Saturday, August 15, 2015
Little Nasty Giants
Is there a benefit to having giant criminal cartels running bloody roughshod, selling and transshipping guns and drugs, all over your lands? Pretty tough notion that any country would be better off with a criminal element that has the size and the organization to wield its own army, replete with military-grade weapons and the massive money reserves to bribe their way to even more power and control at every level of government. With sophisticated command and control structures, you’d think that these organizations would have clear succession plans in place to insure continuity and defy governmental efforts to kill the organism by cutting off its head.
ISIS, a big head-cutter in its own right, seems to have deployed a notion of military decentralization to insure its continuity. Decisions as to military strategy are left to the regional commanders. Al Baghdadi’s role as their fearless leader seems to have been shifted to religious doctrine, overall goal-setting without any serious implementational control of the rather successful army that is otherwise terrorizing the Middle East. This suggests that ego and machismo are not the primary motivators of what appears to be a religious movement based on an ultra-harsh, archaic vision of Sunni Islam derived from ancient conquests and beliefs. This certainly makes ISIS that much more difficult to defeat, since the military machine will not even be slowed even by a rather complete removal of top leadership.
But where the command and control at the top of a large criminal organization is relegated to a powerful individual (even with a small coterie of second level commanders), the usual case, cutting off the head is a viable strategy. With a leader captured (and not allowed to escape!!!), these criminal organizations tend to erupt into internecine power struggles among the second layers of “management,” violent beyond all words, to take control. Sometimes, they fracture into smaller crime syndicates, each faction reporting to one of the former lieutenants to the now-removed leader. And sometimes they just fall apart. This pattern has defined Mexico for the last several decades.
However, such unravelings often have an even nastier side effect that results when the fall of one cartel creates a power vacuum waiting to be filled. With demand for narcotics pretty constant from the United States, and with the southward smuggling of guns from easy-access gun fairs in the United States, there are many willing aspirants ready to compete for that business. And to prove their mettle, they often try to “impress and intimidate” by rising to level of crude and unbridled violence that mirrors the beheadings and viral videos employed by ISIS in its Middle Eastern land grab. There is a cherished belief system that the “next” or “replacement” cartel will be determined by which small group can gross out the public and its competitors with the most absurd level of disgusting violence.
“For years, the United States has pushed countries battling powerful drug cartels, like Mexico, to decapitate the groups by killing or arresting their leaders. The pinnacle of that strategy was the capture of Mexico’s most powerful trafficker, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, who escaped in spectacular fashion last month from a maximum-security prison.
“And while the arrests of kingpins make for splashy headlines, the result has been a fragmenting of the cartels and spikes in violence in places like Chilapa, a city of about 31,000, as smaller groups fight for control. Like a hydra, it seems that each time the government cuts down a cartel, multiple other groups, sometimes even more vicious, spring up to take its place.
“‘In Mexico, this has been a copy of the American antiterrorism strategy of high-value targets,’ said Raúl Benítez Manaut, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who specializes in security issues. ‘What we have seen with the strategy of high-value targets is that Al Qaeda has been diminished, but a monster appeared called the Islamic State. With the cartels, it has been similar.’ New York Times, August 12th. Sometimes the violence is fomented by so-called “community defense forces,” which deter strong governmental response in the hopes that this strategy might work. More than once, however, these local defenders wind up taking over the drug trade they swore to eradicate.
Is there progress? It really depends on where you look in Mexico. “Recent government data shows that the national murder rate has been steadily declining since its peak in 2011, which the government cites as evidence that its approach is working… Despite the decline, many areas of the country continue to be shaken by violence as smaller groups of traffickers battle to fill the vacuum left by the deterioration of the large cartels.” NY Times.
But Mexico still points to the overwhelming failure to get drug trafficking under control because the United States has been completely unable to stem the demand for narcotics and the southward flow of weapons from its side of the border. Maybe Donald Trump has an idea for that one, as purveyors of illicit drug continue to use homemade submarines, sophisticated tunneling, massive shipping and trucking efforts to thwart U.S. Customs officials at every turn. Hey, a big wall might just create a big reason to raise drug prices.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the United States appears to be the master global architect of unintended consequences from underdeveloped “shoot first and deal with the aftereffects later” strategies for its biggest issues.