Marines’ recapture of El Chapo. In 2009, the Mexican attorney general published a list with the names of the 37 most wanted drug lords. El Chapo’s recapture marked the 33rd drug lord on that list who had been arrested or neutralized. Meanwhile, drug seizures have increased along the United States-Mexico border, and the DEA continues to train Mexican officials in international law enforcement, drug identification, and apprehension strategies.

Baer’s tone was optimistic when asked if the United States’ strategies in the War on Drugs had been successful. The DEA has to employ its limited resources effectively and efficiently, he said, but “fortunately for the DEA, we’re a single mission agency.” The kingpin strategy only focused on top cartel leaders to weaken their organizations. Now, the DEA is using a 360 strategy, which targets high-level members of TCOs—Mexican cartels along with street-level gangs—while simultaneously engaging in community outreach programs to end the opioid epidemic. These gangs are supplied by Mexican cartels and serve as proxies in “metropolitan areas involved in the distribution and supply of controlled substances.” Baer added, “We believe that enforcement is just one prong, one part of the solution, it’s not entirely the solution in and of itself, but community outreach and education is a big component of what we are trying to do nowadays.”

But there’s always room for improvement. And when asked what changes should be made to American strategies in the War on Drugs, Stewart suggested better intelligence. “If you can generate better intelligence in the Sierra [mountain ranges], you’ll be able to really crack down on the organizations operating there,” he offered. “We’re talking everything from human intelligence—with police and the military having informants working within these organizations—to things like signals intelligence, picking up the cell phone satellite radio communications of the cartels.”

Dudley recommended taking “a long-term view of all these things, whether it’s justice reform, or even reform of police, social programs, [or] early childhood intervention. All these things take decades; they don’t take administrations.” However, he acknowledged that expediency motivates politicians to simply reinforce security “without thinking about the other components that are necessary to lower the levels of crime and criminality.”

The War on Drugs has displaced and killed many since it was first declared by President Nixon four decades ago. Drug abuse, drug trafficking, and turf wars amongst drug cartels have ruined the lives of communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. But the kingpin, CPOT, and 360 strategies have all served to disrupt, weaken, and sometimes destroy these criminal organizations. By targeting high-level commanding and controlling elements, optimizing the use of limited resources, and engaging with the community to prevent drug abuse and trafficking, the DEA and its Mexican counterparts have been able to sustain their war on drugs, drug trafficking, and organized crime.

Image Source: Wikimedia // Borderland Beat Reporter Buggs

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