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How the DEA's successful takedown of a drug cartel shows the drug war's real failure

A soldier stands by seized drugs in Colombia.
A soldier stands by seized drugs in Colombia.
Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

Even when the war on drugs succeeds, it fails.

ProPublica has a fascinating piece, by David Epstein, about the Drug Enforcement Administration's largely successful efforts to dismantle the Tijuana Cartel in Mexico from the 1990s to the 2000s. Although the DEA and Mexican officials managed to catch the cartel's leaders in the end, the piece actually ends with a bit of a somber note: Many of the drug ring leaders captured in the investigation will serve less time than the multi-decade investigation took:

For [Tijuana Cartel leader] Eduardo [Arellano Félix], facing justice meant accepting a plea deal: 15 years, with no cooperation.

"Fifteen years?," [DEA agent Dave] Herrod says. "I worked on the case longer than that." Assuming good behavior, Eduardo will be out less than six years from now.

The article, told largely from the perspective of the DEA agents who worked the case, suggests the real problem here is that the drug cartel leaders' sentences were far too short. ProPublica played up this angle in promoting the article, tweeting, "When the captured leader of one of the largest cartels in Mexico serves less time than length of the investigation."

I won't defend the prison sentences. Drug cartel bosses are mass murderers. Life in prison makes sense, especially when there are nonviolent drug offenders who are serving 50-plus years in federal prison right now.

But focusing on the length of the prison sentence seems wrong to me. The real issue is that the federal government spent decades and millions of dollars on an investigation that DEA agents now admit, according to Epstein, did not in any way stop the flow of drugs into the US. And this is representative of a bigger issue: The federal government has spent decades and billions more on a war on drugs that actually enabled the rise of violent criminal organizations like the Tijuana Cartel.

The war on drugs helped create the Tijuana Cartel

Over the past several decades, America's war on drugs has had a very nasty side effect: By ensuring drugs are illegal around the world, the drug war has created an enormous black market for these illegal substances. The black market has, in turn, fueled criminal organizations, allowing drug cartels in particular to fund their international operations. And since drugs are such a lucrative enterprise, criminal groups are willing to fight national governments, including those supported by the most powerful country in the world, to continue the drug trade.

To put it another way, the Tijuana Cartel likely wouldn't have existed at all — and it certainly wouldn't have gotten to be so violent — if there wasn't a black market for drugs that allowed it to fund itself and gave it a reason to fight.

Mexico's experience shows the lengths these groups are willing to go to defend their profits. After President Felipe Calderón stepped up his country's drug war in 2006, partly with the backing of the US-funded Merida Initiative, drug cartels didn't just go away. They fought back, leading to tremendous levels of violence. Public decapitations have become a particularly prominent tactic of ruthless drug cartels. As many as 80,000 people have died in the war. Tens of thousands of people have gone missing since 2007, including 43 students who vanished last year in a widely publicized case.

Yet the drug war continues, culminating in supposed victories like the capture of the leaders of the Tijuana Cartel.

But by the DEA's own admission, the collapse of the Tijuana Cartel didn't stop the flow of drugs from Mexico or the violence that has ravaged the country for so long. Epstein explained:

Herrod is 50 years old now and nearing the end of his career with the DEA. In the time he spent hunting the Arellanos, his hair and goatee went from black to salt-and-pepper to finally just plain salt. He’s proud of the audacity and perseverance it took to bring down the cartel, and he knows he helped prevent murders and kidnappings. But when he looks back, he doesn’t see the clear-cut triumph portrayed in press releases. Instead, he and other agents who worked the case say the experience left them disillusioned. And far from stopping the flow of drugs, taking out the [Tijuana Cartel] only cleared territory for Joaquín Guzmán Loera — aka "El Chapo" — and his now nearly unstoppable Sinaloa cartel. Guzmán even lent the DEA a hand.

This is essentially describing the "hydra effect": Since drugs are so lucrative, drug producers and traffickers don't just cease to exist when governments go after them or even detain them. The business is so profitable that someone will always be there, willing to replace defunct organizations. In this case, the fall of the Tijuana Cartel simply allowed the Sinaloa Cartel to rise further. That's why the flow of drugs has continued unabated in the US, with the markets for heroin and meth reportedly exploding in the past few years.

These temporary shifts in power can also lead to more violence. With the fall of the Tijuana Cartel, there was suddenly an enormous power vacuum in Baja California. This led the Sinaloa Cartel and other organizations to fight for territory in the area. Former DEA head Michele Leonhart even once remarked, "It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs."

That's the real outrage. Yes, mass murderers should get life in prison. But what's worse is the ineffective policies that enable mass murderers to carry out their violence in the first place, exemplified in a decades-long DEA investigation that simply pushed out one violent drug cartel so another one could take its place.