A new study reveals the immense scale of the Mexican drug cartel problem, which is responsible for flooding drugs into the U.S., as well as the facilitation of transnational human trafficking networks.
Researchers have now developed a mathematical model of cartel recruitment and losses, which reveals that Mexican drug cartels collectively “employ” 175,000 people, effectively making them the fifth largest employer in the country.
The study, which was published Sept. 22 in the journal Science, shows that the only way to effectively combat organized crime is to decrease the cartel’s ability to bring on new recruits.
Given that cartels operate within a very secretive “black box” structure and their internal structures aren’t fully known, as the study notes, security professionals and governments have struggled to fully understand them.
“What we observe is what comes out of this box,” said the study’s author Rafael Prieto-Curiel, a former police officer in Mexico City.
Researchers analyzed ten years of homicide and imprisonment data, estimating that ten percent of murder victims and five percent of incarcerations were cartel members. They fed the data into a model, along with known information about rivalries and alliances, and calculated how many members cartels would be able to recruit on a weekly basis to replace their losses.
According to the data, cartels lost about 200 members per week. Researchers also concluded that roughly 37 percent of active cartel members over the past decade were either killed or imprisoned.
However, over the same period, “the total size of cartels grew by about 7,000 people per year over the same period, meaning they must have recruited about 19,300 new members per year to make up their losses,” according to the report.
“Mexico’s 150 cartels ultimately grew from 115,000 members to about 175,000 people in a decade, according to the model—making the cartels the country’s fifth biggest ’employer,’ with a similar number of workers to Oxxo, the country’s largest corner shop chain,” the report added.
The numbers largely align with other estimates, including those of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Valentin Pereda, a professor at the University of Montreal who also was not involved in the study, says the idea of targeting cartel recruitment to reduce violence is not new.
“If cartels cannot recruit, then they cannot replace their losses, then they cannot keep fighting each other,” Pereda told The Guardian. “It makes sense. But until now no one had provided a data-based assessment of how it would work in practice.”
Pereda also said that cutting recruitment is not the only way to reduce violence, stressing the need to find ways to disarm cartels.
“One thing that is missing from this study is that violence in Mexico is also a product of the weaponry that is used,” said Pereda. “We’re not talking about people with knives going at each other in a bar. We’re talking about paramilitary units with military-grade weapons.”