Instead of being run by a handful of massive, price-fixing ‘cartels’, the Colombian drug trade, then and now, was characterized by a fluid social system where flexible exchange networks expanded and retracted according to market opportunities and regulatory constraints.
Abstract, “The Architecture of Drug Trafficking: Network Forms of Organisation in the Colombian Cocaine Trade,” in journal Global Crime, by Pennsylvania State University professor Michael Kenney, author of From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation.
American officials attributed the delays to cumbersome U.S. government contracting requirements, negotiations over exactly what equipment is needed, and the challenges of creating an infrastructure to deliver an aid package that spans four dozen programs and several U.S. agencies.
“U.S. Aid Delays in Drug War Criticized; Mexicans Seek ‘True Solidarity’,” Washington Post, April 5, 2009.
Look at almost any law enforcement organization — from local police to the U.S. Department of Justice — and you will see a classic bureaucratic structure not overly different from that of the Social Security Administration, the Postal Service, or the Boy Scouts. Responsibility, authority, and funds flow downward through a series of boxes. The bureaucracy’s being branches from the head of the agency or department at the top of a vertical pyramid down to the unit or squad at the bottom.
Add in the invisible external forces of the executive (president, governor, mayor) and legislative (council, legislature, Congress) decision-making process and you have a cumbersome beast. That beast then has to coordinate what it does with the other beasts thrashing around in the law enforcement underbrush, all of whom have historically been reluctant to share their turf.
A case in point is the implementation of the Merida Initiative, under which the United States is supposed to be helping Mexico fight its drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to the two countries’ mutual benefit.
Last June, Congress appropriated $400 million. According to the Washington Post (April 5, 2009), the State Department announced in December 2008 that $197 million of that funding had been “released.” But the paper’s close examination “shows that just two small projects under Merida — the delivery of high-speed computer servers in December and an arms-trafficking workshop attended by senior U.S. officials at a Mexican resort last week — have been completed.”
Here’s one bureaucrat’s explanation quoted by the Post:
“We are moving as fast as we can, but we also have to do this right,” said Roberta S. Jacobson, who, as deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, helped negotiate the Merida Initiative. “We are creating a $1 billion program essentially from scratch, and if we try and move faster than our own procedures — and those of Mexico — can manage, we risk the careful oversight and monitoring that we and Congress expect.”
Agility and speed are not strong points of such bureaucracies.
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Contrast the speed and agility with which the DTOs operate. These guys move this kind of money — and more — around in suitcases. The $400 million Congress appropriated is chump change to drug barons. A former senior official of a federal law enforcement agency told me last week about a case in which the agency seized a suitcase with $250 million in cash. Monitoring of drug bosses’ conversation later revealed that they didn’t blink an eye–they took it as just a cost of doing a much bigger business.
Part of the difference between transnational criminals and bureaucracies is ruthlessness. Any DTO underling who took this long to deliver the proceeds would get a terminal headache — from a couple of bullets in the back of the head.
But the more important difference in the view of many experts is the way drug trafficking organizations — and many other transnational criminal organizations — are…well, organized.
Here, for example, is a description of drug trafficking organizations in the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez plaza, “a principal smuggling corridor and staging area for drug transportation to markets throughout the United States,” according to the April 2007 West Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis, published by the National Drug Intelligence Center:
Over the past few years, the structure of Mexican DTOs operating in the El Paso/Juárez plaza has changed from traditional hierarchical organizations to much more efficient organizations composed of decentralized networks of interdependent, task-oriented cells. For example, one cell may be responsible for transporting drug shipments across the U.S.-Mexico border, another for transporting drugs to U.S. markets, and another for laundering drug funds. The variety of relationships that these individual cells can have with one another as well as their insular nature, particularly for organizational heads, renders these DTOs more difficult for law enforcement to dismantle than DTOs with a traditional hierarchical structure. In addition, if the head of the DTO or cell leaders are identified and arrested, the decentralized, interdependent nature of these DTOs ensures that they can continue to operate unimpeded.
This segmented but integrated network is “flat,” compared to the Christmas tree bureaucratic structure. Yet, it still lends itself to the severely authoritarian rule of the narco bosses. “The leaders of these organizations…give the orders and expect them to be followed.” (Gregory D. Lee, Global Drug Enforcement: Practical Investigative Techniques, p. 288.) It’s like a giant, global LEGO factory set — the pieces can be custom designed, moved around, plugged in, and shifted to different shapes to meet different needs and respond to law enforcement pressures, all the while preserving operational security.
Here is how Michael A. Braun — former assistant administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — described it in his March 12, 2009 statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:
The Mexican cartels’ ‘corporate’ headquarters are set up South of our border, and thanks to corruption, cartel leaders often times carry out their work in palatial surroundings. The cartel leaders manage and direct the daily activities of ‘command and control cells’ that are typically located just across the border in our Country. Those command and control cells manage and direct the daily activities of ‘distribution, transportation and money laundering cells’ all across our Nation.
The cartels operate just like terrorist organizations, with extremely complex organizational structures, consisting of highly compartmentalized cells: distribution cells, transportation cells, money laundering cells, and in some cases assassination cells or ‘hit squads.’ Many experts believe Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations are far more sophisticated, operationally and structurally, then Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. In fact, some experts believe that Middle Eastern terrorist organizations actually copied the drug trafficking cartels’ sophisticated organizational model for their advantage. This sophisticated organizational model continues to thwart law enforcement and security services around the globe. Cell members are so compartmentalized that they possess little, if any knowledge of the greater organizational model that encircles and supports their nodes; therefore, they can share little of value when apprehended.
The DEA has long noted the intersection of terrorist organizations and drug trafficking:
For many years the…DEA special agents have recognized that terrorist organizations rely on drug traffickers as a straightforward, easy source of income to finance their political agendas. Drug traffickers, in turn, rely on terrorists to provide protection for their laboratory and drug distribution endeavors. Through protection rackets, extortion, or “taxation” of drug traffickers, terrorists receive the funds necessary to carry out their violent acts. (Lee, p. 287)
Nimble, quick, deadly — and aimed at you.