April 12, 2013

The writer is a fellow in inequality and criminal justice at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. From 2010 to 2012, she and Michele Coscia, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Development, studied how and where Mexican drug cartels operate.

the U.S. government has spent $1.6 billion to help Mexico end a war between drug cartels that has killed 63,000 people south of our border in the past six years.

Yet many of our assumptions about this war are wrong.

As part of a study tracking the behavior of Mexico’s organized-crime groups, a colleague and I created an algorithm that uses Google to explore blogs, newspapers and news-related Web content and extract detailed data about how Mexican drug cartels operate. Our tool reads everything published and indexed as part of Google News and collects all the information the Web contains about the activities of the cartels, including their routes of expansion, since the 1990s. Our discoveries shocked us and surprised the U.S. officials who reviewed our findings.

The United States may be helping Mexico fight the wrong war because we do not know who the enemy is.

At the heart of the Mexican government’s strategy, which the United States has supported, is the belief that Mexico’s drug violence is the result of antagonistic trafficking organizations battling to monopolize a territory. Thus, the thinking goes, trafficking organizations must be eliminated. Yet it is not true that drug violence necessarily increases when more than one cartel operates in one area. In fact, in many areas, organized-crime groups share territory peacefully.

Our data show that multiple cartels operated simultaneously in at least 100 Mexican municipalities in 2010, yet those municipalities did not experience a single drug-related homicide. Of the 16,000 assassinationsin Mexico’s drug war that year, 43 percent occurred in just eight cities. A single city, Juarez, accounted for 8 percent of the deaths.

What we learned is simple and powerful: Traffickers pick their wars.

Battling is a strategic choice for cartels — and they frequently choose peace.

War is not the unavoidable outcome of a profitable illegal industry. Violent criminal groups in Mexico are no different from other illegal groups that manage to operate with low levels of violence. Consider: Bolivia and Peru produce marijuana in larger quantities than do many Latin American countries and still have murder rates among the region’s lowest. The Japanese mafia controls the most profitable market of methamphetamines in Asia without major episodes of violence. Endangered species are smuggled through Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia without significant confrontations with poachers. Bosnia’s sex trafficking industry has boomed without a parallel upsurge in homicides.

Because trafficking is a business and fighting is a business strategy, drug cartels choose to fight whenever war brings more benefits than costs. And the cost that governments can more efficiently impose on a criminal entrepreneur is prison. Cartels have chosen to fight in certain areas of Mexico because it makes business sense. South of the U.S. border, only 6 percent of all homicides produce a trial and judgment. As such, killing trafficking enemies to take over their territory, and potentially increase illegal earnings, is profitable. In short, war pays in Mexico.

So the right way to fight a drug war in Mexico is not to aim at eliminating criminal organizations, as many have assumed, but rather to create conditions in which war does not pay. This will not be achieved with the strategy Washington has embraced. Even if all criminal organizations were eliminated, new ones would emerge as long as profits could be made from cocaine. A war against drug organizations is an endless war.

Mexican President Enrique Peña ­Nieto plans to hold a national forum Tuesday with academics, laypeople and others to discuss how the country can best achieve peace. Now is the time for Mexico to choose the right direction.

Mexico must craft a system of incentives, using arrests, sentencing and imprisonment, so that criminal organizations cannot find it profitable to kill. Rather than help Mexico fight an unwinnable war against criminal organizations, the United States must help its neighbor battle impunity. Ours must be a war to make sure those who kill face consequences; a war to improve Mexico’s justice system, because only 31 percent of the population believes it would be punished after committing a crime; a war against the sort of outbreaks where, in one day, more than 130 prisoners escape a jail near the Texas border. The goal must be to make violent crime a risky endeavor, rather than a discretionary choice made by criminal businessmen. A war against impunity can be won. A war against drugs cannot.