Math in the News
Destroying Drug Cartels, the Mathematical Way
Prosecutors in Colombia are starting to use network analysis to combat drug cartels.
For decades, governments in Mexico and Colombia have targeted the leaders as a means to bring down cartels, but an article in New Scientist argues that a complexity analysis approach, one that targets minor players, might be more effective.
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.