On August 12, Attorney General William Barr spoke before the largest police associaton in the United States, attacking criminal justice reformers and suggesting that Americans ought to “‘comply first’ and, if you think you have been wronged, ‘complain later'”—a stance that one former deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice describes as giving police officers “license to kill.”
Barr’s wider remarks were filled with factual inaccuracies, as shown by journalists’ fact checking. Glaring among them was his claim that the United States’ international drug war against Mexican cartels has previously succeeded, but just lacked follow-through.
“We have destroyed cartels in the past,” said Barr, “but we let up so that other groups were able to take their place.”
The phenomenon that Barr seems to be describing is called the “freelancer effect.” When Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2006, there were four major cartels. As he launched militarized crackdowns on these organizations, they became destabilized, splintering into new groups.
This “balkanization” of cartels encouraged by US policies has consistently proven deadly. Most recently, the extradition to the US of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, or “El Chapo,” in 2017—whose recent trial was described as a “drug-war propaganda circus” by Filter‘s Helen Redmond— “led to violent competition,” reported the Congressional Research Service on August 15.
The first half of 2019 saw an all-time record homicide toll of 14,603 murders in Mexico, surpassing the record set just the year before. Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and a senior associate at the International Drug Policy Consortium, told Filter that El Chapo’s recent sentencing, and other manifestations of the drug war’s “kingpin” approach, “won’t make much of a difference for the drug trade which is thriving in Mexico without [him]!”
Barr’s claim that the drug war has “destroyed” cartels misses the point: Fragmentation does not mean their disappearance or even disempowerment. Edurado Guerrero Guttierez, a former security adviser to President Peña, clarified that groups emerging out of balkanization are not necessarily “weak,” but instead simply lack “a strong central leadership.”
Instead of learning from the United States’ violent and costly (read: $3 billion) mistakes when it comes to addressing “the snake,” as Barr seemed to refer to the devastating impacts of fentanyl-involved overdose deaths, Barr said he intends to push forward with a drug war that has failed in its aspiration to reduce supply.
“I don’t underestimate how hard this work is,” said Barr, “and how long it will take.”
Photograph of William Barr in May 2019; by Shane T. McCoy of the US Marshals, via Wikimedia Commons