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U.S. Kingpin Strategy: Targeting Drug Traffickers

In an ongoing five-part series, the Baker Institute of Public Policy at Rice University weighs the pros and cons of the United States Government's Kingpin Strategy, a policy approach which tackles drug trafficking by targeting the criminals themselves, not the crimes.

The strategy initially targeted cocaine trafficking organizations operating out of Medellin and Cali, Colombia, with most of the focus placed on the Cali cartel, writes the Baker Institute's drug fellow Gary Hale.  It was developed after reviewing the “drug trafficking business cycle” which Hale says closely resembles any other commercial enterprise. The DEA and other enforcement groups recognized that the common thread was the “command-and-control elements” that provided leadership, authority, management, and direction for criminal activities.

In Colombia, writes Hales, the strategy focused on the destruction of the cartels “not for the purpose of stopping drug exports but rather, for the purpose of self-preservation, since the cartels were intent on destroying the government.”

In Mexico, President Calderón received criticism for his kingpin elimination efforts. Opponents argued that arresting or killing cartel chieftains left leadership voids, fracturing the cartels and causing an uptick in violence.  Calderón responded that removing kingpins does not increase the violence in states that are already among the most dangerous in Mexico.

The recent death of Heriberto Lazcano, the leader of Mexico’s violent Zetas cartel, was seen as a significant victory for Calderón, who has made the elimination of top cartel leaders a priority in his fight against organized crime.

Hale concludes by saying the Kingpin strategy has proven to be effective, but must be employed in conjunction with other government action. “When coupled with rule-of-law reforms and other law enforcement and intelligence institution building efforts, governments have a better chance of successfully confronting the criminality that affects national and regional security issues,” he writes.