Editor’s Note: U.S.-Mexican cooperation is better than ever, and recent changes to the structure and emphasis of the Mérida Initiative make tackling Mexico’s violent drug cartels an appropriate strategy. In an article appearing in Americas Quarterly (Vol. 4, No. 2, May 2010, pp. 42-50), Vanda Felbab-Brown explores these changes to Mérida, the challenges ahead, and lessons learned from around the world on how to combat drug trafficking organizations.

Drug trafficking is not only the most lucrative manifestation of organized crime, but also one of the most insidious in terms of the challenge it represents to states around the world. Frequently associated with violence, the drug trade is one of the principal sources of human insecurity throughout Latin America.  Drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) have emerged as primary threats to democratic governance—either because they undermine the ability of states to exercise sovereignty through the corruption of law enforcement and the political process, or because they are active competitors for the political allegiance of the population.

But understanding the differences in how individual DTOs operate and obtain political capital is also crucial to fighting them effectively.

For example, the state of the economy can determine how well gangs function. For large segments of populations in Latin America and elsewhere in the world, participation in illicit economies is the only way to mitigate the consequences of underdevelopment.

Across the hemisphere, DTOs have used the illicit economy to degrade the state in the eyes of the population by becoming governing entities in areas where state presence is minimal or predominantly repressive—the coca-growing areas of Colombia or Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, for example. In this light, crime and illegality should not be viewed simply as an aberrant social activity to be suppressed, but as a competition in state-making between the government and non-governmental actors.

Many armed groups derive significant political capital from their involvement with the drug economy. They protect the local population’s reliable and often sole source of livelihood, the illicit economy. At the same time, they provide otherwise absent social services and public goods, such as clinics and infrastructure, and function as distributors of law and order by suppressing street crime. Armed groups even bargain with traffickers for better prices on behalf of the farmers. As both a de facto source of public safety and economic security, the link between drug trafficking and armed groups makes organized crime a formidable force.

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