Discussions of Darwinism often revolve around jungle primates or Galápagos finches. For Rodrigo Nieto-Gómez, the fittest subject for study isn’t exotic fauna, but rather an elusive and rapidly evolving human population more lethal than any island predator. Mexican drug cartels face a Darwinian choice: Adapt or die.
Traffickers, Nieto-Gómez reasons, provide a unique window into a kill-or-be-killed environment. It’s the cartels’ ability to innovate, skirting ever-changing enforcement policies, that gets him excited about the lessons underground groups can provide for above-board businesses and government. He translates those lessons as a professor and researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security, a multi-agency hub launched in 2002 to educate future leaders of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. He teaches mostly professional students, like law enforcement officers who want to advance in their field, in the center’s FEMA-funded master’s program.
Such a practical, real-life program seems an unlikely place for Nieto-Gómez, who often sounds more like a sci-fi author than an academic. He’s interested in high-tech and low-brow, reality and fiction. In one peer-reviewed academic paper on Homeland Security, he quotes both Plato and Isaac Asimov.
In his research on drug trafficking, he uses the term “Dark X Prize” to describe what it is cartel players are willing to die for: control over the lucrative, yet dangerous, illegal marketplace.
In the absence of FDA testing for new types of recreational drugs, or worker-safety rules, he sees a libertarian paradise. Traffickers innovate by investing in their own cell networks (even kidnapping engineers, if that’s what it takes) and building drone submarines to transport their goods.
When he’s not teaching or working on an academic article about cyber-security at a coffee shop, Nieto-Gómez often presents at business conferences on this very point, encouraging entrepreneurs to take a cue from the speedy innovation of cartels.
“What are hacking and smuggling if not thinking outside the box?” he says. He calls masterful traffickers “deviant innovators.” As the program for a recent speaking engagement put it: “Learn how your company can innovate as fast as a drug cartel.”
Mostly, that means behaving like death is at your heels. There are no office politics in cartels, Nieto-Gómez says, just immediate reactions to help the cartel survive – because if it doesn’t, the leaders wind up dead or in prison.
“That’s very different than a traditional corporation thinking about the next quarterly report,” he adds.
Before getting into academia, Nieto-Gómez spent four years as a NAFTA lawyer in his native Mexico, where he says he grew bored. “I was wearing a suit and had a nice car and I said, ‘This sucks,’” he says. “There are more exciting things to be doing than living your petite American dream.”
Then 9/11 piqued his interest in policy, and Nieto-Gómez moved to France, then Germany, to study geopolitics. Now he lives another version of the American dream on the edge of civilization in North County, a respite from his tech-oriented workdays.
He straddles borders in other ways, too. He speaks three languages (including French) and mashes them up in a Twitter bio describing himself as a “self-proclaimed futurist, migrant récidiviste, aspirante a cyborg.”
Whether he’s dwelling in his real or avatar realm, Nieto-Gómez want to find ways to harvest creativity from some of the most dangerous criminals. “You would think of these guys as thugs, but they decided to invest millions of dollars to build their own cellular infrastructure,” he says.
He believes a lot of the energy traffickers put toward evading the law could be channeled toward technological advances.
So where the public sees a war on drugs, he sees a war on innovation, or at least lost lessons. It sounds far-fetched that someone manufacturing illegal drugs in a basement could be bound for a biotech lab to work on agricultural solutions or a cure for cancer. But in a world shaped by Nieto-Gómez’s creativity, where the border between sci-fi and reality gets fuzzy at times, he sees no reason why not.