Mexican cartels: crime or terrorism?

Enrique Pena Nieto at the World Economic Forum on Latin America 2010. Photo WEF

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

Enrique Pena Nieto (above), the winner of Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico, has been remarkably short on details over his promise to reduce drug-related violence. For any strategy to be successful, there must be a clear understanding of the tactics adopted by the drug cartels in Mexico and the purpose of their gruesome acts of violence, such as beheading, mutilating and dumping bodies on the streets.

In an article published on the Kings of War blog (from the War Studies Department at King’s College London) I argue that violence has become a key political communication tactic, used by drug groups to negotiate their positions in the drug market. The recent proliferation of small criminal groups in Mexico has turned brutality into the most effective demonstration of power. Mass killings, the hanging of corpses from bridges and the frequent mounting of threatening banners at crime scenes all highlight a criminal group’s ability to wield hard power and hold territories.

Crucially, these methods also serve to intimidate the public in a specific area or compel authorities to change policies, in a style similar to traditional conceptions of political terrorism.

Such methods have now become the prevalent fighting technique and communication channel for drug groups in Mexico. Countering them will be one of the top challenges for Pena Nieto in the months and years to come.

Read the full blog post.


A triangle of death

Mara Salvatrucha gang member, El Salvador

A Mara Salvatrucha gang member in prison in El Salvador. Photo: Moisen Saman, courtesy of Sony World Photography Award 2008/Creative Commons

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

The Economist has dubbed it ‘the tormented isthmus‘. It is the most murderous region on earth: the ‘northern triangle’ of Central America formed by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The bloody drugs war that has raged in neighbouring Mexico since 2006 has spilled over into a region already destabilised by years of civil war in the 1980s, plagued by local gangs and corrupt institutions, and with too few police.

While adding the region to the institute’s Armed Conflict Database recently, we unearthed a raft of alarming statistics. These include: Read the rest of this entry »


Rethinking the drugs war in Afghanistan

Operation Enduring Freedom: Marines operate near Combat Outpost Ouellette. Photo By United States Marine Corps Official Page

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate

For those studying Afghanistan, the drugs trade is such a pervasive feature of the nation’s economy, politics, security and society that separating it from counter-insurgency (COIN) and diplomatic efforts is simply unthinkable. Yet the subject of counter-narcotics (CN) was notably absent from the agenda of last month’s NATO Summit in Chicago.

The IISS has acknowledged the difficulties of conducting counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics operations simultaneously; in most situations, the latter usually take a back seat. Nonetheless, the security implications of the illicit market make it a good time to assess current strategies and the ‘Afghanisation’ of policy, as well as to discuss ongoing international cooperation and the future prospects for Afghan counter-narcotics policy. And these were exactly the sort of discussions that the IISS Transnational Threats and Political Risk research programme and Dr David Bewley-Taylor of Swansea University facilitated when they recently hosted an off-the-record ‘Colloquium on counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan: transition and beyond’.  (Dr Bewley-Taylor’s involvement was part of a project funded by the Open Society Foundations’  Global Drug Policy Program and the colloquium was supported by the International Drug Policy Consortium.)

Read the rest of this entry »


Drugs: A war lost in Afghanistan

US Marine patrols a poppy field. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. David A. Perez

Nigel Inkster, the IISS’s Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, has a piece in Foreign Policy examining the failure of the drugs war in Afghanistan. The article – which draws on Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: the Problems of Prohibition, a recent Adelphi book Inkster co-authored with Virginia Comolli – looks at the failure of eradication programmes, the limited quantities of trafficked drugs seized, and the largely fruitless efforts to persuade Afghan farmers to grow less profitable or less hardy crops.

Afghanistan is the source of around 60% of the planet’s illicit opium and 80% of illegal heroin, he writes.The United Nations recently reported there had been a 61% rebound in opium production in 2011, and prices were soaring. This is a worrying trend, which seems set to continue after NATO troops leave.’

But with so many vested interests in the trade inside Afghanistan, and global demand for this highly profitable, highly transportable commodity remaining strong, can there ever be a solution? Maybe, suggests Inkster, ‘but not while current conditions of high insecurity and pervasive corruption persist’…

Read more in Foreign Policy


‘Abandon the knee-jerk response on drugs’

Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli at the US launch of Drugs, Insecurity, Failed States

Violence related to the illegal drugs trade should prompt a rethink of global drugs policy, IISS Director for Transnational Threats and Political Risk Nigel Inkster and IISS Research Analyst Virginia Comolli said at the US launch of their Adelphi book, Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition, at IISS-US last week.

As Inkster and Comolli explained, the prohibition of drugs was originally intended to reduce social ills associated with drug use. However, because drugs fell into the class of goods that were easy to conceal during transport, the global ‘prohibition regime’ had not succeeded in its purpose. Rather, it has only served to create a lucrative and illegal drugs smuggling industry.

Read the rest of this entry »


‘Time for an open, informed drugs debate’

Rising prices of cocaine and heroin through the distribution system
Latin American leaders have said recently that the West’s ‘war on drugs’ has failed, and a new book from the IISS agrees. At this week’s launch of Drugs, insecurity and failed states: The problems of prohibition, IISS expert and former MI6 deputy director Nigel Inkster said a new approach was needed in which drugs were treated as an issue to be managed rather than as a problem to be solved. Co-author Virginia Comolli pointed out that since the ‘war on drugs’ began in 1961 with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to deter trafficking and possession, none of the international treaty’s objectives had been achieved.

Worse, both authors said, banning drugs had fuelled violence and instability in the developing world, through the creation of a global black market dominated by powerful criminal groups. In some countries there had been ‘state capture’, or subversion of institutions, by criminal networks. Other nations, where drugs now overshadowed legitimate businesses, were surviving on ‘junkie economies’.

Read the rest of this entry »


Colombia takes the lead on drug-policy reform

Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States

By Virginia Comolli, Research Analyst, IISS

Once again US President Barack Obama has said ‘no’ to legalising drugs, but in a statement to the sixth Summit of the Americas he agreed that a discussion on drug policy was  ‘legitimate’.

The summit took place in the Colombian city of Cartagena on 14–15 April, and included 34 regional heads of state. It followed months of anticipation during which presidents and senior politicians from the countries most affected by drug-related violence had spoken out in favour of a review of the prohibition regime and the end of the ‘war on drugs’ in its current form. The consensus among them was that the existing one-size-fits-all approach structured around strong law-enforcement measures has had many unintended negative consequences, especially in the developing world.

Since pushing the need for a new approach to drugs control at the annual session in Vienna of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March 2012, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has become a key spokesperson on drug-policy reform. His country has first-hand experience of the corruption, violence and instability that the drugs trade can bring.

Colombia’s ambassador to London and aide to the president, Mauricio Rodriguez Munera, has been just as vocal as Santos in his calls for a new approach to the drugs trade. In recent interviews he has stressed that while there is no doubt that the war on drugs has failed, a wholly convincing alternative model does not yet exist. Rodriguez has suggested that any new examination of policy should be led by experts and based on facts, and should avoid the high emotion of celebrity-led debates. It should also take into account the needs of those who are suffering as a result of current policy.

This shift of opinion coincides with the launch of the latest Adelphi book Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: the Problems of Prohibition which provides hard evidence of the impact of prohibition on drug-producing states, such as Colombia and Afghanistan, and transit zones such as Mexico, Central America and West Africa. Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli show how the war on drugs has penalised weak states by placing disproportionate focus on disrupting the supply of narcotics while not enough responsibility is being taken by consumer nations. The authors argue in favour of a new paradigm whereby greater efforts and more funding are channelled into development and education, and suggest that public-health programmes, rather than the criminal-justice system, should be the driving force in dealing with narcotics.

Read the rest of this entry »


Time to end the war on drugs?

Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines, Regimental Combat Team 1, search a vehicle for possible threats during operation Aero Hunter in Afghanistan, May 9. Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 and RCT-1 supported Operation Aero Hunter to disrupt suspicious activity and counteract enemy drug and weapons trafficking.

South American countries afflicted by drug-related violence are seeking to promote a global discussion on the legalisation of narcotics, the latest IISS Strategic Comment says. Increasingly, these countries  feel that a prohibition-based strategy places most of the burden on them, rather than on consumer countries, as they suffer from extreme violence caused by competition between drug cartels.

It’s a timely topic, with the Intelligence Squared forum and Google recently joining forces to host a high-profile discussion entitled: ‘Is it time to end the war on drugs?’ The event attracted dozens of participants from Virgin boss Richard Branson, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and human-rights lawyers Geoffrey Robertson to former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and Mario Antonio Costa, the former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

And this latest Strategic Comment is just an entree to an IISS Adelphi book out later this month. In Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition, authors Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli look at the money and effort that has going into curtailing the drugs trade – with limited success. Their book shows ‘how progress may be made by treating consumption as a healthcare issue rather than a criminal matter, thereby freeing states to tackle the cartels and traffickers who hold their communities to ransom’.

As another author and expert Misha Glenny says, it’s quite something when an organisation like the IISS enters a debate like this on the side it has – ‘surely a sign’, he continues, ‘that the time has come for a fundamental rethink of this policy.’

We hope to hear from Nigel and Virginia directly after the book is out; in the meantime, there’s more about it here.


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