When “Groupthink” Goes Rogue: The Case of the “Panama Unit”

I wrote this for a class on theories of decision-making. Thought I’d share it here in case anyone finds it useful.

Around 2010, the sheriff of Mission, Texas, Lupe Treviño, established an “elite” anti-narcotics squad to be headed up by his son, Jonathan Treviño. According to a January 2015 report by journalist Josh Eells that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, the “Panama Unit,” named after the “Panama Red” strain of marijuana, “was a way [for Lupe] to get his son working more or less under him without violating state nepotism laws.”

Jonathan was a fast-rising young investigator who had been on the force for only four years. After flunking out of a criminal justice curriculum at a local community college, he entered the police academy a few months after his father’s election as sheriff in 2004. Jonathan made investigator just two years out of the academy. Two years later, he assumed command of the Panama Unit.

Within a year after its creation, Eells writes, the Panama Unit developed into “one of the most efficient drug-robbery rings in Texas, taking money from some dealers and traffickers while using their police weapons and police cars to rob others.”

From its very beginnings the Panama Unit seemed destined to fall victim to the most pernicious effects of groupthink. In Irving L. Janis’s landmark 1982 book, Groupthink, the author summarizes “the central theme of [his] analysis” thus:

“The more amiability and esprit de corps among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.”

Janis points out quite obviously that at least a moderate or high “degree of cohesiveness of the group” is a necessary precondition for groupthink, but he adds that two further “antecedent conditions” must also be present, namely “insulation of the policy-making group” and a “lack of a tradition of impartial leadership.”

All of these conditions were in abundant supply in the case of the Panama Unit. According to Eells, Jonathan Treviño “filled his team with his friends,” including some he had known since childhood, and he answered directly to his father, who was more than willing to always believe the best about his son. “The crew hung out together in their off hours, having poker night or a barbecue at the sheriff’s house,” writes Eells.

Jonathan even moved back in with his father after it was discovered he was rooming with a man who had been arrested on drug charges. Lupe Treviño himself later pled guilty to laundering money for a “local drug lord named Tomas Gonzalez – a.k.a. El Gallo,” whom Eells describes “a real-life version” of a viciously sadistic fictional character from the television series Breaking Bad.

In late 2010, Jonathan Treviño and some of his childhood buddies in the Panama Unit pulled over a drunk driver and searched his car. They found a large amount of cocaine and a plastic bag with $50,000 in it. “We asked him whose money it was, and he said he didn’t know,” Treviño told Eells in an interview. “We just figured, ‘We can get away with it, we’re among friends, get a little extra money for Christmas – fuck it.'” The group took three bundles of cash, totaling $9,000, and split the money among themselves.

This high degree of cohesiveness and insulation combined with a lack of impartial leadership soon led to many of the symptoms of groupthink identified by Janis. For example, the group displayed a clear “illusion of invulnerability…which creates excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks.”

As Eells writes, “it wasn’t long before the Panama Unit graduated to stealing drugs,” selling them wholesale to local dealers and eventually even bigger players in the drug trade. “By 2012, word was getting around that the Panama Unit might be dirty…But the Panama Unit almost seemed to enjoy their reputation as bad cops.” As Treviño told Eells, “I just felt like we were untouchable.”

Another telltale sign of groupthink, according to Janis, is “an unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality.” Once again, the Panama Unit serves as a great example. “The Panama Unit always justified their rips by saying they weren’t robbing innocent people, only drug dealers,” writes Eells. “I felt accomplished knowing we got 4,000 pounds [of drugs] off the street” Treviño told him, “even when we put 1,000 back on it.”

Eventually, a federal investigation caught up with the younger Treviño and he resigned from his position. He was arrested on December 12, 2012, pled guilty, and was sentenced to 17 years in prison along with some of his Panama Unit colleagues, who testified against him at trial and received slightly lesser sentences. According to Eells, not even this apparent betrayal seemed to shake Treviño’s confidence in his group; “Even though they turned on me in open court, I would still take a bullet for these guys,” he said.

Janis also notes that a “provocative situational context,” including such things as a “high-stress environment,” or an “apparent lack of feasible alternatives except ones that violate ethical standards,” can also lead to groupthink. The high-stress task of policing a heavily-used drug trafficking corridor near the often-dangerous Mexico border also could have combined with a special pressure on Jonathan to live up to his father’s expectations.

As Eells writes, “according to Jonathan, the thought of confessing never crossed his mind. ‘I couldn’t’ he sa[id]. ‘My dad would have been so disappointed.’” Moreover, As the Panama Unit jacked a greater number of increasingly powerful players, they had to start worrying about getting capped by a cartel at least as much as they worried about being busted by the feds.

To use Janis’ term, what unfolded was a “fiasco.” From its beginnings, the Panama Unit had all seven of the “major defects in decision-making” he identifies in the introduction to Groupthink. But on a broader level, the group’s history – along with voluminous other accounts of police and paramilitary groups “going rogue” – does seem to lend great weight to the notion that greater group cohesion, especially in the presence of compounding factors like environmental stress, leadership failures and lack of accountability (not to mention monetary incentives), is likely to result in “irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.”

References:

Eells, Josh. “America’s Dirtiest Cops: Cash, Cocaine and Corruption on the Texas Border.” Rolling Stone. January 5, 2015. Accessed from: <http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/americas-dirtiest-cops-cash-cocaine-texas-hidalgo-county-20150105#ixzz3OLXgl1nE >

Janis, Irving, L. (1982). Groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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