How to Win the Mexican Drug War
the U.S. government has spent $1.6 billion to help Mexico end a war between drug cartels that has killed 63,000 people south of our border in the past six years.
Yet many of our assumptions about this war are wrong.
As part of a study tracking the behavior of Mexico’s organized-crime groups, a colleague and I created an algorithm that uses Google to explore blogs, newspapers and news-related Web content and extract detailed data about how Mexican drug cartels operate. Our tool reads everything published and indexed as part of Google News and collects all the information the Web contains about the activities of the cartels, including their routes of expansion, since the 1990s. Our discoveries shocked us and surprised the U.S. officials who reviewed our findings.
The United States may be helping Mexico fight the wrong war because we do not know who the enemy is.
At the heart of the Mexican government’s strategy, which the United States has supported, is the belief that Mexico’s drug violence is the result of antagonistic trafficking organizations battling to monopolize a territory. Thus, the thinking goes, trafficking organizations must be eliminated. Yet it is not true that drug violence necessarily increases when more than one cartel operates in one area. In fact, in many areas, organized-crime groups share territory peacefully.
Our data show that multiple cartels operated simultaneously in at least 100 Mexican municipalities in 2010, yet those municipalities did not experience a single drug-related homicide. Of the 16,000 assassinations in Mexico’s drug war that year, 43 percent occurred in just eight cities. A single city, Juarez, accounted for 8 percent of the deaths.
What we learned is simple and powerful: Traffickers pick their wars.
Battling is a strategic choice for cartels — and they frequently choose peace.