GOP candidates’ proposals to attack drug cartels is the wrong approach, Mexican researchers say


A study found repressive measures against the cartels do less than stem recruitment, which has kept the cartels replenished.


The proposals of Republican presidential candidate such as Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley supporting the deployment of U.S. military personnel to Mexico and the use of drones with bombs to combat the drug cartels have been making headlines as of late.

In the Republican debate last week, Haley referred to the fentanyl problem in the U.S. and said that Mexico was not a good partner if the U.S. lost 75,000 Americans last year and Mexico allowed cartels to get their way. She said she would “send in our special operations and we will take out the cartels.”

The power of Mexican cartels drew wide attention after a recent study published in the journal Science found organized crime groups collectively “employ” an estimated 175,000 people in Mexico.

That would make cartels the fifth-largest employer in the country, according to researchers Rafael Prieto-Curiel, Gian Maria Campedelli and Alejandro Hope.

According to the findings, the labor power of Mexico’s cartels is only surpassed by a few large companies in Mexico, including the beverage multinational Femsa, Walmart, Manpower and the telecommunications giant América Móvil.

Over 200,000 Americans have overdosed and died from synthetic opioids like fentanyl since 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, “drug addiction in the U.S is not solved by bombing Mexico,” Prieto-Curiel said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo. “One could also think that the problem of drug trafficking lies with the consumers,” positing that it’s not as if the U.S. carries out military operations in U.S. cities to control the fentanyl problem.

Mexico as a topic in U.S. political speeches and debates is not new; U.S. political candidates have often blamed their neighbor for rising migration numbers, drug-related fatalities and drug trafficking.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pushed back on the U.S. Republican proposals to deploy security forces to Mexico, calling them “nonsense” and telling the almost 40 million Mexicans who live in the U.S. they shouldn’t support candidates who formulate these plans.

“They speak without support because they think that this way they will gain sympathy,” López Obrador said in recent statement. “They compete among themselves to see who says the most extravagant nonsense about migration, fentanyl and about Mexico, but we should not take them seriously.”

Reducing numbers

When it comes to cartels, the recent research found that although they lose dozens of members every day to slayings or the actions of law enforcement, the violence perpetrated by cartel activity hasn’t decreased in recent years because the groups are always gaining new members.

According to the new report, combating such recruitment is the great hope to putting an end to the violence in a country that, in 2022 alone, recorded 32,223 homicides, or 88 murders a day.

The arrest of cartel leaders, government crackdowns and even peace negotiations with cartels wouldn’t decrease cartel violence as much as reducing the number of people who work for the criminal organizations, according to the study’s mathematical models.

“We saw a great reduction in violence if recruitment is reduced, while doubling repression is not even close to that,” Prieto-Curiel said in the interview.

According to their research, there has to be more focus on how the cartels recruit, whether it’s through the use of threats or the allure of working for these organizations and making money amid scarce jobs. There also has to be more emphasis on the risks of joining these organizations, since about a third of those working for cartels end up imprisoned or dead.

Within hours of the study’s publication, the findings of Prieto-Curiel, Campedelli and Hope (who died at the end of April and was one of Mexico’s most noted security analysts) garnered attention from the media and political leaders.

The Mexican government denied the findings, accusing the researchers of “exaggerating figures.”

“It is a mathematical simulation, whose results obtained are false assumptions,” Ana Elizabeth García Vilchis, a spokesperson for López Obrador, said at a recent news conference. “It is not true that organized crime is the fifth-largest employer in the country, as has been reported.”

Regarding the government’s response, Prieto-Curiel said that “as expected, the results do not favor the government’s policies and then they attack the messenger and do not dedicate themselves to confronting the article’s message, which tells us that the cartel and organized crime in Mexico is today a gigantic institution and is gaining ground, as we are seeing in Chiapas or Nuevo León.”

‘A dark universe’

Prieto-Curiel, who’s a postdoctoral researcher at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, explained how he used mathematical modeling to study the cartels, after experiencing the ravages of Mexico’s violence up close.