New Orleans Looking at gang and cartel driven crime from drug dealing to murder, one country after another, including the US, has tried militarizing and increasing police forces and expanding incarceration exponentially, yet crime and violence remain persistent and ubiquitous. Nowhere has the of violence been greater than in Mexico. The Sinaloa cartel is an excellent example. Despite the jailing and long prison sentence for its most recent leader, El Chapo, and even the capture of one of his sons who had taken his place, the beat goes on. An extensive number crunching report published in Science by Rafael Prieto-Curiel, who had worked in the Mexican government’s data forecasting shop, argues that there should be real support for President Manuel Lopez Obrador’s “hugs not bullets” policy. He says to cut off the head of the snake, cut off the manpower supply and recruitment by dealing with the source upstream, not just the crime and violence downstream.
Looking at gang death counts, incarceration numbers, disappearances, and other factors, Prieto-Curiel came up with an estimate of 175,000 cartel members in Mexico. Just stop and let that figure sink in for a minute, because it’s massive. These aren’t random street corner delinquents. This is a dispersed and disciplined criminal army, mostly armed and dangerous. This is a “war on drugs” in which the other side seems to have a clear advantage not only in numbers but in other resources and tactical operations as well, with their work is raking in gazillions. For comparison, the estimated size of the entire local and state Mexican police forces is maybe 500,000. The Mexican army adds another 300,000. Those are bad odds against the cartels, so if the numbers could be cut, it would make a big difference.
He estimates that “In Mexico, 686 people were killed each week of 2021, with an additional 137 people reported as missing and yet to be found, and more than 2500 people were imprisoned each week” in the “150 active cartels.” Those are mind-boggling numbers. He believes they have to recruit between 350 and 375 new members per week to stay even. If the manpower numbers were halved, cartel membership, he estimates, would be 155,000 by 2027. If miraculously stopped completely, it would be 110,000 by then. If the cartels were a private sector business, they would be the 5th largest in Mexico, after other quasi-criminal enterprises like Walmart. I only half-joking there, but like Walmart, their turnover churn of over 300,000 people per year, 3.3% per week would be more than 150% per year. Remember that unlike in store-based retail, these guys, and they are mostly men, are not leaving for another job, they’re leaving to go to jail or the funeral parlor and its equivalent.
Hurting recruitment won’t happen with hugs. It would take a lot of jobs, and jobs that pay more with less risk. They can probably put a dent in fake ads, but direct coercion would be harder to stop. Reducing the alure from popular culture in songs, TV, and movies, that produces volunteer cartel members will also be a climb, and I can say that having watched way more than my share of “narcos” shows on Netflix and elsewhere. Blunting the labor workforce by competing for the manpower in other ways would be expensive and a huge undertaking, that’s for sure, but at least that’s a sustainable public investment with deep community and public benefits. What is being done now isn’t working, so why not try that?