Publication Date

April 13, 2015

In the past two months, Mexican authorities have publicized the capture and arrests of two drug bosses: Servando “La Tuta” Gómez of the Knights of Templar (formerly La Familia) and Omar Treviño Morales, known as “Z-42,” of Los Zetas. La Tuta was arrested in Michoacán, the home state of Felipe Calderón—former president and now Inaugural Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Z-42 was arrested in a posh neighborhood in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey.

For a historian, the announcements and news coverage of these arrests followed a pattern that has persisted for decades. In the wake of what’s known as “the Kingpin Strategy,” the arrests are hailed as an “upheaval” at the top, sure to “disrupt” and/or “dismantle” a particular organization and curtail the drug trade. Parading the drug boss before cameras, accompanied by masked and heavily armed police agents, heightens the spectacle.

In the cases of La Tuta and Z-42, and their respective organizations, journalists repeated the sentiments expressed by military and police officials: proclaiming the violence of these men, retelling the numbers of dead at their hands, and giving examples of their savagery. Mexican and American authorities deploy these tropes—narco-narratives composed of words and images—to demonstrate the success of the War on Drugs. But that rhetoric is losing its force to sway the general public.

Of course, the use of media is not limited to state actors. For many years, drug trafficking organizations used social media, film, and music to document their violence and their battles with the police. By using social media to memorialize their power, the Knights of Templar and Los Zetas have also created historical evidence for scholars. While the Treviño Morales brothers maintained a mostly silent approach by not speaking directly to the media, La Tuta has given interviews. He once explained to journalist Guillermo Galdos of ITN how crystal meth is made from radiator fluid and argued that as businessmen, neither he nor Galdos could fix the world.

The arrests of Z-42 took place when Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was visiting Great Britain, and served to demonstrate that President Nieto is just as tough on drug crime as his predecessor. Though he took control of Los Zetas only after the arrest of his brother Miguel in July 2013, the DEA, the FBI, and the Mexican government had long been seeking to arrest Z-42 and his associates for their illicit involvement in the American quarter horse raising and breeding industry. Their innovative approach to money laundering did not go unnoticed in the US.

The brothers and their businesses have been a target of the US government through the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act), which became law in 1999. Designed to deny drug traffickers and their organizations access to American financial institutions, the act prohibits US citizens and businesses from trade or interaction with drug traffickers. In 2009, three organizations and their associates in the United States were targeted: Los Zetas, the Sinaloa Cartel, and La Familia Michoacana (the Knights of Templar are an offshoot of La Familia).

The arrests of kingpins create news. Journalists capture the march of the arrested leader surrounded by masked police agents. To display policing and military might for the cameras is to give the impression that the War on Drugs is winnable. This, the Kingpin Strategy, began in Colombia and has been the primary policy of the DEA for over 20 years.

At a recent meeting at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, experts argued that the Kingpin Strategy the US continues to advocate and fund has failed. Arresting leaders does little to “disrupt” or “dismantle” the drug trade because drug trafficking organizations, like most organized crime, maintain horizontal rather than vertical power structures. As in Colombia, the arrests of key figures led to splintering or fractionalization of their groups into smaller entities that are more autonomous, more violent, and more difficult to police. The civilian population then faces increasing violence due to the competition between smaller rival drug trafficking organizations and their continued battles with police forces.

The militarization of the police in Mexico over the past nine years further weakened the state and democracy while drug traffickers prospered. This may help explain why reports of the arrests of La Tuta and Z-42 were met with skepticism: so many kingpins have been arrested; so little has changed.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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