Skip links

The Drug Cartel Game

Games form a large part of our childhood. As our adrenaline rush pertains to being the first person to say “UNO” or being the last one to be caught in “Hide and Seek”, the joys are undeniable. As we grow older, the former pleasures tend to lose their relevance. From being in a race to get the highest scores in a test to competing for the highest paying job, our games keep getting more and more complex. Life in itself is quite a complicated game.

Our traditional idea of a game is fueled by competition and the desire to win. Nevertheless, there also exists a kind of game where no one wins or loses. Though the notion may seem quite baffling, a large part of our daily lives revolves around such a system. This concept is elaborated in the study of game theory and its application at the individual as well as the global level.

What Is Game Theory?

Let’s take the example of a game of chess. A player will take into consideration every possible counter of his/her opponent before making the next move. What is important in this scenario is that both the players have an idea of each other’s actions and their assumption of the other’s strategies largely determines how they will proceed. In this game, the players are known, the rules are fixed and it ends with a winner and a loser. Hence, its called a finite1 game. Now, if we consider two producers of shoes in a market as opponents in the business game. Each producer would want to attract more customers than the other and would hence compete by reducing prices, giving discounts and so on. What makes this game different from chess is that there can be both known and unknown players, there are no exact rules and the game is endless. Here, one producer cannot ‘win’ over the other and consequently, there is no winner or loser. This makes it an infinite game.

Game theory2 studies the interactions between the participants of finite as well as infinite games to examine the strategic decision-making between rational individuals. It tries to find out the actions that a player should perform which would maximise his profits. For the purpose of this article, we will analyse the application of this theory in the infinite game that is the drug business. What is peculiar about this industry is how control easily shifts among the competitors and the rivalry that is born out of the pursuit of profits.

The Narcotics Industry

The modern-day narcotics industry has organised itself in the form of drug cartels. Much to the dismay of action movie lovers, rather than being drug-addicted lunatics hellbent on violence, these cartels3 are highly sophisticated, pursuing profit by the cheapest and most efficient means possible.

It is surprising how most of such drug cartels operate in a manner similar to big-box corporations like McDonald’s or KFC. Like these MNCs, they too have a head office, production units, regional branches, suppliers of raw materials and most importantly, employees that distribute the product. As the industry grew and demand increased, several such cartels came up in an attempt to surpass the others and take full control. This is evident when we look at the history of drug cartels. Till the 1990s4, Mexican cartels were mere links for the Columbian drug lords to help move their product across the US border. We observe that after the fracturing of Colombian syndicates, the Mexican mafias became the dominant criminal forces in the hemisphere. So with a new hotspot for drug production, an ever-growing demand and millions of civilian lives at stake, what is the best option to halt the spread of these addictive yet life-threatening substances in our lives? A game theory analysis can be done on this subject.

Applying game theory to the Mexican Drug business

The first aspect that we need to examine is the application of the Prisoner’s Dilemma5: It assumes that two criminals have been caught and that the police are interrogating them. Their choices are to confess or not confess, and their penalty depends on what they do, as well as what their partners do. It is given that if they both confess, they have to pay a huge fine. If one confesses and the other doesn’t, the one who confessed gets let off while the other has to pay double the amount. If both don’t confess, they both are free to go. The best overall decision here would be not to confess at all in order to save themselves from paying the fine. However, the dominant strategy as individuals would be to confess as it leaves them better off no matter what their partners decide to do.

A similar but more complex situation arises in the Mexican drug war. This was started in 2006 by the government of Mexico, and the two biggest drug cartels in Mexico-the Gulf Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel. A study done by Edgar Aquino proposed four options for the government. The first was to focus all its power on one cartel. The second was to fight against both. The third was to legalise drugs completely, and the fourth was to ignore the problem. With the given alternatives, it’s visible that the last alternative cannot be adopted as murder and corruption, which had become major problems in the country would prevail. The third option isn’t very appealing as complete legalisation of narcotics will lead to competition between the cartels. Either way, the risk of violence, and an increase in the use of drugs is prevalent.

Coming to the first two alternatives, the former leaves the government prone to attack from the other cartel and hence the latter option is the dominant strategy. If they attack both the cartels, it further leads them to a prisoner’s dilemma of whether or not they should act together. However, due to their previous rivalries, it is unlikely that they will be able to trust each other. In all probability, one may betray the other and this works to the government’s advantage.


The current policy adopted by the Mexican government6 promises to address what it calls the root causes of violence, namely economic insecurity. This approach, aimed at featuring less armed conflict with cartels is trying to solve the problem in a long-term way. The analysis done in this article shows that the most effective way of dealing with the mafia would rather be to end their operations once and for all. This would have a large impact on reducing homicide rates and also disrupt the supply chain of drugs. The operation can be accompanied by awareness programs organised by the government to inform youth about the harm caused by drugs. It would moreover enable the citizens to understand their situation and live without the fear of violence that has been lurking around for decades.

However, a reduction of supply doesn’t mean a reduction in demand especially in the case of such addictive substances. With consumption increasing by the day and guaranteed high profits to the drug lords, no action can promise an end to the illegal drug business. In this infinite game, it is impossible to know whether this industry will be annihilated to a large extent, or whether history will repeat itself by paving the way for an alternate region as the new epicentre of narcotics supply. Can there really be a way to win a game where no one wins?

By Tripti Arora
Senior Secondary Student, Birla Vidya Niketan (BVN), Pushp Vihar, Delhi








This website uses cookies to improve your web experience.