Reports of horrifying violence involving drug cartels in Mexico have become almost daily occurrences, prompting officials on both sides of the border to seek responses to a menacing problem.

Harvard Law School Professor Philip Heymann contends that the crisis needs to be examined from the broader perspective of organized crime and its use of violence—not just as a drug-trafficking issue. So last year, he and Mathea Falco, president of Drug Strategies in Washington, D.C., organized a “Working Group on Transnational Organized Crime” to do just that in a session at Harvard Law School. On April 14 and 15 of this year, with the assistance of the David Rockefeller Center, the Escuela de Graduados en Administracion Public (EGAP) of the Instituto Tecnologico de Monterry, and Ana Maria Salazar, a graduate of Harvard Law School and an expert living in Mexico City, a second working group was assembled to take the next step of addressing the issues in very concrete detail. About 30 law-enforcement officials, prosecutors, investigators, legal scholars and proponents of treatment and prevention gathered again at HLS to discuss the dangers, potential solutions, and obstacles.

The first day’s discussion addressed violent-crime organizations per se and the best practices for dealing with their advantages in challenging law enforcement. The techniques used in the United States, Colombia, Guatemala, and Italy were explored. On the second day, the focus was mostly on Mexico and the strategies and capacities of the institutions that must be relied on to deal with the violence of drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs).

A number of Mexican officials at the federal, state, and local levels updated the group on the current situation in their country and how police, investigators, intelligence, and the military are responding.

They described a system still struggling against a familiar set of obstacles: corruption; a lack of public trust; a lack of cooperation among local, state, and federal law enforcement; and a judicial system in need of promised reforms. Much of the problem, participants agreed, is historic: longstanding mistrust among the public, local police, and state and national institutions.

The key to cracking down on organized crime in the long run, most participants said, is to create a more effective structure of law enforcement at several levels. In the U.S., federal/local task forces have been successful because local police, who probably have some of the best information, are involved in investigations—whereas in Mexico, the investigative function is handled by the state, while the role of local police is limited to preventative policing.

Among the participants providing American perspectives were present and former leaders in the Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, city police and private non-profits working on these issues as well as distinguished academic experts.

The participants reviewed the availability in Mexico of a variety of specific tools that have proved essential in dealing with organized crime in other nations, including judicially approved telecommunications intercepts, the use of informants and undercover offers, and RICO-type statutes.

Mexican attendees of the conference said the problem of improving law enforcement and the response to drug-trafficking violence requires both short-term and long-term plans. The short-term plan requires using the military to take back control of the urban and other border areas so that other state institutions can begin to deal with the cartels. Implicit in the long-term plan is a need to show the public that justice can be done by courts, police and prosecutors. Both stages require rooting out corrupt police officials and replacing them at a rapid pace. But some participants also said there is a risk in turning over departments too fast because there are not enough people to vet and train new officers.

Attendees also noted the high “impunity rate”—the rate of crimes that go unpunished—which has been estimated at 98 percent. Many Mexicans are afraid to report crimes and most crimes that are reported are not investigated. While the impunity rate is extremely high, people are commonly detained for sustained periods of time, awaiting trials that may never occur. The result—extensive detention but few convictions—causes serious legitimacy problems. It is telling, one participant noted, that very few judges and prosecutors have been killed in Mexico because there are low expectations that cartel leaders will ever be tried. In Colombia, on the other hand, judges and prosecutors are in far greater danger.

One reason for the lack of punishment and selective detention, participants noted, is a lack of clarity on prosecutorial roles in Mexico. Who is the investigator? What are functions of the prosecutor and the judge? Mexico’s plan to move to an accusatory system may help in this regard as well as in developing a focus on the success of various strategies against crime. “Someone has to feel responsible for a coordinated attack on crime,” Heymann said. In making this move Mexico will also have to develop codes of criminal procedure and evidence, both of which are now lacking. No less important than new, clearer roles and skills is the status of the participants. In the U.S., he pointed out, judges and prosecutors enjoy extremely high prestige. When he asked the Mexicans how they’d describe the status of judges in their country, several replied “Terrible.”

Heymann pointed out that developing prototypes can be a very effective step in the development of fairer and more effective judicial systems. He said that in Guatemala, for instance, several such pilot courts that included involvement of “the best judges and the best prosecutors” using new procedures produced good results.

Another topic was the increased use of the military at this stage of fighting organized crime in Mexico. In addition to interdiction, the Mexican Army and Navy have available a strong intelligence-gathering capacity in dealing with cartels. Those two military branches, along with the Procuradura General de la Republica (the attorney general’s office) and Mexican intelligence were reported to be doing a better job of sharing intelligence than previously. At the strategic level, intelligence gatherers in Mexico still don’t have good information about the quantities of drugs that are being moved out of Mexico, who’s buying it and how much they’re paying. One participant suggested going into prisons to talk with convicts who may have knowledge about the enterprise. Many convicts love to talk about what they know, he said. At the conclusion of the program, Heymann thanked the participants, adding, “I couldn’t be more pleased with what we’ve done here over the last two days.”

Participants will receive a summary of the discussions in about a month and will move then to recommendations that the group might make for how states and law-enforcement agencies might better deal with the problem of transnational organized crime.