Think Again

Think Again: Nelson Mandela

The man behind the myth -- and the tenuous future of South Africa.

"Mandela's Legacy Is Unblemished."

False. For most of the world, Nelson Mandela is a hero of the struggle against apartheid and for nonracial democracy. The election of Mandela, the father of democratic South Africa, as president in 1994 marked both the end of a racist regime and the country's embrace of racial reconciliation. As such, Mandela was a figure of hope not only for Africa but for the rest of the world -- which was still very much struggling with racism and underdevelopment. Mandela articulated for South Africans of all races his democratic vision and, with then-President F.W. de Klerk, shepherded the country toward nonracial elections and a new constitution.

But there is another side to the story. Most of the commonly accepted narratives about the new South Africa are based on the misconception that apartheid was ended by a "freedom struggle" led by Mandela and his presidential successor, Thabo Mbeki, with international sanctions playing an important role. The less heroic reality is that apartheid's demise was the result of a political deal between advocates of change and the white establishment, led by de Klerk. This deal, enshrining property rights and the rule of law, largely preserved the economic privileges enjoyed by white South Africans. The anti-apartheid resistance, both violent and nonviolent, never posed a serious challenge to the country's security services (though it could make townships ungovernable). As a result, the final bargain reflected that balance of power, and the wholesale reconstruction of the economy to right the wrongs of apartheid was never a realistic option.

Even after the political deal had been cut, Mandela's presidency was only a partial success -- though he did face enormous political and economic challenges and much greater legal and constitutional constraints than his apartheid predecessors. During his single term as president, Mandela left the conduct of government increasingly to his deputy and successor, Mbeki. Together they maintained warm relations with notorious human rights violators such as Fidel Castro, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Yasser Arafat -- all of whom had supported the African National Congress (ANC) during the struggle to end apartheid. Like many others at the time, Mandela and Mbeki also underestimated the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS and were slow to take action. Mbeki, especially, was reluctant to accept the scientific explanation for the disease, and as a result the expansion of treatment by state health services was delayed. (Once out of office -- following the death of his son from HIV/AIDS in 2005 -- Mandela came around, calling publicly for a more open approach to fighting the epidemic.)

The mythology that has sprung up around Mandela as a champion of nonviolence is also somewhat misleading. The father of democratic South Africa was not always a dove. During the anti-apartheid struggle, he co-founded the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, for short). Mandela launched a guerrilla war against the state in 1961. Initially, he later recalled in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, MK's purpose was to rally the townships against apartheid, and its focus was on sabotage of government facilities, not killings. It was on sabotage charges that Mandela was later convicted and sent to prison.

At the time of his trial, Mandela justified the MK's tactics as a legitimate response to the apartheid state's use of violence against its own citizens, as well as its banning of the ANC and its refusal to enter into meaningful dialogue about change. If understandable in the context of the times, the decision to take up arms was nonetheless fateful. It allowed the South African government to label the ANC a terrorist organization (a conclusion also reached by the United States) and foreclosed for many years open political dialogue between the liberation movements and the apartheid state.

The MK also sought and received weapons and other support from the Soviet Union, which viewed the apartheid state as part of the hostile Western bloc and was ideologically opposed to racism -- at least outside its empire. This tied the liberation movement to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and may have had the paradoxical effect of strengthening apartheid hard-liners. The result was heightened repression and, potentially, a delay in the ultimate dismantling of apartheid. The liberation movements also received support from other sources, especially Scandinavia. Nevertheless, only the end of the Cold War could convince many whites that it was possible to negotiate with the ANC.

When, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government in Pretoria finally signaled it wanted a dialogue with the liberation movements, however, Mandela was quick to seize the opportunity. If he had been a hawk, he became a dove when he saw that doing so could hasten the end of apartheid. What struck many as extraordinary was his utter lack of bitterness toward his former jailers. That went a long way toward facilitating a success at the negotiating table and paving the way for South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.

"Mandela's Legacy Lives On Under the ANC."

Yes, but it is increasingly coming under attack. Mandela is rightly celebrated for presiding over South Africa's transformation from apartheid state to multiracial democracy under the rule of law. Under his leadership, South Africa did not follow in the footsteps of Algeria (where in the aftermath of a bloody independence struggle, the European tenth of the population fled to France) or Mozambique (where almost all the Portuguese population left after independence was won). Instead, Mandela's presidency was characterized by racial reconciliation, especially with white Afrikaners, which he shrewdly promoted through the use of symbols. For example, he famously supported the predominately white national rugby team when it won the world championship in 1995 and took tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the chief architect of apartheid, in the same year. He also avoided both ANC and black African triumphalism; there was no wholesale change in Afrikaner place names.

Mandela's commitment to the rule of law was unwavering. Apartheid may have been a crime against humanity, but there would be no extralegal revolutionary justice in South Africa, as there was in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe with disastrous consequences. Instead, there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that offered amnesty in return for confession. Its beneficiaries included MK operatives as well as members of the security services that upheld the apartheid system. Mandela assiduously observed the new, post-apartheid constitution, which enshrined the strongest protections for individual and minority rights anywhere in the world. (Alone among African states, South Africa permits same-sex marriage, though much of the population remains homophobic.)

But both racial reconciliation and the rule of law have come under attack today -- in no small part because they are associated with the continued impoverishment of the black majority. (Indeed, Mugabe has accused Mandela of being more concerned about whites than about blacks.) Land reform -- for many blacks, an emotional issue -- has proceeded at a snail's pace, at least in part because of the strength of South Africa's property rights protections (though shortage of government funding is the primary cause of the delay). In response to growing frustrations, especially in the townships, Julius Malema, once the head of the ANC's Youth League, called in 2011 for the expropriation of white property without compensation. The ANC's national disciplinary committee expelled Malema for indiscipline over the comments, but his calls for populist land reform still resonate in some townships and rural areas. Many South Africans believe that Mandela too often subordinated the interests of the black majority to those of the white majority, even if they were reluctant to express it openly so long as the former president was alive.

Against this backdrop, some in the ANC are challenging the independence of the judiciary. In the spring of 2013, there were calls for the judiciary to be subordinated to the democratically elected executive. This took the form of a state secrets bill initially promoted by President Jacob Zuma's administration. Zuma later backed away from the bill, claiming it did not "pass constitutional muster." The bill would have potentially reduced government transparency by tightening the classification of government information as state secrets and weakening protections for whistleblowers. Some feared the bill would stifle criticism of the government and facilitate corruption.

Yet throughout all this, Mandela remained supportive of the ANC, even as it descended into patronage politics and crony capitalism. Perhaps South Africa's greatest challenge today is to preserve the rule of law and the independence of its judiciary -- essential ingredients of Mandela's legacy -- in the face of rising populism and the abiding impoverishment of the majority of the population.

"South Africa Today Is a 'Rainbow Nation' of Racial Equality."

Hardly. Throughout his struggle against apartheid -- before, during, and after his incarceration at Robben Island -- Mandela's dream for South Africa was a nonracial, democratic "rainbow nation." This, and the rule of law, were cornerstones to his agenda. Although there are signs that popular attitudes are beginning to evolve in a more democratic and less racially conscious direction, both racial identity and racism remain fixtures of South African life. Survey data indicates that South Africans of all age groups and races think that "non-racialism" and "greater integration" are unlikely to occur in their generation. At the same time, interracial marriage remains rare, ranging from 1 to 4 percent of the population under the age of 35, depending on the racial group. The reality is that apartheid has been replaced by self-segregation, with many South Africans living in separate, remarkably disconnected spheres.

An astonishing 43.5 percent of South Africans rarely or never speak to someone of another race, according to one 2012 survey. Only about half reported interacting with people of a different race frequently on weekdays, and less than 20 percent regularly socialized with people of other races. As in the United States, racial interaction does increase as you climb the socioeconomic ladder. The black middle class interacts with other races, but largely because whites continue to control the economy. Many of those who rarely speak to people of differing races are rural or township dwellers with limited mobility -- people whose social isolation simply mirrors the country's starkly racial geography.

Race also remains the most important predictor of voting behavior in South Africa. Despite the historically inclusive character of the governing ANC and Mandela's policy of racial reconciliation, most of the party's support comes from blacks. Of late, it has recruited few new leaders from other races. The opposition Democratic Alliance, meanwhile, is the party of choice of most whites and "coloreds" (people of mixed racial origin who consider themselves a distinct racial group). The Democratic Alliance has actively sought to attract black supporters -- particularly from the new black middle class -- and is recruiting high-profile nonwhite leadership, including Lindiwe Mazibuko, the party's leader in Parliament, in order to appeal to a wider spectrum of voters. It remains to be seen, however, whether it can succeed in reaching across racial lines. Ominously, survey data indicates that people under age 35 are less likely than older people to participate in multiracial party politics.

Nineteen years after the arrival of "nonracial democracy," racism continues to be a reality about which many are reluctant to speak. Crude racism among whites continues, especially in rural areas, even if it is no longer acceptable in elite company. A more subtle form of racism doubtlessly colors white interaction with blacks in much the same way as it does in other societies divided by race, including in the United States.

Critics of Mandela' s successors -- Mbeki and Zuma -- often accuse them of pandering to or exploiting black racism against whites for their own political advantage. Zuma, who has embraced a form of Afro-populism, has even performed militant anti-apartheid songs like "Bring Me My Machine Gun" -- a far cry from the spirit of Mandela. Recently, South Africa has also seen the wholesale replacement of Afrikaner place names -- East Rand is now Ekurhuleni, Durban is eThekwini, Pretoria is Tshwane, and Pietersburg is Polokwane, to name but a few -- usually at the initiative of local governments controlled by the ANC. While not overtly racist, the practice is insensitive to Afrikaners and was something Mandela avoided. The former president's rainbow nation remains elusive.

"Class Divides South Africa More Than Race."

True, but only because class breaks down largely along racial lines. The deal that Mandela brokered with de Klerk to end apartheid was political and did not address restructuring the economy to address the legacy of apartheid. This, for most black South Africans, did little to change the status quo. However, the establishment of democratic institutions left open for the future the restructuring of the economy, always subject to the rule of law.

In today's South Africa, however, it is commonly accepted that class is replacing race as the most important social division. In the 2012 survey cited earlier, 25 percent of South Africans polled identified the gap between rich and poor as the most important social fault line, while only 13 percent identified race. Proponents of this view often cite the emergence of the small, black middle class -- mostly employed in the public sector -- and a few high-profile black millionaires as evidence of 20 years of progress.

But a handful of black millionaires does not a post-racial society make. The difference in wealth between the racial groups in today's South Africa remains stark. Indeed, racial inequality between whites and blacks has actually increased since the end of apartheid, not decreased. Meanwhile, access to education and medical services for black South Africans is on par with the rest of Africa, while for whites it approaches that of the developed world. The average lifespan for a black South African is less than 50 years; for a white South African, it's around 70 years.

At the same time, racial classification remains a crucial administrative tool. Since 2006, the Labor Department has required larger private companies (those with 50 employees or more) to classify their workers by race using the former apartheid categories -- white, colored, black, and Indian or Asian. Paradoxically, apartheid definitions are used to implement Black Economic Empowerment, a type of affirmative action for those disadvantaged under the previous regime.

Still, there are signs of modest progress. The presence of black South Africans at formerly segregated institutions no longer excites comment. Multiracial public integration is a reality that enhances black self-esteem and helps shape how South Africans see each other. It represents an important part of Mandela and the ANC's legacy.

"South Africa Is a Rising Star."

Not yet. Perhaps the starkest reminder of how far South Africa has yet to travel is its citizens' abysmally low life expectancy. While there are significant racial disparities, the overall life expectancy for South Africans in 2007 was 50 years, down from 62 in 1990. To put this in perspective, South Africa's supposed peers among the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) all boast life expectancies of 65 or higher. Compared with the developed world, the difference is staggering. The life expectancy for Swedes and Australians is 81; for Britons, it's 79; and for Americans, 78.

How to account for the overall low life expectancy? HIV/AIDS is undoubtedly the biggest factor, though certainly not the only one. It was only toward the end of the Mbeki administration in 2007 that the country developed effective HIV/AIDS prevention and care programs. In 2010, it was estimated that 5.24 percent of the population was HIV-positive, rising to 17.3 percent for those between the ages of 15 and 49.

But HIV/AIDS is by no means the only reason that South Africans can expect to live substantially shorter lives than their counterparts in the developed world. Poor medical care, limited education, and crippling poverty -- which affects diet, housing, and even the quality of child care -- all take their toll on ordinary South Africans, particularly blacks. South Africa also retains some of the world's highest crime and murder rates, both of which negatively impact life expectancy.

South Africa's economy is also much smaller than those of its BRIC partners. Jim O'Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist who coined the term BRIC in a 2001 paper, long contended that South Africa does not qualify as a BRIC country. He only recently changed his stance, stating that South Africa has a role to play as a potential conduit between the BRIC countries and the African continent. However, South Africa's population (48 million people in 2013) and economy ($578.6 billion in 2012) pale in comparison with those of the BRIC countries. For example, Russia's population stands at 142.5 million people and its GDP clocked in at $ 2.053 trillion in 2012.

South Africa also continues to struggle with labor issues, particularly in the mining sector. Labor unions are politically active, but wages for miners remain low, poor conditions are the norm, and strikes are rampant. Last year, wildcat strikes at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine turned violent and left 44 people dead.

* * *

In the face of these continuing challenges, however, the core of Mandela's legacy of nonracial democracy endures. At the time of Mandela's inauguration, whites generally viewed apartheid as a failure, but few of them saw it as evil. By 2012, in contrast, 83.8 percent of South Africans (of all races) reported seeing apartheid as a crime against humanity. (The proportion of white South Africans that shared these views was smaller, but still significant at 68 percent.)

At the same time, South Africa's public sphere has become genuinely multiracial and "African" in style. Whites may own much of the media, but the faces in advertisements and on television reflect the demographics of the country. The government agencies with which most people regularly come into contact -- the post office, the police, customs and immigration, agricultural extension experts -- have also come to mirror the demographics of the country. Repression is over. Human rights are protected by the law. Freedom of speech is absolute -- for now. These are major democratic achievements and perhaps Mandela's most significant legacy.

South Africa today owes more to Mandela than to any other individual. His efforts to bring about nonracial democracy and to achieve racial reconciliation have shaped the promise of modern South Africa. His iconic status is ensured, despite his use of violence during the anti-apartheid struggle, his failure to respond adequately to the HIV/AIDS epidemic while in office, and his uncritical support for the ANC, even in the face of mounting evidence that it was straying from the path he laid down.

In the wake of Mandela's death, South Africans will be reflecting on his legacy and assessing the future of their "beloved country." Like George Washington in the United States, Nelson Mandela is unquestionable the father of his country. As Washington has been for Americans, his achievements and the myths that already surround his life will be a source of strength for South Africans as they face the challenges of building a nonracial democracy.


Think Again

Think Again: Mexican Drug Cartels

They aren't just about Mexico or drugs anymore.

"Drugs Aren't a Foreign Policy Problem."

You might think so for all the attention they get. As U.S. officials and commentators focus on events in Syria, Egypt, and Iran, another violent struggle is taking place much closer to home. The rise of drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Mexico has fueled crime on both sides of the border and has undermined the economy of an important trading partner of the United States.

Since 2006, more than 60,000 people have been killed in DTO-related violence, and more than 26,000 have gone missing. The violence has spread from rural Mexico to major cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City, where, this May, armed men kidnapped 12 young people from a nightclub. The bodies of 10 of the abductees were later found in a mass grave outside the city; officials think they were killed as part of an ongoing war between rival drug gangs in the capital.

Despite enormous casualties, including members of U.S. law enforcement, the turmoil in Mexico does not receive nearly the level of scrutiny or attention from the U.S. government that conflicts in other countries do. During six hours of presidential debate in the 2012 campaign, for example, there was not a single direct mention of Mexico.

This is particularly puzzling given the close geographic, economic, and cultural ties between Mexico and the United States. The two countries share a 1,933-mile border that 350 million people cross legally each year, making it the world’s busiest. Mexico is the United States’ second-biggest export market and its third-largest import supplier. And a 2011 Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans think that what happens in Mexico is either "vitally important" or "important but not vital" to the United States -- more than said the same about Afghanistan, Iran, or Pakistan.

The official U.S. neglect of the Mexican cartels is partly a function of the complex challenges they present. Violence connected with DTOs is no longer limited to northern Mexico but now reaches throughout the country. This expansion not only poses a foreign policy problem for Washington, but it also exacerbates several of the most intractable domestic issues facing the United States, including immigration reform and gun control.

A first step toward controlling the cartels would be to better understand how they function. The Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are a collection of criminal enterprises. Some, such as the Gulf cartel, have existed for decades; others, such as Los Gueros, are relative newcomers. Because of shifting alliances and breakaway cells, it is almost impossible to state definitively which cartels are in operation at any one time, and the extent of the crime, corruption, and instability associated with them has been difficult to quantify precisely. Without a clearer idea of what the DTOs are doing, the violence will only continue.

"The Cartels Are Focused on Drugs."

Drugs are just the tip of the iceberg. In the popular U.S. television series Breaking Bad, about a high school teacher turned methamphetamine kingpin, there was an instructive exchange. When the show's antihero, Walter White, was asked whether he "was in the meth business or the money business," he replied, "I'm in the empire business."

The same can be said of the DTOs, which are independent and competing entities -- not an association like OPEC. The sale of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and meth remains extremely profitable. The U.S. Justice Department has put the cartels' U.S. drug trade at $39 billion annually. But the DTOs have diversified their business considerably, both to increase their profits and to exclude rivals from new sources of revenue. For example, they are dealing increasingly in pirated intellectual property, like counterfeit software, CDs, and DVDs. The most destructive new "product," however, is people. The cartels have built a multibillion-dollar business in human trafficking, including the shipment of both illegal immigrants and sex workers.

What the DTOs are really selling is logistics, much like Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart was one of the first retailers to run its own fleet of trucks, providing tailored shipping at a lower cost that in turn gave the company an edge over its competitors. Similarly, Amazon may have started as a bookseller, but its dominance, as Fast Company put it, is "now less about what it sells than how it sells," providing a distribution hub for all sorts of products. Drug-trafficking organizations are using the same philosophy to cut costs, better control distribution, and develop new sources of revenue.

The one element of the U.S.-Mexico relationship that has received no shortage of attention is the border, yet the technology and money dedicated to enhancing security there have not been enough to thwart creative DTOs. The Sinaloa cartel, for example, has an extensive network of expertly constructed tunnels under the border, some featuring air-conditioning. (The workers who build the tunnels are frequently executed after the work is completed.) At the other extreme, traffickers have used catapults to launch deliveries from Mexico into the United States.

Logistics, then, are the DTOs' main source of revenue, and illegal drugs are but one of the products they offer. As the cartels' revenue streams become increasingly diversified, the drug trade will become less and less important. In fact, the prospect of the DTOs' selling their services to terrorists, say by transporting weapons of mass destruction across the U.S.-Mexico border, has begun to frighten analysts both inside and outside government.

"But the Violence Is Unique to the Drug Trade."

No. The most brutal DTO battles are not over customers or suppliers but over ports and trade routes. The Mexican state of Michoacán, with its large Pacific port of Lázaro Cárdenas, has suffered a surge in violence as the remnants of La Familia Michoacana and the rising Los Caballeros Templarios fight for dominance. This May, Los Caballeros Templarios ambushed and shot 10 farmers after they met with government officials to protest cartel extortion. As one farmer described the DTO, "It's like a monster with a thousand arms."

Brutality on Mexico's borders is also largely a function of logistics, or so the pattern would suggest. On the U.S.-Mexico border, for instance, the city of Nuevo Laredo has been racked by violence for over a decade. Not coincidentally, the city's northern edge lies less than a mile from Interstate 35, a north-south highway running through Dallas, Kansas City, and Minneapolis and connecting to major east-west routes. Mexico's southern border has also seen a spike in violent crime, as the cartels move their products -- guns, cocaine from Colombia, and immigrants from Central America -- north to the United States.

Cartels also use violence to further less concrete objectives. Spectacular acts, such as rolling severed heads onto a nightclub dance floor (as La Familia Michoacana did in 2006), are designed to shock and frighten, not to move product or attract customers. Assassinating the family of a Mexican marine who had participated (and been killed) in a raid against a DTO, as happened in late 2009, was an unambiguous threat against all law enforcement personnel. And the DTOs regularly threaten and kill reporters -- Mexico is the fourth most dangerous nation in the world for journalists (behind only Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan), according to Reporters Without Borders -- both to prevent the release of specific information about cartel activities and to discourage reporting on them in the first place. A recent narcomanta ("drug banner") posted over two bodies hanging from a highway overpass in Nuevo Laredo sent a clear message: "This is going to happen to all of those posting funny things on the Internet.… I'm about to get you."

Violence, in other words, is not a function of the drug trade specifically. It is how the cartels manage everything from marketing to public relations to human resources.

"At Least the Violence Is Contained to Mexico."

Not at all. This past February, the Chicago Crime Commission named Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, the leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, "Public Enemy No. 1" -- the first person to receive the designation since Al Capone. The number of homicides in Chicago through early September 2013 was 27 percent higher than in New York, and its murder rate was 49 percent higher than Los Angeles's. Jack Riley, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office, has ascribed the city's unusually high murder rate to drug-related turf wars sparked by Sinaloa's growing presence in the city. The centrality of Chicago to air, rail, and road transportation networks, as well as the city's large Mexican immigrant community, make it an important node for drug distribution.

Despite what's happening in Chicago and other U.S. cities, there has been almost no appetite at the federal level for tracking the effects of the DTOs on domestic crime. Proponents of immigration reform have no wish to promote stereotypes of immigrants as dangerous criminals. Advocates for higher and longer border fencing acknowledge the danger but prioritize major cities and more populated areas, failing to realize that this tactic simply shifts cartel operations to remoter areas that are harder to control. Governors of states that border Mexico have little interest in drawing attention to crime that results from their inability to contain the DTOs. And Washington does not want to antagonize the Mexican government over its law enforcement shortcomings, particularly given that Mexico's cooperation is critical to addressing a host of other issues, such as immigration.

While Washington looks the other way, cartel activity in the United States is only getting worse. To keep their operations going, the DTOs have been engaging in money laundering and bribery on both sides of the border. In September 2013, for example, a federal jury in Austin, Texas, sentenced three men involved in laundering Los Zetas money in the United States -- including a brother of the cartel's notorious leader -- to lengthy prison sentences.

The DTOs' reach is extending ever farther into the United States. Like many successful legal businesses, the cartels are vertically integrating. Instead of merely selling meth, for example, DTOs like Sinaloa now manufacture the drug using chemical precursors they import from Asia. This, alongside new laws that have made it harder to acquire precursors in the United States, has driven "mom and pop" meth producers in the United States out of business, as they cannot compete on price or quality with the product from Mexico. The integration goes down the supply chain as well. Part of the reason that Chicago law enforcement officials are so alarmed by El Chapo is that Sinaloa no longer outsources its retailing to local dealers but is taking an ever more active role in selling the product in the United States. And that means that cartel-related crime is only going to get worse.

"The Problem Is the War on Drugs.
Legalization Would Help."

Hardly. Legalization has become an increasingly popular, if still controversial, proposal among those who think that the costs of the war on drugs have overwhelmed the benefits, including some Central and South American leaders, like Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. But because DTOs are dealing in far more than just illegal drugs, the disappearance of one revenue stream would not eradicate the cartels or decisively erode their power.

Even if the cartels were dependent on drug money, which they aren't, the idea that legalization is a binary switch that would cut off profits from the drug trade is fundamentally flawed. In the context of drugs like marijuana, "legalization" implies wide availability and fairly easy access, but it is highly unlikely that the U.S. government would remove all, or even many, restrictions on drugs like ecstasy or heroin, leaving the cartels' business in those narcotics intact.

What's more, even legitimate drugs can spur illicit trade if they are in high demand but the supply is tightly controlled. Drugs like oxycodone, a highly addictive painkiller, are legally manufactured and sold in the United States, but "oxy" is strictly regulated under Schedule II of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Those restrictions gave rise to a thriving black market in the drug, with prices reaching as high as $150 per pill.

Licit drugs can also create highly profitable arbitrage opportunities for enterprising criminals if the laws that govern their distribution differ from state to state, as would likely be the case if marijuana or other drugs were widely legalized. Cigarettes are legal, yet interstate cigarette smuggling makes a great deal of money for organized crime; because of differing state tax rates, the opportunity for profit is substantial. Virginia, for example, which has among the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation, is grappling with increased criminal activity, because of trafficking to high-tax states like New York and New Jersey. (And Virginia's hardly the only one; other states, like Texas, have even seen armed hijackings of cigarette trucks.)

"Decapitating the Cartels
Will Render Them Powerless." 

Nope. Much has been made of the capture this July of Miguel Treviño Morales, alias "Z-40," the leader of Los Zetas. U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto praised the capture as a major milestone in the fight to dismantle the cartels. But although capturing or killing drug lords makes for dramatic news stories, a "decapitation" strategy ignores crucial aspects of the DTOs' success.

Assassinating kingpins often leads simply to martyrdom and glorification; the commemoration of cartel leaders through shrines and narcocorridos ("drug ballads") is already widespread. Decapitation can also increase violence, at least in the short to medium term, as wars of succession engulf not only the cartel itself, but also law enforcement personnel and civilians, as well as members of rival organizations. Furthermore, under pressure to prove they are still powerful, decapitated cartels may lash out in dramatic displays of violence.

The capture and imprisonment of DTO leaders, particularly in Mexico, has proved to be of limited utility. The men who control these organizations have a well-established capacity for brutality and the ability to rise to the top of a large criminal enterprise without being killed. These qualities make them formidable and, in many cases, help them to operate their businesses from prison. The ability to bribe or intimidate prison guards, for example, can win an inmate the freedom to communicate with the outside world.

What's more, prisons in both Mexico and the United States have proved fertile ground for recruitment and training. The Barrio Azteca gang, an enforcement arm of the Juárez cartel, formed in the Texas prison system. The most notorious gang in the United States is Mara Salvatrucha, more widely known as MS-13. It originated in Los Angeles, including in its prisons, before spreading across the United States and into Mexico and Central America. The scope and capabilities of MS-13 have now caught the attention of both Los Zetas and Sinaloa, which have taken steps to ally with a potentially dangerous rival.

Then there's the embarrassing fact that the most famous case of DTO decapitation is also the strategy's most obvious failure. In 1993, U.S. and Mexican officials expected that the capture and incarceration of El Chapo, Sinaloa's leader, would be a punishing blow to the increasingly powerful crime network. If anything, the opposite occurred. With the help of compliant prison guards, El Chapo arranged his own escape in 2001 from Puente Grande prison, the Mexican equivalent of an American supermax facility. He has evaded rearrest for over 12 years, and in 2009, Forbes named him one of the world's billionaires. Although he was dropped from the list this year, Forbes stated, "As the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, he is one of the most powerful people in the world."

"We Need to Hit Them Where It Hurts: the Wallet."

Exactly. Despite the ongoing arguments about drug legalization and border security, the most effective way to combat the scourge of the DTOs would be to interdict not drugs or people but money. As in any business, money is the fuel that keeps the cartels running.

Even if Sinaloa, to give only one example, were to disappear tomorrow, other organizations would quickly rise to take its slice of the lucrative pie. One of the most basic tenets of business is that highly profitable markets attract lots of new entrants. This is true for legal and illegal enterprises alike. The staggering profits of illegal trade would be much less attractive if the DTOs could not launder, deposit, and ultimately spend their money.

But shutting down the cartels' financial operations will be a formidable task, given the help they have had from multinational financial institutions, which have profited from the cartels' large-dollar deposits. In 2010, Wachovia bank (which was acquired by Wells Fargo in 2008) admitted that it had processed $378 billion of currency exchanges in Mexico -- an amount equal to about one-third of the country's GDP -- to which it had failed to apply anti-laundering restrictions. In 2012, British bank HSBC settled with the U.S. government for $1.9 billion to escape prosecution for, among other things, laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for the Sinaloa cartel. U.S. law enforcement has also implicated Bank of America and Western Union in DTO money laundering. Although illegal money transfers can happen without banks' knowledge, the volume and widespread occurrence of these transactions indicate just how easy it is for the cartels to clean their dirty money.

Paying a fine to avoid prosecution is almost no punishment at all. The fines Wachovia paid amounted to less than 2 percent of its 2009 profit. Even the record fine assessed on HSBC amounted to only 12 percent of the bank's profits. Furthermore, banks can simply accrue funds to offset any possible fines, either by increasing what they charge cartels or by setting aside some of the earnings from laundering, even as they continue to do business with the DTOs. Prosecuting bank employees involved in money laundering, up through the highest levels of an institution, would be a better tack. Pictures of a chief compliance officer as he entered a courtroom for sentencing would have a far greater deterrent effect than any financial penalty.

To that end, investigative techniques and legal precedents for going after global criminal networks are increasingly robust, and the political payoffs could be substantial. One of the more successful campaigns in the war on terrorism has been the financial one; experience gained in tracking the funds of al Qaeda could make it easier to similarly unravel Los Zetas' financing. Malfeasance in the financial industry is nothing new, but public sensitivity to banks' wrongdoing is arguably higher than it has been in decades. An enterprising prosecutor could make quite a reputation for herself by tracking DTO money through the financial system.

The cartels, along with the violence and corruption they perpetrate, are threats to both Mexico and the United States. The problem is a complicated one and taps areas of profound policy disagreement. The way to make progress in combating the DTOs is to ignore issues like gun control and illegal immigration and follow the money. Stanching the cartels' profits will do more to end the bloodshed than any new fence or law.

Photos: Courtesy of ICE, Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images, Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images, Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images, AFP/Getty Images, YURI CORTEZ/AFP/GettyImages, Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/GettyImages