Can Mexican cartels be defeated?

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Standing 6-foot-6-inches with broad shoulders and a wild beard, the arrested drug lord known as “El Grande” or “King Kong” made a bulky prize for the Mexican government when he was shown on TV screens Monday flanked by masked marines.

Sergio Villarreal, who had a $2.3 million reward on his head, is the latest alleged kingpin to be detained or shot dead by Mexican security forces, adding credence to President Felipe Calderon’s claim that he is winning his war on drug gangs.

In December, marines gunned down Villareal’s old boss, Arturo Beltran Leyva; in January, federal police nabbed Tijuana mobster Teodoro Garcia; in July, soldiers shot dead Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel; and in August, police grabbed the smiling beefy Texan Edgar Valdez, alias “The Barbie Doll.”

However, on the bullet-ridden streets of Mexico, weary residents ask a pertinent question about these arrests — do they really mean the Mexican government is regaining control or will they only lead to more bloodshed?

The question underlines a central issue with the war on drugs — and the tactics that have been developed during its four-decade history.

In the optimistic 1970s, when U.S. President Richard Nixon first made a declaration of war, officials were convinced they could stop the flow of drugs by taking down the big fish like Villareal. It was a victory defined in absolute terms.

“Our goal is the unconditional surrender of the merchants of death who traffic in heroin. Our goal is the total banishment of drug abuse from the American life,” Nixon said in 1972.

After decades of arresting kingpins and failing to stop the rivers of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crystal meth, drug warriors created a new rationale: limiting the power of drug gangs.

This strategy was honed in Colombia, where gangsters such as Pablo Escobar became so powerful they were blowing up airplanes and kidnapping politicians.

American and Colombian officials worked together to take down Escobar and the string of mobsters who came after him. They now argue that while cocaine still flows north, no Colombian kingpins have the power to challenge the government.

“Escobar was running a cartel for 15 years. Now the kingpins in Colombia only last about 15 months,” an American law enforcement official told me recently in Bogota. “If you get on the radar, you will be taken down.”

It is a bit like a giant hammer constantly swinging down. Gangsters will move drugs, but anyone who gets too big will be struck by the hammer.

President Calderon appears to be using a similar strategy for Mexico: hammering the kingpins to reduce the power of the drug mafia.

Drug analysts call this cartel decapitation — or cutting the heads off so that the trafficking organizations fall apart into more manageable little chunks.

Calderon concedes that this tactic may mean more violence in the short term as rival gangsters fight to take over the routes of fallen villains.

Such turf battles are blamed for the majority of the 28,000 drug-related murders since Calderon took office in December 2006.

But in the long term, Calderon argues, the power of the government will prevail and violence will go down.

Residents who have watched daily executions and gun battles all hope that he is right.

But there are two factors in Mexico that signal the Colombian strategy may not ease the situation here.

The first is the sheer number of cartels.

In Colombia in the 1990s, there were two main trafficking organizations: the Medellin and Cali cartels.

In Mexico today, there are seven major drug gangs. All appear to maintain billion-dollar trafficking routes and hundreds of men at arms and to threaten the power of the government, at least on a local level.

For Mexico, to “decapitate” all these organizations, it would have to take down some 15 high-level gangsters in a relatively quick time.

Another problem is that several Mexican gangs have developed into cell-like organizations that depend less on kingpins and more on their brand name and structure.

Among these is the dreaded Los Zetas gang, which is blamed for the brutal massacre of 72 migrants last month. The quasi-religious La Familia is also organized along similar lines.

The Mexican and U.S. governments both promise other methods to aid the fight, such as reducing American demand for illegal drugs, slowing the flow of U.S. guns to the gangsters and rebuilding poor Mexican communities where mobsters flourish.

However, such promises have yet to be met by any results. Until they are, many more kingpins like Villareal are likely to be shown off in front of the cameras, while many more corpses scatter the Mexican streets.