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Destroying drug cartels, the mathematical way (newscientist.com)
54 points by jaxonrice on Nov 4, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

To the many talking about legalization in favor of this kind of approach, I think you're missing the point. I am entirely in favor of legalization, and I think it is a necessary component of fixing things, but things have gotten seriously broken. The drug trade has built massive criminal enterprises which have built themselves infrastructure and organization and connections that can be used toward ends other than just shipping drugs. It keeps pouring money into these enterprises, and making things worse, but if we turn off (or down) that spigot we still have to deal with these organizations. And as someone put it, they're not in drugs because they have a deep interest in agriculture, it's just profitable, and their competitive advantage is that they're willing to do illegal things. Most of them already deal with other things as well, and I'd expect them to try and ramp up income from those to supplement a loss of drug related income.

All of this to say, we have a problem we need to deal with. An important part of that is to stop making the problem worse, but then we still need to fix it - something like this could be valuable to that end.

>The drug trade has built massive criminal enterprises which have built themselves infrastructure and organization and connections that can be used toward ends other than just shipping drugs. It keeps pouring money into these enterprises, and making things worse, but if we turn off (or down) that spigot we still have to deal with these organizations.

Actually, after the U.S. ended alcohol prohibition virtually all of the organizations devoted to booze either went legit or drastically shrank in size and scope. We would've been better off without alcohol prohibition in the first place, but ending it was certainly a net win.

If you're interested in the history and parallels of alcohol prohibition to today's drug prohibition, Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is pretty good: http://www.amazon.com/Last-Call-Rise-Fall-Prohibition/dp/074... .

I wholeheartedly agree that ending prohibition of drugs would be a net win here, as well. In fact, I said it was probably necessary. I just don't think we should overlook the fact that there's likely to still be issues to deal with. The history of prohibition, so far as I understand it, doesn't undermine these points in any significant way. Law enforcement still had to deal with organized crime, and the size, scope, and influence of the cartels seems larger than that of bootleggers on the whole (though I would welcome hard numbers in either direction).

It's not impossible that the problem would just poof go away, but it seems a poor choice to bet on it. Again, that doesn't mean that legalization isn't the place to start!

something perplexes me about talk of "winning the drug war". okay, we're at war with the cartels. let's characterize the enemy. the enemy:

- has no land, territory, or people that we can lay siege to. in fact, their civilian population is our civilian population!

- has more military funding than we do

- as a result, they have an endless supply of soldiers for all levels of their command hierarchy

- has less oversight requirements than our military (effectively zero)

- has no need for popular support

- has no need for large infrastructure, facilities, or anything really. if you take away some building of theirs with soldiers, vehicles and drugs, they will buy 10 more to replace what you took. they can continue to do this because for every dollar that you produce, as the state, to fund your war, they produce 3.

so you're fighting an insurgent war against everyone and they have more money / resources than you do. and you expect to win? hey, maybe if we took away their ability to make money and recruit people, then this starts to make sense...

Agreed. The only sane approach is to legalize sensibly (funding education and treatment with taxes and money saved) and clean up the mess we've made.

Destroying drug cartels, the practical way: legalize.

The idea that cracking down harder is going to work is just a complete fantasy. It will just mean that the supply side becomes even more violent, aggressive, and smart.

Or better yet: why don't we treat drugpins like terrorists? I mean seriously, why don't we just start lumping them under terrorists? Despite what I think of drugs (they aren't all that bad, do what you want in your own home) I seriously don't understand why we refuse to label them like this if it would mean more funding, more attention and better information sharing between departments.

Yup, lets just label every type of heinous crime as terrorism, and then we can focus our crime-fighting efforts on the whole range of criminal activities!

More seriously, in some places they already are labelled this way because they are effectively terrorists, shadow governments, militias etc, so there are already full-fledged military efforts to bring them down in some countries.

Doesn't really work.

I don't think there's a first world government that would survive legalisation of cocaine or heroin. It's not going to happen any time soon.

Not legalization, but portugal seem to have had some massive success on all fronts by decriminalizing all kind of drugs.

This was, for me, a somewhat surprising result, so maybe it's worth keeping an open mind about what would happen with full legalization of everything.

I don't understand the economic argument for legalization. It will turn the price of drugs into price + taxes. The current complex distribution and supply network doesn't have to pay taxes because they are already illegal, so they'll continue to charge the current price. The average addict will want drugs as cheaply as possible and would probably prefer to buy from someone in their neighborhood as opposed to a pharmacy.

In the case of mexican cartels specifically, I think there is more to it than just drug sales. They control large areas of mexico, entire towns. They're providing services of security and dispute resolution that the government can't or won't because the areas are too poor. Whenever a large portion of a country is ceded to a criminal group (like sicily used to be) unwinding the problem is more complicated than deincentivizing drug sales.

> It will turn the price of drugs into price + taxes

The price of avoiding authorities, not being able to openly use legitimate financing, or other facilities (transportation, storage, distribution chains), and constricted pool of talented employees is very high and currently included in the price. Also, many potential customers are not being served currently because they're not willing to engage in highly illegal transactions.

Even with fairly high taxes, regular corporations would easily be able to deliver product of higher quality and generally better experience not necessarily more expensively. Just like they do with alcohol, tobacco, or chocolate.

>The current complex distribution and supply network doesn't have to pay taxes because they are already illegal, so they'll continue to charge the current price

This is highly unlikely. It's MUCH cheaper to obey the law than not; as I said in another comment, you may notice that, after the U.S. ended alcohol prohibition, almost no one sold alcohol illegally because it wasn't worth it.

Daniel Okrent's book Last Call is pretty good on this subject.

> It will turn the price of drugs into price + taxes. The current complex distribution and supply network doesn't have to pay taxes because they are already illegal, so they'll continue to charge the current price.

Under the current scheme, the street price of drugs represents price + cost of maintaining a standing army + maintenance of baroque, multi-tier, low-capacity, high-overhead supply chain + "hazard pay" level wages for everyone involved in the enterprise.

So just focusing on taxes gives an unrealistic view of the situation. No, they're not paying taxes, but they're paying for scads and scads of other things, and have to pass that cost on to the consumer. This is pure deadweight loss, just as taxes would be. But it's also a relatively enormous loss; it would be very easy to come up with a tax rate that fits in below it. I suspect that anything less than four digits should do the trick, which means that we could even set the rate many times higher than the current rate for cigarettes and be fine.

And the market will not support operating an illegal network that's more expensive than the costs imposed by taxation. Take tobacco: organized crime is absolutely still involved in tobacco smuggling. And with excise taxes on cigarettes in the US averaging over 100%, that shouldn't be surprising. But at the same time, it doesn't seem to be supporting organized crime and associated social costs on anything near the scale we've seen with groups like the Zetas or al-Qaeda.

The illegality also has other problems. For example one is getting justice - you can't take people to court when deals go wrong, the product is adulterated, you were paid with fake money etc. That pretty much leaves violence as an alternative to the legal system.

Another is that it makes treatment and getting off drugs harder because you can't be open about an addiction for fear of losing a job, health care or similar things.

"Vortex uses network-analysis algorithms to construct diagrams for court cases that show the interactions between cartel members, governors and law enforcers. These reveal links that are not otherwise visible, what Salcedo-Albaran calls "betweeners" - people who are not well-connected, but serve as a bridge linking two groups."

Has anyone done any work on using this kind of network analysis in legal and productive organisations to see who has the most impact on innovation or changes in practice?

The problem is that "impact on innovation" starts usually already with a big discussion on how to measure innovation.

The "easy" way is to take very accessible data points such as the number of patent applications. But you can imagine just by looking at the patent system related discussions around here on hn that this is a very "discussable" subject.

I wasn't communicating well, what I'm on about is that knowledge flow in large organisations is not always (or even often) through 'official' channels. I'm thinking of Etienne Wenger's work on situated learning, especially the insurance office example in Lave and Wenger's book.

It struck me that datasets from email, and from sharepoint like systems might help people identify the 'betweeners' in their organisation.

Yes, people do this - it is called Social Network Analysis and has been around a few decades. It is well introduced in http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1449306462 . There is actually a thorough example of analyzing an organization's "social leaders" and arranging departments to take advantage of them.

I read an article about using IBM's Watson to do such a thing about a year ago but I can't seem to find it right now. The gist was much like Watson can be used to find how data and information moved in e-discovery, the same principles could be used to determine which employees were driving innovation and had the most influence in the company.

Or maybe they could just, you know, legalize and regulate it?

Idk, we can definitely talk about marijuana but cocaine and eroine are very different... Legalize them would be at least very risky. Anyhow we need to move in a different direction than kill/arrest everybody, it simply not gonna work.

How do you justify your bias toward specific drugs? Why should alcohol and oxycontin be legal and cocaine illegal?

What gives society the right to choose for me what I may consume for myself?

I used to live in the US, now I live in Europe and I can see what you mean.

However I can argue that we should think twice before to make legal something that get you addicted with the first dose and mess up with your brain in a so heavy way.

(Yes I do know about alcohol but it is a cultural and, by the way, different issue)

Yeah, alcohol is a different issue. In that trying to quit alcohol can actually kill you. Trying to quit cold turkey can put you in a hospital where they will start administering alcohol through an IV to save your life.

Comparing alcohol and cocaine is absurd, alcohol by any reasonable measure is just about one of the hardest drugs there is, and causes massively more societal harm than cocaine.

But we are supposed to make it a special exception because it's old? All that really amounts to is "Lets ban this because people who seem alien to me use it, but lets keep this other thing legal because 'normal' people use it." It is a xenophobic argument.

While not outright legalizing, Portugal's massive decriminalization applied to heroine and cocaine, and their problem seems to have gotten better rather than worse.

In Portugal is illegal have drugs... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_policy_of_Portugal (Interesting wiki to read by the way...) They not only "decriminalized" drugs, they also put a lot of money in prevention with TV ads and more... They educated people first... I will say that it is the best/only way we should follow.

Right, like I said, they stopped short of full legalization; it was simply a massive decriminalization. They also put money into education, as you say, and into treatment.

My point was simply that "heroine and cocaine are so dangerous that we have to keep them criminal" is not necessarily a valid position. Your point, which seems to be that such changes should not be made in isolation but supported by other policy measures, is certainly one that needs stressing as well.

I see this issue from a completely different perspective. I see it as, we have a social problem: Some people use drugs that ruin their lives. Rather than using a lot of counseling and trying to actually help people get off their habit, we use the criminal justice system to put them and those who help them in jail, and providing windfall profits to criminals who are willing to ignore the laws. Economically, these are equivalent to a high tax on illegal drug use; they raise the street price. But instead of providing tax revenues, this tax is extremely expensive to enforce and provides no revenues. Under this perspective, the current system is pretty much unjustifiable. You could just ban advertising and tax it heavily and use the tax money for anti-drug rehab programs, and have the same effects as we currently have without all the drug violence and mass imprisonment.

Has legalization shown to increase consumption? Here in Canada, the rate of marijuana usage is roughly equal to the rate of tobacco usage even though only one is a legal substance. It indicates to me that someone interested in using a drug is going to regardless of the legalities.

Or maybe they could just, you know, legalize it?

What's the big deal of replacing one cartel with another? I mean, I understand that's what's inevitably going to happen - it's just sad to see widespread kowtowing by deillegalization supporters sucking up to power.

The war will never end because of how profitable it is. Only if the 'fight' comes here to the states will they ever begin to think about legalizing anything.

When people say "it's profitable" I think what they really should say is that it's profitable for one group of individuals, when at the same time very unprofitable for the other group(s) of individuals (namely, consumers and victims). Moreover, unprofitability for the latter greatly exceeds the profitability for the former and it is only by coercing and power is it possible to preserve the status quo.

Indeed - this article seems to have an interesting answer to the wrong question.

Illegal drugs is only a small part of the problem. The bigger issue is government corruption in Mexico.

That like every problem is still related to Education (note the capital E)

I see nobody wants to admit it. Instead, you just want easier access to pot...

In my opinion the only way to win this war is to start from the bottom.

There are tons of farmer in Colombia who can only survive by growing those drugs, but they would like, in most of the case, to be able to grow crop or bananas or whatever is legal.

However they can't because a mere economic reason, they won't get enough money to survive from traditional culture.

If we invested the money we are actually using to violently fight against the cartel to develop the infrastructure and the education in those country we all be better off; we would have way less drugs in our world and we would have launch a new economy (more market for American brands like apple, google, IBM)

Your proposition ignores the demand part of the equation completely.

I don't know about you, but I only do cocaine to help the poor Columbian farmers.

I don't think I remember the book where I read this, but it was something about a former chief of police of New York, I believe in the 90's, when criminality was very high, and instead of focusing on the "big crimes", he focused on the small ones, like stopping graffiti on the walls, people jumping the gate at the subway, and other small crimes like that.

The point was to dramatically reduce this "ecosystem" of criminality. I believe it's kind of like when people see garbage on the ground, it's much easier for them to throw their garbage on the ground, too, because "others are doing it". The same thing must be with small crimes and with the people joining the drug cartels.

I believe The District was inspired from this guy's work: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_District

You're probably talking about the broken windows theory:


Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point?

The Freakonomics book has a counter argument to Gladwell's conclusions. They point out that crime went down nationwide and in cities at the same rate as NYC without the NYPD policies. They also point out a connection to the legalization of abortion.

// I am reporting on a book not expressing my own opinion

Drug prohibition is immoral and violates the political and ethical sovereignty of the individual. I own my body and I despise anyone who seeks to enslave it.

Of course, America's "liberty" is really just a facade for their nationalism.

I feel the same way about taxes, but we can't always have what we want..now can we?

Taxes and drug prohibition are two very different things, with completely different reasoning behind them. Equating the two is like saying, "Cars should have seat belts, and white people should own black people as slaves." One idea has practical, well thought out reasons behind it that help improve people's lives, the other doesn't.

Drug prohibition causes far more damage to society than a society where all drugs are legalized. It's also an affront to what seems like a basic human right: choosing what you put in your body. The concept of prohibition certainly doesn't have a single well thought out reason to support it. Every single argument in favor of it has been shown to be either false, or the worse of two evils, and finally, drug prohibition has been a total failure, a conclusion that's agreed to even by those who support it. It hasn't achieved any of its goals and will not achieve them. I can sense that you probably want specifics, so I'll list just a few, and if you want more... JFGI.

- AP: failure to meet any goals http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/05/13/ap-impact-years-tril... - History of marijuana laws and reasons that were given for them: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/History/whiteb1.htm - Portugal's success with total decriminalization of all drugs (not as good as legalization, but it's a step forward): https://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=portugal-d... http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/07/05/ten-years-af... - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arguments_for_and_against_drug... - Simple observations of hypocrisy (just one example: Marijuana does not fit the definition of a Schedule I substance yet is classified as such, while cigarettes do fit the definition and are legal).

The concept of "taxes", or collecting a pool of resources to be used for society at large, does have some well reasoned arguments to support it. It is an idea that does actually help society. Certainly there is a lot of debate about how those funds should be used, and whether they are used inappropriately, but the basic idea of pooling the collective resources of a society for the common good at least has a leg to stand on.

Heh, both of your juxtapositions are a lot closer than you seem to think.

Drug prohibition is actually based on tax laws. The bulk of federal drug deillegalization will not even take an act of congress - they'll just start issuing tax stamps.

Seat belt laws are based on the idea that government/society has a financial interest in the productivity of your well functioning body. This analysis essentially treats us all as mild slaves. The conditions are certainly better than the racial slavery of yesteryear (although I'm just repeating the groupthinkline here; I don't have a time machine), but the ideology is not.

Pooling money for common purposes and avoiding free riders has a moral leg to stand on. However, the current system has massively outgrown this philosophical justification, using the sheer majority of revenue collected for maladaptive antifeatures.

I have no problem with you driving without a seatbelt on, so long as you sign a waiver that says that if you do not have enough money in the bank and your insurances will not cover you, theother emergencny room staff must turn you down before providing you treatment at my expense. So long as I am effectively buying you implicit insurance I sure as hell want you to be careful. Feel free to buy your way out of that.

That is a strawman for decriminalizing drugs. When you don't wear a seatbelt, you risk others' financial harm. We deal with that largely without loss of other people's lives. When you mug people for cash at knife point to buy heroin, peole get physically hurt. You cannot possibly sign a waiver saying that you will not mug, steal, break-in, etc. if you decide to try heroin.

Mind you I am not arguing against decriminalization or legalization of drugs. Just saying that your argument is bogus.

Eh? First, I made no argument connecting seat belts and drugs. Perhaps you're just skipping around my comment, reassembling sentence fragments in an arbitrary order?

Second, given that most people have insurance, and that the ones who don't are free riding on emergency care for any injury, but yet you're saying that you would support deillegalization of non-seatbelt wearing if one were to sign a specific waiver (which the cartel of insurance companies would then prohibit you from signing anyway, no doubt), I don't believe your argument to be sincere. I can only infer that your real viewpoint is that universal mandatory seatbelt usage is a good thing, and you're just making yet another specious justification for dictating individuals' behavior.

FWIW, I've held up starting to drive for people who weren't putting a seat belt on, and I think it's pretty ridiculous to not wear one. I just don't think the government has any business mandating such behavior.

Correct, my viewpoint is that seatbelt laws are a good thing. Your insurance company will make you pay more for not wearing seatbelts. The math dictates it. I have no way to make you pay more (other than raising your taxes which you may or may not pay depending on your income). Thus my only recourse is to make you wear a seatbelt via a law that my representatives in the government impose and enforce. Do I have any business making you pay for not wearing a seatbelt (via fines or higher premiums)? Yes, so long as I am on the hook for your medical bills. The waiver I mention is fictional not only because we could never enforce it, but also because the medical staff admitting you takes an oath to treat you. However, my argument is that the waiver is the minimum requirement for the financial math to work out. Therefore seatbelt laws are in place for a reason, do more good than harm, and are absolutely in my right to demand of my government. In that sense my argument is absolutely sincere.

On top of the above, I spent many years in a country with a poor healthcare system and lax seatbelt laws. The results were not pretty.

Lastly, in your original post you seem to suggest a possibility that the government telling you to put on a seatbelt is somehow comparable to being a slave in the early days of this country. If that really was your suggestion, I am not sure how to respond to such misrepresentation of reality.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't fight to right a wrong. When a large number of people decide that they've had enough of it, change happens.

I'm no history buff, but I'm pretty sure that rampant taxation is at least part of the reason that the USA exists in the first place.

Sorry it is a little off topic:

rampant taxation in the USA ? No are you serious... When you all talk about taxation in the USA you are talking about a joke for the European (Italian in particular 55% of tax) standard...

He is referring the the revolutionary war against England.


We can certainly hold those that force these requirements on us in contempt, openly disrespect their system at every chance, mock their idea of progress, and otherwise work to undermine them.

The alternative is to tacitly support them and their philosophy by calling taxes a responsibility, scapegoating individual people rather than indicting the process, focusing on the interesting technical details of their force multipliers, repeating half of their talking points to feel part of a televised identity, contributing to red/blue celebrity popularity contest turnout, etc.

Taxes at least have an upside to them.

We can or our children can if we keep talking about it and enough people fight for it.

The infamous group Anonymous pledged war against The Zeta cartel in 2011 with announcements that they had names, and even personal information about the cartel members. Unfortunately, anonymous decided to back down due to threats of aggravation. Though, in the end the hostage was released the cartel has killed numerous internet bloggers/reporters, and has kidnapped hackers to perform black-hat cyber attacks against targets...

It all seems to come down to the amount of resources one has to invest in such an effort. The various law enforcement communities are fighting with the "latest" technology but, the cartels are right there with them if not below or above them...

In the United States, the latest defense may be the use of various autonomous robots such as, submarines, boats & drones.


Unfortunately, similar techniques are being applied by the cartels to thwart the deterrents. It seems only obvious because, its less weight, and less people = cheap.

Like Autonomous ultralight UAV. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4415508

Autonomous ROV/USV Submarines without life support systems must be cheaper.

Just mischievous robots in general, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&...

Think on it.

Please be advised that there is a grisly image in the link.

UK resident personal view: we have this Imperialist thing going where it is ok to show dead foreigners from hot countries but not ok to show dead people in UK. It is a known issue, one commented on a lot in relation to tabloids. I'm surprised to see New Scientist going in for this.

A man shot in the head and on the ground.

Sorry guys, I am seeing so many "legalize" that I really need to say that we cannot really legalized everything.

If we legalized so powerful/bad drugs like heroin or cocaine we build a business, if we legalize those drugs then we need to legalized newer drugs, if we let corporation to make money out of drugs, well the first scenario that I can think about is a big pharmaceutical corp. who is investing in order to build super addicted drugs, super cheap drugs (free for the new-consumers ???) and commercial like "Try fancy-cool-drug-name you will get smarter, more beautiful and every woman will want you" (and at the very end a little voice will said very very fast "It can give you dependency")

I mean, I already hate the commercial of antidepressant (that are about the same stuff) and I am sure you do the same, legalize everything will be too much.

There is only one single scenario where it would be possible, when we will Educate (note the capital E) every single person, then no one will use such powerful drugs (heroin, cocaine and acid, i don't know anymore).

Education shouldn't be about not doing drugs, but about not getting addicted to them. It's perfectly fine to occasionally take drugs (you know, like CH₃CH₂OH or C₈H₁₀N₄O₂, the former of which is a lot worse than a good number of illegal and "dangerous" drugs like THC), it's not fine to be constantly stoned/high/drunk/intoxicated. I don't want even more "drugs are bad, mkay kids" in schools. Drugs are perfectly fine and have been part of human civilization for thousands of years now. It's only been very recently that people got the idiotic idea to crack down on them.

>I mean, I already hate the commercial of antidepressant

I live in the UK and I have never seen an advert for antidepressant, or for any drug stronger than aspirin. Sounds to me that the problem you describe is not so much legalisation of drugs, but that your country's advertising laws are broken.

Legalization is the best way to end it. The network analysis needs to occur about politicians in the rich countries, how to manipulate them into legalizing drugs. It's a lot easier to collect data on them and it's the actual root cause.

Legalization would stop the flow of money and jobs away from this country and would also remove the main reason these cartels exist.

Legalization of marijuana will allow buyers and growers to come together in their communities. It allows buyers to choose local farmers instead of those in foreign countries. Legalization would remove the cash source that causes people to want be part of these cartels.

Evolution will defeat this strategy in short order. Some organizations practice better communications security and will thrive in the vacuum created by the loss of their competitors.

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