Think Again: Mexican Drug Cartels

By Morris, Evelyn Krache | Foreign Policy, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Think Again: Mexican Drug Cartels


Morris, Evelyn Krache, Foreign Policy


"Drugs Aren't a Foreign Policy Problem,"

YOU MIGHT THINK SO FOR ALL THE ATTENTION THEY GET.

AS U.S. OFFICIALS AND COMMENTATORS FOCUS on events in Syria, Egypt, and Iran, another violent struggle is taking place much closer to home. The rise of drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Mexico has fueled crime on both sides of the border and has undermined the economy of an important trading partner of the United States.

Since 2006, more than 60,000 people have been killed in DTO-related violence, and more than 26,000 have gone missing. The violence has spread from rural Mexico to major cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City, where, this May, armed men kidnapped 12 young people from a nightclub. The bodies of 10 of the abductees were later found in a mass grave outside the city; officials think they were killed as part of an ongoing war between rival drug gangs in the capital.

Despite enormous casualties, including members of U.S. law enforcement, the turmoil in Mexico does not receive nearly the level of scrutiny or attention from the U.S. government that conflicts in other countries do. During six hours of presidential debate in the 2012 campaign, for example, there was not a single direct mention of Mexico.

This is particularly puzzling given the close geographic, economic, and cultural ties between Mexico and the United States. The two countries share a 1,933-mile border that 350 million people cross legally each year, making it the world's busiest. Mexico is the United States' second-biggest export market and its third-largest import supplier. And a 2011 Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans think that what happens in Mexico is either "vitally important" or "important but not vital" to the United States--more than said the same about Afghanistan, Iran, or Pakistan.

The official U.S. neglect of the Mexican cartels is partly a function of the complex challenges they present. Violence connected with DTOs is no longer limited to northern Mexico but now reaches throughout the country. This expansion not only poses a foreign policy problem for Washington, but it also exacerbates several of the most intractable domestic issues facing the United States, including immigration reform and gun control.

A first step toward controlling the cartels would be to better understand how they function. The Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are a collection of criminal enterprises. Some, such as the Gulf cartel, have existed for decades; others, such as Los Gueros, are relative newcomers. Because of shifting alliances and breakaway cells, it is almost impossible to state definitively which cartels are in operation at any one time, and the extent of the crime, corruption, and instability associated with them has been difficult to quantify precisely. Without a clearer idea of what the DTOS are doing, the violence will only continue.

"The Cartels Are Focused on Drugs,"

DRUGS ARE JUST THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG.

IN THE POPULAR U.S. TELEVISION SERIES Breaking Bad, about a high school teacher turned methamphetamine kingpin, there was an instructive exchange. When the show's antihero, Walter White, was asked whether he "was in the meth business or the money business," he replied, "I'm in the empire business."

The same can be said of the DTOs, which are independent and competing entities--not an association like OPEC. The sale of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and meth remains extremely profitable. The U.S. Justice Department has put the cartels' U.S. drug trade at $39 billion annually. But the DTOS have diversified their business considerably, both to increase their profits and to exclude rivals from new sources of revenue. For example, they are dealing increasingly in pirated intellectual property, like counterfeit software, CDS, and DVDS. The most destructive new "product," however, is people. The cartels have built a multibillion-dollar business in human trafficking, including the shipment of both illegal immigrants and sex workers. …

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