How effective is Mexico's ‘kingpin strategy’?
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How effective is Mexico's ‘kingpin strategy’?

Mexican security forces captured the heads of two of the nation’s most feared and violent drug cartels in the last week, but security experts remain unconvinced of the effectiveness of the government’s strategy in the war on drugs.

For every capo the government brings down, several more spring up in his place like the snarling heads of a Hydra, while the cartels’ finances and the shady figures that protect them remain untouched.

This week’s arrests were the latest in a string of recent detentions and killings of key figures within the pseudo-religious Knights Templar cartel and the ultraviolent paramilitary group Los Zetas.

First, just as he was preparing to tuck into a chocolate cake to celebrate his 49th birthday, Servando “La Tuta” Gómez, the last remaining figurehead of the Knights Templars, was arrested in Morelia, the capital of the western state of Michoacán, last Friday.

Then, early on Wednesday morning, Los Zetas boss Omar Treviño Morales was captured in a wealthy suburb of the northern city of Monterrey.

Falling like flies

The Enrique Peña Nieto administration boasts an excellent record of bringing down Mexico’s most infamous gangsters, having also arrested almost all of the most prominent leaders of the Sinaloa, Gulf, Juárez, Tijuana, Beltrán Leyva and Guerreros Unidos cartels.

Most notably,in February 2014 the government recaptured Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the world’s most wanted drug lord, 13 years after he escaped from a maximum-security prison.

The only major figures yet to be apprehended are Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Ramos, the head of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel; and Guzmán’s former partners in the Sinaloa Cartel: Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan José “El Azul” Esparragoza, who is rumored to still be alive following unconfirmed reports of his death last summer.

However, while the present government has proved adept at locking up prominent capos, it has also let several others slip quietly out the back door.

In the last two years, courts in the western state of Jalisco have suddenly approved the early release of Los Zetas founder Rogelio González Pizaña and veteran Guadalajara Cartel kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero under highly suspicious circumstances.

Most recently, Sandra Ávila Beltrán, a relative of Caro Quintero known as “The Queen of the Pacific,” was freed last month when a judge overturned a five-year sentence imposed only last year.

Public skepticism

The capture of major kingpins is often greeted with a degree of suspicion in Mexico, with the previous Felipe Calderón administration having been accused of favoring the Sinaloa Cartel while waging war on its rivals.

At present this seems unlikely, given the way the Peña Nieto administration has brought down the bosses of practically every cartel in Mexico.

However, there is a lingering suspicion that the government is cynically timing major arrests to coincide with moments when it is most in need of fresh political capital.

With the embattled Peña Nieto administration currently in dire need of some positive publicity, Mexico’s Excelsior newspaper noted on Monday that Gómez’s arrest “looks like a smokescreen to distract society from other problems.”

Follow the money

Reflecting on the capture of Treviño Morales, drug war experts José Reveles and Javier Oliva told Excelsior that it would be much more effective to attack the cartels’ finances and go after those who launder their profits.

“It’s an arrest that disrupts the operational structure, but not the financial structure, the money laundering or the political structure, which remain untouched,” agreed Mexican journalist Ricardo Ravelo.

When he took office in 2012, Peña Nieto’s government initially disparaged his predecessor’s “kingpin strategy” of targeting the heads of each cartel.

Calderón’s bloody crusade against the cartels had illustrated that targeting kingpins only provoked ever-more violent and chaotic power struggles as the fragile alliances of the criminal underworld fragmented.

Yet Peña Nieto has clearly persevered with this strategy. And although he has already proven more successful than Calderón in capturing Mexico’s most wanted criminals, there has been little impact on the flow of drugs or the overall level of violence.

While Mexico’s murder rate has dropped slightly under Peña Nieto, the levels of extortions, muggings and kidnappings have all risen.

“Capturing kingpins has become less and less important,” security analyst Alejandro Hope told the New York Times, “because what you’re seeing in the criminal underworld is a transition” from large cartels that focus on drug trafficking “to an array of mostly local and regional gangs that are much more diversified in their revenues and more predatory in their activities.”

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