The ambiguity of numbers and statistics has the potential for misleading interpretations, as is evident in the case of seizing and interdicting drugs at and beyond U.S. borders. Why is measuring interdiction “success” politically tricky?
Not only are drug seizure figures used as evidence for policy success, but they remain largely unchallenged while serving multiple interests (and functions) for different state departments.
Peter Andreas explores how “mythical numbers” occur due to various reasons. For example, he mentions that some numbers are noticeably missing, some are recycled through the media without accountability, and unimpressive numbers are suppressed. These issues, and more, present interdiction success as “decorations” for the policy process.
Essentially, these issues boil down to the lack of accountability for the purity of the figures and their source, an issue that is aggravated by different government agencies competing against one another for budget allocation and politicians attempting to prove policy success.
US border as a political battleground
Using the US border as a battleground between Democrats and Republicans is a tale as old as time, with Republicans attempting to control illicit drug flow and immigration as a priority to advance their agenda.
Consider President Nixon’s Operation Intercept, an anti-drug measure that resulted in a near shutdown of border crossings between Mexico and the United States in 1969, a significant effort in his campaign. The practice of using misleading numbers is still prevalent today.
Justin Reid describes Operation Intercept as “an exercise in international extortion” where journalists reported questionable statistics provided by the government to promote (and question) Nixon’s upcoming war on drugs, which followed two years later.
Operation Lone Star
The practice of using misleading numbers is still prevalent today. The Marshall Project published an article demonstrating how political leaders amplify specific figures and shift metrics to further their campaign and policy agenda. An investigation of Operation Lone Star reveals how Texas Governor Greg Abbott skewed data to describe a multi-billion dollar border operation as successful in an effort to get re-elected.
An investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, and The Marshall Project found, “The state’s claim of success has been based on shifting metrics that included crimes with no connection to the border, work conducted by troopers stationed in targeted counties prior to the operation, and arrest and drug seizure efforts that do not clearly distinguish DPS’s role from that of other agencies.” The article is quite in-depth and dives into specific details of Operation Lone Star and how the figures were used as weapons in the fight to support Governor Abbott’s policy goal of securing the border (and getting reelected).
Policy, Numbers and Transnational Crime
This commentary would only be complete by mentioning that policy is challenging to measure with complete transparency, attention to specific (relevant) indicators, and accountability. In the illicit flow of goods, money, and people, where gathering and measuring data is even more challenging, attention to reliability and validity is very important. Using the US border as an example, it's apparent how policy and the reaction to transnational crime has an impact on the US criminal justice system (and global efforts to target cross-border crimes).
- Arsovska, J. (2011). Conceptualizing and studying organized crime in a global context. In C. Smith, S. Zhang, R. Barberet, Routledge Handbook of International Criminology. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Andreas, P. (2010). The Politics of Measuring Illicit Flows and Policy Effectiveness - Alternative Formats In: P Andreas, KM Greenhill (eds.), Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict (pp. 23-45). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press
- Reid, J. M. (2022). “An exercise in international extortion”: Operation “Intercept” and Nixon’s 1969 war on drugs (Order No. 29995846). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2742630076). Retrieved from https://ez.lib.jjay.cuny.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/exercise-international-extortion-operation/docview/2742630076/se-2