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Mexico: What keeps drug traffickers 'in the game?'

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InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.

A new academic investigation looks at understudied but important elements of Mexico’s security challenge: the factors that lead drug traffickers to exit the violent trade, and how to encourage more to follow suit.

The study is called “Getting out of the Game: Desistance from Drug Trafficking,” and was written by Howard Campbell and Tobin Hansen, professors at the University of Texas El Paso and Oregon State University, respectively. Based on interviews with dozens of former drug traffickers in El Paso and neighboring Juarez, the authors sought to examine what keeps a given trafficker in a life of crime, providing insight into how to facilitate such a transition.

Unemployed youth in Mexico, known as “ni-nis” because they neither work nor are they in school (in Spanish, “ni estudian ni trabajan"), number some 8 million, and serve as fertile ground for gangs in need of gunmen, lookouts, and retail drug vendors. Many of the social proposals to target organized crime has focused on how to reduce this number, and therefore reduce the number of bodies interested in working for the the nation’s various drug trafficking organizations.

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However, probably the biggest single impediment to reducing the cohort of disenfranchised youth is slow growth, something that has dogged Mexico since the 1970s. It is the product of structural factors more than a lack of sufficient interest from the government, and insofar as attention to the ni-nis can reduce the power of the drug trade, it is a long-term proposition, not something that can bring murder rates down in the next couple of months.

Furthermore, Mexico’s drug trade employs an estimated 500,000 people, so even if the ni-nis all found jobs or started school tomorrow, the nation would still be saddled with a huge number of dangerous criminals. Eliminating such a large group via arrests and confrontations is, of course, plainly impossible; to reduce the size of the population living off of the drug trade, Mexico’s government needs to ease and encourage the transition away from drug production.

And here is where Mr. Campbell and Mr. Hansen’s study proves helpful. They point to four different obstacles to or catalysts for a criminal leaving the drug trade:

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The risk of punishment. This can either serve to impede or encourage a move out of the drug trade. Traffickers who are worried that their partners will kill them or their families should they try to escape the business will be more leery of severing ties to their past life. However, the prospect of a long jail sentence or death at the hands of their rivals serves as a powerful motivator to carve out a new existence.

Self-image and identity. Traffickers used to the fast life and shows of respect implicit in a position in the drug trade must confront a much more mundane existence should they go straight. Making clandestine deals for millions of dollars, with the threat of bloodshed hanging over the proceedings, is an adrenaline-intensive way of life. Furthermore, for capos who come to enjoy some success in moving up the ladder, they also have the intrinsic benefit of having authority over subordinates. Working as a welder or a line cook obviously doesn’t pack the same thrill or offer the same paycheck.

Social and family ties. Some traffickers enter the drug trade under the wing of an uncle, brother, or cousin. Some work with their closest friends to sell illegal drugs. For these traffickers, going straight isn’t just risky or economically complicated, it’s emotionally painful as well. For others, however, the expectations of family can also serve as a factor that leads them to exit the illegal drug trade.

Drug abuse/use. For drug-addicted traffickers, exiting the trade can be virtually impossible without addressing their addiction at the same time. Or put another way, attacking their dependency requires them to find another way to make a living. In either case, the two problems must be dealt together for either to be overcome.

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The factors they uncover are not particularly surprising, but though they may seem commonplace, Mexico’s crime strategy often suffers from a lack of consideration of the incentives driving the principal actors in the drug trade – i.e., the criminals themselves. Unfortunately, such obstacles are highly personalized and individual, so while the government could make more resources available to fund transition programs, it’s not clear that there are any obvious policy choices that would remove or lessen the barriers for thousands of traffickers, especially at the federal level. Instead, such a transition would seem to be better encouraged and managed as close to the trafficker as is possible, so as to tailor the efforts to his specific situation.

In any event, adopting a wider lens, Campbell and Hansen close their study with a call to sponsor ex-trafficker support groups, and provide the philosophical underpinnings of a more socially sophisticated drug policy:

“[H]arm reduction policies need to address the seductive appeal of trafficker images in Hollywood and pro-cartel narco-media...and the embeddedness of trafficker identities in dense webs of family, community, drug-using circles, gangs and cartels, and the larger society, such that traffickers may stop selling drugs but not fully get out of the game. Thus, policies affecting ex-traffickers should go beyond individuals in isolation (the atomized trafficker) and address the interlocking socioeconomic structures, cultural values and systems of ideas that push and pull traffickers out of the game and make it hard for them to stay out. Moreover, policies should be considered vis-à-vis the ways traffickers actually view their own lives.”

– Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.


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