Dexter Boniface

Mexico’s War on Drugs

In Mexico, Military, United States Government, Violence on March 30, 2010 at 7:29 pm

This blogpost looks at the causes and consequences of Mexico’s Drug War. I underscore that America’s drug and gun habits (and laws) have an enormous cost in Mexico. I then provide an overview of Mexico’s cartels and their methods, and consider policy alternatives such as militarization and the legalization of drugs.

Mexico’s Drug War: A Problem “Made in the USA”

Mexico has become the main focal point in the regional war on drugs. There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is the fact that Mexico occupies a strategic geographic position bordering the United States, the world’s largest and most lucrative drug market (one is reminded of Porfirio Diaz’s famous quote: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!”).

American consumers of illegal drugs create massive demand. Marijuana, for example, commands an annual market worth an estimated $113 billion in the U.S. (our largest cash crop!) and is the most significant source of profit for the Mexican drug mafias (an estimated 60% of the cartels’ profits are derived from the marijuana market compared to 28% for cocaine and 1% for meth).

Mexico is the key supplier of illegal drugs to consumers in the United States. It is the largest foreign source of marijuana for the U.S. market, producing an estimated output of 35 million pounds in 2008! Furthermore, some 200 tons of crystal meth enters the U.S. from Mexico each year (after a U.S. law regulating over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine curbed domestic meth production, the Mexican cartels rushed to fill the void). And although cocaine originates in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, 90% of the coke entering the U.S. comes through Mexico.

Guns Without Borders (or How the NRA is Helping to Arm Mexico’s Drug Lords). The drugs flow north and huge profits from the illegal drug trade flow south (an estimated $25 to $40 billion in drug money flows to Mexico annually). And so do the guns. It’s estimated that 90% of the guns in the hands of the country’s drug mafias are purchased in the United States in the thousands of gun stores that line the border. How? Read this fascinating article and learn about four men who bought and smuggled 101 guns from 10 licensed dealers in Houston from June 2006 to June 2007. In addition to seeking help with arms interdiction, Mexican officials have appealed to the U.S. Congress to reinstate a ban on the sale of assault weapons that expired in 2004 but to no avail.

Cartel Geography

Much of the ongoing violence in the country can be understood in terms of rivalries over the country’s strategic drug entry and exit points (as well as the government’s concerted effort to shut them down). Cocaine arrives to Mexico in three strategic locations: over land via Guatemala (20%), by sea along the Gulf of Mexico (30%), and via the Pacific Ocean (50%) where it arrives to coastal states such as Guerrero (home to sunny Acapulco), Michoacan, and Sinaloa. (It’s no accident that the country’s largest drug mafias, the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, are so named). Cocaine (along with plenty of Mexican-grown pot, meth, and some heroin) then exits the country across key Mexico-U.S. border cities in California, New Mexico and Texas including Tijuana/San Diego, Juarez/El Paso, and Nuevo Laredo/Laredo.

Mexico’s various drug mafias (Tijuana, Juarez, Gulf, Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Beltrán-Leyva, and La Familia) appear to be largely interchangeable, though a few have some distinguishing characteristics. Certainly their leaders all have good nicknames.

The Sinaloa cartel, led by Mexico’s most-wanted criminal, Joaquín El Chapo (“Shorty”) Guzmán, is described by the Economist as “smarter and more sophisticated” than its competition; it has largely eluded the Mexican government’s three-year crackdown (conspiracies abound).

The Beltrán-Leyva Group (once aligned to Sinaloa) survives in spite of the fact that its notorious leader, Arturo Beltrán Leyva (AKA “The Beard”), was killed in Cuernavaca during a shootout with Mexican Marines in late 2009.

La Familia: Dealing Drugs for Jesus

By far the strangest of Mexico’s drug mafias is the Narco-EvangelistMasters of Meth” known as “The Family.” Led by Nazario Moreno (AKA El Más Loco, or “The Craziest One”), La Familia hails from the Pacific coast state of Michoacán. While they are infamous for committing savage acts of violence (they once tossed five decapitated heads onto a dance floor in the city of Uruapan and are blamed for a grenade attack on innocent civilians in the state capital, Morelia), internally they adhere to a quasi-Christian code of ethics including abstention from drugs, support for the poor, and traditional family values.

In what the Wall Street Journal describes as a “vertically integrated” industry, La Familia’s presence extends deep into the United States where they control retail networks across the country. Recently, in a major counter-narcotics sweep, La Familia members were arrested in 38 U.S. cities including Atlanta and Chicago.

Sex, Drugs and Narcocorrido

Mexican cartels behave essentially like other international drug mafias, employing a mixture of brutality, corruption and a certain amount of business savvy. Much of the cartels’ violence is directed at one another (and, to a lesser extent, the Mexican military and police) as rival drug gangs compete for control of strategic trafficking arteries. Violence is also used to commit other crimes, especially extortion and kidnapping, both of which are targeted at Mexico’s business community (it’s estimated that the violence in Mexico saps 3% of the country’s GDP annually).

Corruption is also an integral aspect of the cartels’ operations. With the vast profits of the drug trade at their disposal, Mexico’s drug mafias are adept at buying off all likes of government officials. The story of Luis F. Alarid, an American Iraqi war veteran and U.S. customs inspector, is highly instructive. While most customs inspectors can expect to earn about $70,000 a year, Alarid pocketed $200,000 in a few months by waving in vehicles that should have raised suspicion. In Mexico, police officers and members of the justice system can often be bought for much less. Time Magazine describes how La Familia paid off a variety of public servants in Michoacán with payments of $20,000 a month, wild parties, and “truck loads of prostitutes.”

Of course, the cartels are also master smugglers. When outright bribery fails, traffickers have been able to evade border security by building sophisticated drug tunnels under the Mexico-U.S. border. They can also try sneaking it through in a van:

Fighting the Drug War: Five Alternatives

#1: Militarization (Status Quo). Mexico’s current (U.S.-backed) approach to the war on drugs can best be described as militarization. In light of the weaknesses of Mexico’s local and state police, President Felipe Calderon has relied heavily on the military in his war against drug smuggling–some 5o,000 troops have been dispatched to drug hot spots across Mexico. The premise of the militarization strategy is fairly straightforward: establish the rule of law by destroying the drug cartels. Although the Mexican military has had some successes with this approach (taking out Arturo Beltrán Leyva for one), critics question whether or not the drug war can really be won on the supply side alone as long as the demand for drugs remains high. As Andres Oppenheimer remarked, “Drug cartels don’t die; they just move.” Or in the words of one drug kingpin, Ismael Zambada, “As for the bosses, locked up, dead or extradited, their replacements are already standing by.” The militarization approach also entails fairly high costs in terms of lives lost and raw expenditure (as well as political risks for Mexico’s well respected military).

#2: Institutionalization (Status Quo Revised). The status quo may be shifting somewhat. Mexico and the United States recently unveiled a new security cooperation agreement that places greater emphasis on institution-building and community development. Still, some analysts are skeptical that Mexico’s U.S.-backed militarization strategy will change much.

#3: Strategic Truce (Status Quo Ante?). An alternative approach and what many regard as the status quo ante in Mexico (particularly under the PRI) would be to mitigate the violence of the drug trade by reaching a strategic truce with the cartels-essentially turning a blind eye to the drug trade in exchange for peace. Although such an approach appears tantamount to surrender, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda points out that, “This is less scandalous than it may appear. It would be similar to the approach the Obama administration is taking with poppy growers and heroin producers in Afghanistan.” Castaneda also made this point in a recent interview on CNN’s Amanpour.

#4: Decriminalization. Surprisingly, a number of Latin American countries (including Argentina, Colombia and Mexico) have recently decriminalized the possession  (though not the production and distribution) of small amounts of drugs. This is a fairly modest and common sense policy designed to keep the police chasing  hardened criminals rather than extorting petty drug users. However, it is difficult to see how decriminalization would alter the broader dynamics of Mexico’s Drug War in any significant way.

#5: Legalization. You don’t have to be a Harvard economist to understand the rationalization for drug legalization, though maybe it helps. In a lucid editorial for CNN, Jeffrey Miron, an economist and author of Drug War Crimes, explains how the violence and corruption associated with Mexico’s drug trade is a direct result of prohibition (specifically, drug prohibition in the United States). As he summarizes, “Violence results from policies that create black markets, not from the characteristics of the good or activity in question.” The case for the legalization of marijuana, arguably the least harmful illegal drug and the main source of revenue for the Mexican cartels (ironic considering how easy it is to produce), is perhaps the most compelling of all. Legalization could also, calculates professor Miron, save us $77 billion (and stop the redistribution of income to criminals):

To be sure, the United States is the critical actor in the legalization debate. Legalizing drugs in Mexico alone would not end the powerful incentives the violent drug cartels have to smuggle drugs into the United States, their primary market. Although U.S. policy-makers are loathe to contemplate drug legalization, even a modest policy shift like the legalization of medical marijuana (already a reality in fourteen states) could dramatically alter the marijuana marketplace and usefully undercut Mexico’s violent drug cartels. As a Washington Post article neatly summarizes, “competition from thousands of mom-and-pop marijuana farmers in the United States threatens the bottom line for powerful Mexican drug organizations in a way that decades of arrests and seizures have not.” Maybe President Obama, who pledged the federal government would not arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers who follow state laws, deserves that Peace Prize after all.

  1. Hi Dexter,
    The World Policy Journal just came out with the Spring issue titled “Crime and Corruption.” Given your interesting blog on how Mexico’s drug war is interrelated with what’s going on in the US, I think you might be interested in the article “Inside Mexico’s Drug War”which is available free on our website: If you have a moment, please let me know what you think. Thanks, and best of luck.

  2. Good analysis, your take on the alternatives to the current state of affairs are important. What about directly buying the raw materials from farmers at the bottom of the production chain? Given the political and social resistance to legalization in the United States (despite California moves in that direction) I think a policy of interrupting the drug process through economic means seems like a good policy.

    • What about directly buying the raw materials from farmers at the bottom of the production chain?

      We need creative thinking to change the dynamics of the drug trade. On the one hand, a policy like this could possibly dampen the supply of coca/cocaine and poppy/heroin, two drugs which require fairly specific growing conditions (though it would require coordination across several supply countries, which would be a serious political challenge). On the other hand, marijuana and meth can be produced anywhere and buying out suppliers in one place would merely invite new suppliers elsewhere. This policy would also be costly.

  3. i marvel that a ‘political scientist’ would see any connection between american foreign policy and promotion of democracy, except in reverse.

    educated in america, were you? for that matter, you would have heard of ‘oligarchy?’ ‘plutocracy?’ i hope.

  4. I liken militarization to Whac-A-Mole — stomp one down and another pops up.

    You could flesh out institutionalization, as I’m still not sure what that approach entails.

    I fully support legalization of marijuana in the United States for the economic reasons you cite. It would defund Mexican drug cartels, enrich U.S. farmers, and be an excellent source of tax revenue.

    I have two worries about legalization. Firstly, increased consumption and secondly, increased addiction (just like alcohol, a minority of pot users cannot use it responsibly).

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