I am training to be a political scientist at Harvard. My passion has remained the afflictions of my homeland, but at Harvard I have found new ways to address them, to use mathematical models — matrices, vectors, equations, regressions — to understand the Mexican drug crisis.
It may seem strange to examine this shadowy world with equations. But mathematics is transforming the social sciences. In the same way that physicists can predict the movement of atoms in space, we can use mathematics to model how individuals and groups will make decisions and interact in a society.
It used to be that social scientists relied on intuition to understand social problems. But human intuition can go wrong. It is difficult to keep track of every factor in the interaction of millions of human beings. Human logic can be deceived by personal points of view, and, as psychological research has shown, humans see false patterns even when randomness is the norm. Mathematics is cold-headed; it cannot go wrong.
In this violent world, with the man in the blue Chevy whispering at me behind the window, math is my shield. Speaking up about drugs is in these parts a dangerous game. But not if you speak in the language of sigma and conditional expectations. Math protects me from the immediacy of the violence, and it protects me from them.
The beauty of my method lies in its simplicity. With mathematics I’m able to codify and simplify reality to make it manageable and, more important, malleable. I represent each possible individual as an equation in which each term symbolizes tastes, goals, profession and abilities. All people get portrayed: Policemen, politicians, citizens and drug cartels start living in this mathematical world as planes and hyperplanes and, as in real life, they interact and affect one another, sometimes colluding, sometimes colliding, sometimes neither.
I then use optimization to predict the form of interaction that will be the most probable to emerge and remain over time. Math starts speaking. It tells me, for example, under what conditions the outcome would be a drug war; when would the government prefer to cooperate with cartels; or when cruel intra-cartel purges will become the norm.
Things become even more fascinating. For example, what would be the maximum percentage of the Mexican population that could turn to drug trafficking if wage inequality doubled. Simple.
In this abstract microcosmos, reality can be frozen or just slightly changed. I move and look at my hyperplanes from different angles. Let’s change the penalty code. No, let’s increase patrolling. Or reduce wages. Allow less contact between policemen and dealers. Assume the police force is corrupt. Assume it is not. I solve the equations and there it is. My answers come as Greek letters and probabilities.
I know, I know, this is weird.
I have always wanted to contribute to Mexico’s well-being. I once believed that the way to do so was to study economics and political science and then work for the government. But I never expected that my means of trying to save my country would be math.
Now I surprise myself from time to time in doing things that three years ago I did not even know were possible.
The other day, in Laredo, I saw a large group of Mexican women, all around my age, in great shape, waiting for the bus.
“Those are the maids,” my driver told me. “They walk from their Mexican homes to the border every day, then take the bus to their American employers, before taking the bus back to the border each night and walking home.”
My brain took off. This was interesting. This can be mathematically modeled, I whispered to myself.