20 February 2016

Focusing On Kingpins Is A Bad Way To Fight Organized Crime

It is an article of faith in many law enforcement circles that the secret to fighting organized crime is to take down the kingpins who run organized crime organizations.  Unfortunately, this widely adopted strategy, in practice, is one of the worst.  Consider the case of Mexico:
At least 18,650 people were murdered in Mexico in 2015. That is a 7.6 percent increase over 2014. The murder rate for 2015 was 16 per 100,000. The high point during the Calderon Administration (2006-12) was 20 per 100,000. Guerrero state remains the most violent. Its murder rate is 57 per 100,000. 
When Calderon was in charge he pursued a “kingpin strategy” which concentrated on cartel leaders and sought to arrest them or kill them while attempting to arrest them. The current president (Pina) initially criticized the kingpin strategy. However, once in office, Pena has followed a very similar path. By 2015 security forces had killed or captured several senior leaders in the Knights Templar, Sinaloa, Los Zetas and Gulf cartels. At that point it was believed that there were only two major cartels left. 
For many this was astonishing good news. Here is the bad news: several hundred “cartel factions” or splinter cartel cells are still engaged in violent organized criminal activities. This new claim contrasts sharply with another recent government assessment which said nine major cartels and around 45 smaller organized criminal gangs were operating in the country.
By comparison, in 2014, the U.S. murder rate was 4.5 per 100,000 and Louisiana was the state with the highest murder rate, 10.3 per 100,000.  The murder rate in Colorado (which has the most liberal marijuana laws in the nation), where I live, was 2.8 per 100,000.

Empirically, it is clear that taking down kingpins with a militarized approach to drug dealing organizations increases the violence of organized crime, which is the most important reason that we care about organized crime.  Columbia's drug war efforts took a similar approach to Mexico many years earlier, with similar results.  Indeed, Columbia lost effective control of much of its interior territory for something like a decade as a result and has only regained control with what amounts to diplomatic efforts in the last couple of years.

Kingpins come into being to organize economic crimes (vice, loan sharking, smuggling, tax evasion, and "protection rackets" are some of the most common) that are already rampant, in order to make it more profitable, usually by reducing violence between smaller criminal gangs and by mitigating law enforcement interest in the crimes with economic incentives, and reducing political will to fight the economic crimes by reducing its impacts on the neighborhoods where the economic crimes takes place.

By comparison, U.S. efforts to reduce methamphetamine production through regulatory oversight of legal pharmacies by closely monitoring purchases of Sudafed, an over the counter drug that was once widely used to synthesize meth, has been very effective. Maintenance drug based approaches to substance abuse have been much more successful at treating drug addiction and preventing recidivism among people convicted of drug crimes, while the mainstays of incarceration and Alcoholics Anonymous are not effective.

Public health agency driven limited legalization and/or harm reduction approaches to drugs in Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland have likewise been effective.

The most effective single measure ever to reduce tax fraud in the United States, at the recommendation of the late Milton Friedman, was information reporting of business transactions which is usually done these days via IRS Form 1099, a preventative administrative measure, rather than a law enforcement or military approach.

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