Complexity analysis depicts drugs cartels as a complex network with each member as a node and their interactions as lines between them. Algorithms compute the strength and importance of the connections.
At first glance, taking out a central “hub” seems like a good idea. When Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, for example, the Medellin cartel he was in charge of fell apart. But like a hydra, chopping off the head only caused the cartel to splinter into smaller networks. By 1996, 300 “baby cartels” had sprung up in Colombia, says Michael Lawrence of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation in Canada, and they are still powerful today.
Mexican officials are currently copying the top-down approach, says Lawrence, but he doubts it will work. “Network theory tells us how tenuous the current policy is,” he says.
Now Colombian prosecutors have a new tool to add to their investigation methods: network analysis. This can be an integral part of the modern war on drugs, says Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran, director of the Vortex Foundation based in Bogotá.
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. In Mexico and Colombia, these are often police or governors who are paid by the cartels. “The betweener is the guy who connects the illegal with the legal,” says Salcedo-Albaran. Because many cartels depend on their close ties with the law to operate successfully, removing the betweeners could devastate their operations.