Honduras Police Respond to InSight Crime Firearms Trafficking Investigation

Authorities in Honduras have publicly responded to the recent publication of an InSight Crime investigation on firearms trafficking in the country, outlining some of the steps they are taking to improve their weapons control efforts…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Dozens of Peru Police Investigated for Extrajudicial Killings

Nearly one hundred members of Peru‘s national police are under investigation for their alleged participation in a series of extrajudicial killings, illustrating the dangers of inculcating and rewarding violence within police forces…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Colombia Police Director Resigns Amid Prostitution Scandal

A sex scandal involving the Colombian police is unfolding at a politically sensitive time, as the force prepares to assume a key role in implementing an expected peace accord between the government and the country’s largest rebel group…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

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.”


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.

Can Mexico Criticize Killings of Migrants in the U.S.?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

Two recent killings of Mexican immigrants by American police have sparked outrage in both the U.S. and Mexico. Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an undocumented agricultural worker, was allegedly throwing rocks at police before he was shot and killed last month in Pasco, Washington. Rubén García Villalpando, another unarmed, undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was shot and killed by police in Grapevine, Texas following a short car chase just weeks after Zambrano-Montes’ violent death.

In both cases, the Mexican government condemned the men’s killings, describing them as incidents of “disproportionate use of lethal force” by U.S. authorities. However, for many, the condemnations immediately raised the question of whether the Mexican government’s denunciations are hypocritical given the widespread criticism leveled against Mexico’s notoriously abusive security forces.

Last July, a group of Mexican soldiers were accused of assassinating innocent civilians in the town of Tlatlaya. Three of the soldiers have been charged with murder and several others were charged with abusing their authority as members of the armed forces. In September, local and federal security forces allegedly orchestrated an attack on a group of local students in the town of Iguala, which left several of the students dead and at least 43 missing, or “disappeared.” Although the government’s investigation of the incident has been roundly described as insufficient, some of the alleged participants have been arrested and charged.

Additionally, accusations of abuse of migrants in Mexico by criminals and security forces alike have been numerous and consistent for years. Last month, the Mexican news website Animal Politico investigated widespread abuses reported by civil society organizations, including physical harm and financial extortion, occurring at security checkpoints funded by U.S. taxpayer money provided to Mexico under the Merida Initiative.

This begs the question: How can a country like Mexico, whose security forces have such an atrocious human rights record, possibly criticize U.S. police with any semblance of credibility?

The answer is that Mexico does not fund, train and equip American police forces. Mexico does not pressure the U.S. to adopt policies that criminalize immigrants. In fact, Mexico has long been consistently critical of harsh U.S. immigration measures that have been used to disproportionately target Latino populations.

On the other hand, the U.S. has been providing Mexico with well over $100 million per year in military and police assistance, including world-class weapons, training and intelligence. The Obama administration has also ramped up pressure on the Mexican government to detain and deport record numbers of migrants and refugees before they even have the chance to reach the U.S. southern border.

This doesn’t mean that Mexico’s security forces are generally better-behaved than their U.S. counterparts, but despite superficial appearances to the contrary, it seems Mexico actually has more standing to criticize U.S. policing policies than vice versa.

If the U.S. wants to see changes in Mexico’s policing practices, it could withhold some of the massive amounts of funding it gives the country, or at the very least make further aid conditional upon improvements in Mexican security forces’ respect for citizen’s civil and human rights. If Mexico wants U.S. cops to stop shooting its citizens, its only real recourse is public diplomacy.

Argentina Struggles with How to Respond to Increased Drug-Related Violence

Argentina, a country not commonly associated with the “drug war” in the same way as countries like Mexico or Colombia, is increasingly experiencing violence and corruption linked to drug trafficking. As with other countries, this crime and violence is not just the work of feuding criminal organizations, but also security forces that have been implicated in drug running, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. Although U.S.-Argentina relations have been rocky recently, this uptick in violence has provided an impetus for law enforcement cooperation between the two countries…

Read this piece in its entirety at Security Assistance Monitor.