While violence and drug trafficking often go hand-in-hand, the murderous track record of Mexican drug cartels along the U.S. border has recently reached new heights in brutality.

While the situation appears both frightening and overwhelming, Harvard Law Professor Philip Heymann believes that by examining the violence with a new perspective – including recasting the problem as one of organized crime in general, not just drug trafficking in particular – the cartels’ tenacious grip may be countered.

To that end, Heymann, the James Barr Ames Professor of Law, and Mathea Falco, president of the Washington D.C.-based non-profit research institute Drug Strategies, organized a working group on “Transnational Organized Crime” at the Harvard Law School on April 7 to dissect the Mexican drug trade from past to present.

“When we looked at what the U.S. government had proposed to do and was doing, there was a sense that there was too little money being spent on too conventional options that had often failed in the past,” Heymann explained.

The daylong conference brought together about 20 investigators, prosecutors, enforcement officials, legal scholars and anti-drug activists to take a hard look at the Mexican narcotics industry and to develop effective counter strategies. The group delved into such questions as:

  • How can local law enforcement efforts be strengthened in Mexico when police are often underpaid and outgunned?
  • Is there an alternative to using the military as a law enforcement arm, thus skirting the potential for human rights abuses and political instability?
  • Should the government attempt to play one cartel against another?
  • Should government essentially “look the other way” regarding less harmful drugs such as marijuana and instead focus on reining in the most violent drug gangs? Is the problem more one of violence than of drugs?
  • Can anti-organized crime tactics employed in the United States be applied to the Mexican drug trade?

Heymann was pleased with the discussions, saying, “I came out of the meeting considerably smarter than I went into it.”

Heymann and Falco modeled the conference on a successful previous Harvard conference on the growing problem of the abuse of prescription drugs and their sales online. Armed with insights from the earlier conference, Heymann testified on the issue in the U.S. Senate; drug companies have adopted new policies that made it more difficult for kids to use the Internet to buy narcotics.

The increasingly violent Mexican drug trade led Heymann and Falco about six months ago to first approach the Mexican ambassador to the United States with suggestions and then organize another conference for open-ended, blunt discussions about realistic responses by both the United States and Mexico.

With support from Harvard Provost Steven Hyman, they invited experts like Alex Whiting, Harvard assistant clinical professor of law, Gabriella Blum, Harvard assistant professor of law, and Viridiano Rios, Harvard teaching fellow in government, to meet with enforcement officials such as David L. Gaddis of the Department of Justice, Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, and Boston-based Assistant U.S. attorney Stephen Heymann.

The group focused on the multi-faceted genesis of Mexican drug cartels, with presentations by Sergio Silva-Castaneda, Harvard history lecturer, Peter Andreas, associate professor of political science and international studies at Brown University, Merilee Grindle, the Edward S. Mason Professor of International Development at the Kennedy School of Government, and James Jones, a former ambassador to Mexico, and others.

The growth of Mexican traffickers is, somewhat ironically, linked to successful enforcement efforts in the 1980s and 1990s against cocaine traffickers in Florida and Colombia. As Colombian cartels were weakened, the trade moved north. New drugs, such as methamphetamine, were added to the more traditional marijuana trade, while economic imbalances in Mexico spurred the growth of drug trafficking by many poverty-stricken Mexicans. Cartels became more sophisticated and more violent; some, in effect, hired their own armies. As long as U.S. demand is high, dealers will find a way to meet it, slipping from region to region or country to country, the presenters concluded.

But there is cause for optimism, as expressed by Susan Snyder of the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics & Law Enforcement. U.S. and Mexican relations are at an all-time high point, she reported, and Mexico, by all measures a strong, stable state, now has the political will to face down drug traffickers.

Still, Mexico must change its relationship between society and law enforcement. Most Mexicans don’t trust the police – often with good reason, participants noted.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institute, expressed reservations about using the military as a drug enforcement arm, saying this raises potential for human right abuses and may create a politically volatile situation.

More effective could be the development of special investigative and enforcement agencies, particularly if information about drugs could be shared among investigators in other Latin American countries. Prosecutions could then occur where defendants could be safely contained.

Could market forces be harnessed to combat the cartels? Heymann pressed Aldo Musacchio, Harvard Business School associate professor, and Jorge Dominguez, Harvard professor of Mexican and Latin American politics and economics, on whether an increase in drug “players” would drive up production and reduce prices, thus reducing profitability and possibly violence. Legalization of marijuana also could have an impact. But, participants concluded, cheaper drugs could become more available to users.

The discussion underscored Heymann’s contention that Mexican drug trafficking is an organized crime problem as much as a narcotics problem.

And that could mean the U.S. anti-mob model could be effective in Mexico. Bruce Ohr, chief of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, described this approach, saying that efforts should be focused on the “enterprise, not on individuals,” and that all sectors – from prosecutors to prisons – had to be involved.

Heymann is now preparing a list of recommendations that he hopes to present in small meetings with key Mexican and American officials. They include:

  • The formation of elite anti-narcotics organizations (perhaps the equivalent of Chicago’s “Untouchables” during the late 1920s) that include carefully chosen prosecutors and investigators. This group would have a broad range of legal powers, including witness protection. The group might initially focus on the most violent organizations, but would not try to play one cartel against another.
  • Increasing cooperation and information sharing among Mexico and Central American and Caribbean nations.
  • Good faith efforts by the United States in accepting responsibility for fueling drug demand. This may include funding drug therapy programs in Mexico, which has a small, but growing, abuse problem.