Free Term Paper on Drug Trafficking

Drug TraffickingWhen politicians and journalists speak about the U.S. -Mexico border, drug trafficking is viewed as only part of the problem of border security. Preventing terrorist entry and unauthorized immigration are the chief issues. Drug trafficking occurs at all U.S. ports of entry, including the U.S. -Mexico border, the U.S.-Canada border, airports, and sea lanes. Despite the War on Drugs, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines and heroin are regularly crossed and bring billions into the hands of criminals. Conceivably, heightened border enforcement could have an impact on Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Yet despite all of the efforts made by the White House and Congress to strengthen the border, drug smugglers can respond with ever more sophisticated and brutal acts. Indeed, drug trafficking represents a national security threat, because widespread corruption and drug-related violence could destabilize the government of Mexico (Grayson 2010).

Mexican drug trafficking organizations grow and transport marijuana and heroin and are active in manufacturing “meth” (methamphetamines). Estimates are that 90 percent of cocaine sold in the United States enters through the Mexico border. Alternately, the billions in profit realized from drug sales have created money laundering ventures and enabled the DTOs to purchase smuggled arms, including automatic weapons. The subsequent corruption and drug-related violence causes further concern owing to the possibility of “spillover violence,” including kidnappings, torture and homicide in the United States.


I. The Dimensions of the Problem

II. Drug Trafficking Organizations and Distribution Networks

A. Drug Transport Methods at Border Crossings and Border Checkpoints

B. Diversified Organized Crime Tactics

III. U.S. Border Patrol Confrontations with Cartel Smugglers

IV. Spillover Violence and Unintended Effects of U.S. Border Policy

V. Strategies to Address the Problem

A. The War on Drugs and Expansion of Drug Trafficking

B. The Merida Initiative

C. Reducing U.S. Drug Demand

VI. Conclusion

I. The Dimensions of the Problem

The U.S. government has resisted the legalization of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine because of their psychotropic effects. In the 1960s, the United States began to take international action to enforce drug prohibition (Andreas and Nadelman 2006). The major focus was on the Colombia Cali and Medellin cartels and stopping the smuggling of Colombian cocaine to Florida from the Caribbean. Another concern was cross-border smuggling of marijuana and heroin from Mexico. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was successful in stopping Colombian cocaine smuggling through the Caribbean in the late 1980s and 1990s thanks to an increased naval presence. Colombian cocaine cartels then turned to Mexican smugglers and began using their services, making the U.S.-Mexico border the major route of entry (Payan 2006). Patrick Buchanan, a media commentator, has referred to the change in drug smuggling routes from sea to land as the “Colombianization of Mexico.”

Mexican government officials have an informal tradition of overlooking or actively colluding with drug smugglers (Beittel 2009, 7–8). Through the 1990s, the acceptance of bribes was part of a process of accommodation in which the ruling party, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institutional, or Institutional Revolutionary Party) operated in tandem with Mexican DTOs (Velasco 2006; Grayson 2010). From the mid-1980s through 1992, the U.S. government certified the degree to which foreign governments cooperated in stopping drug trafficking (Beittel 2009, 2–3). Under pressure from the United States, Mexican officials participated in crop eradication programs and made some arrests. The working relationship between Mexican and U.S. officials was characterized by mistrust. After 2002, the United States classified countries considered to be ineffective against drug traffickers and associated this effort with sanctions affecting assistance. When Vincente Fox became president of Mexico (2000–2006), his PAN (Partido Acion Nacional, or National Action Party) ended the PRI’s 71-year hold on the presidency and political appointments; it also inadvertently disrupted long-term relations of collusion and corruption with drug traffickers (Velasco 2005).

The destabilization of Mexican drug trafficking interorganizational relations and territorial control was an unexpected consequence of the development of a viable two-party system in Mexico, its “democratic transition” (Velasco 2005). Immediately, as Mexico’s democratic practice became stronger, President Fox began binational cooperation to suppress drug smuggling. By 2006, some 79,000 Mexicans had been arrested on charges related to drug smuggling (Cook 2007, 3–4). Statistics indicate that low-level drug smugglers and dealers made up 78,831 of the arrests, hit men made up 428, lieutenants 74, financial officers 53, and cartel leaders—the apex of decision making—15. Tijuana DTO leader Francisco Arellano Felix and Gulf DTO leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen were arrested. Although Guillen was apparently able to continue operations from inside a Mexican prison for a time, attempts by rival drug organizations to control lucrative trafficking routes (such as Interstate Highway 35 in Texas) led to turf wars characterized by spiraling violence and brutality in Mexican border cities and, later, throughout Mexico (Cook 2007, 11–12).

In 2005, conflict over control of the “plaza” (territory) between rival Gulf and Sinaloa DTOs in Nuevo Laredo and Laredo, among the principle ports of entry for cocaine and marijuana, led to the deaths of 135 people. Most of these dead were cartel members, but a journalist, city council member, 13 Mexican police, and the Nuevo Laredo police chief were also killed. In response, President Fox sent federal Mexican troops to Nuevo Laredo to control the situation. Texas Governor Rick Perry sent additional police and equipment to aid the border cities. Both U.S. and Mexican officials have become concerned that the major drug DTOs pose a threat to border security. In September 2008, a total of 175 arrests were made in Mexico, the United States, and Italy to control the violent Gulf drug cartel.

Felipe Calderon, the Mexican president (2006–2012), has increased law enforcement activity against DTOs and narco-terrorism. He considers drug trafficking– related violence a threat to Mexico’s national stability (Beittel 2009, 3). The drug-related lawlessness has spread geographically, escalated, and incorporated terrorist elements. Narco-terrorism is defined as using terror as a tactic to increase drug trafficking profits (Casteel 2003). In reference to other international drug trafficking, the concept of narcoterrorism also refers to using profits from drug trafficking, such as heroin sales, to fund terrorism. At present, Mexican DTOs have not formed ties to international terrorists.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations have used hit men and gang-precipitated torture and violence to intimidate the public and government officials (Cook 2007, 6–9; Beittel 2009, 5–6). The Mexicans who have been killed include elected government representatives, journalists, police chiefs and other law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and civilians of all ages. Pamela L. Bunker, Lisa J. Campbell, and Robert J. Bunker (2010, 145–146) of the Counter-OPFOR Corporation state: “Because many of the police forces and judicial systems in Mexico have been corrupted and compromised and therefore arrest and prosecution rates are extremely low, the probability of ever being brought to justice is almost non-existent for most individuals and groups engaging in killings, torture and beheadings.”

Narco-terrorism involves the use of brutality and murder to intimidate the civilian population and authorities. Individuals may be kidnapped for failure to pay drug debts or in order to demand ransom payments. Forms of torture include beatings, knife cuts, breaking bones, sexual abuse, and starvation. Extreme torture includes the use of acid, water, fire, electricity, water boarding, and suff ocation (Bunker, Campbell, and Bunker 2010). Prior to homicide or afterward, bodies may be subject to decapitation (decapitado), quartering (descuartizado), placement in a car trunk (encajuelado), wrapping/binding in a blanket (encobijado), sealing in a metal storage drum (entambado), or depositing in an acid bath ( pozoleado, guisado) (Bunker, Campbell, and Bunker 2010, 146). Drug-related killings in Mexico increasingly involve short-term torture such as inflicting nonfatal wounds prior to death. These tactics involve the intended effect of intimidation for political or economic gain, but they can also be ritualized, as when narco-cults (narcocultos) carry them out in a ritualized manner connected to a plea for divine intercession, as when a sacrifice is made to Saint Death (La Santa Muerte). In Mexico, headless or tortured bodies are being left in public places connected to marijuana growing regions or cartel-controlled areas. Law enforcement officers who turn down bribes may find their names on lists attached to corpses.

The Mexican population perseveres and has taken action against the escalating violence, which can result in death and injury for civilians. In August 2008, a massive public protest against the violence involving hundreds of thousands of marchers occurred in Mexico City and throughout Mexico. In 2010, Mexican government estimates were that, since 2007, some 22,700 people had been killed (Castillo 2010). In 2007, a total of 2,837 were murdered. By 2009, the total killed reached 9,635, tripling the death toll. The border city of Ciudad Juarez has reported 4,324 deaths since 2006, the highest rate in Mexico. From January to March 2010, the death toll was 3,365—violence of epidemic proportions. Deaths in Ciudad Juarez included a pregnant employee of the U.S. Consulate, her husband, and another husband of a consulate employee (Lacey and Thompson 2010).

Drug trafficking and unauthorized immigration are discussed as issues of lawlessness along the U.S.-Mexico border, but most people in the region are law-abiding. The chief problem has been that, as U.S. border enforcement has escalated, the smuggling of both drugs and people has become more sophisticated. In Mexico, destabilization of relations between drug trafficking organizations (owing to the arrest of leaders and competition for territory) is given as the chief reason for the increased violence. Nevertheless, DTOs are sufficiently powerful and well armed to engage in violent conflict with law enforcement and the Mexican military. It is questionable whether the death toll should be seen as evidence of success from the pitting of drug traffickers against one another because of the degree of harm to the civilian population as well as economic consequences, such as loss of tourism and trade for Mexico.

This situation would not occur if there were not a demand for drugs in the United States and a lack of economic opportunity in Mexico. President Barack Obama (2009–present) and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, have acknowledged that the United States shares responsibility for the problem because of the high demand for drugs in the country and the relative ineffectiveness of current programs in quelling that demand.

II. Drug Trafficking Organizations and Distribution Networks

In the 1980s, Mexico had one drug trafficking organization, headed by Felix Gallardo. When drug trafficking in the Caribbean was brought under control, Colombian cocaine traffickers joined forces with Mexicans. As the war on drugs heated up along the border, interorganizational disputes marred the operation of the border-wide cartel, and Gallardo (in prison) ordered it split into four separate organizations: the Gulf Cartel (Southeast Texas), the Juarez Cartel (Southwest Texas), the Sinaloa Cartel Federation (Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona), and the Tijuana Cartel Federation (California) (Cook 2007, 1–2). Originally, the arrests of Tijuana Federation leader Javier Arellano Felix and Guild Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen led to an intercartel alliance. Later, the U.S. Project Reckoning heavily disrupted the U.S. and European transport networks (U.S. Attorney, Southern District of New York 2008). Abroad, 600 arrests were made and $72 million in currency was taken. Inside the United States, 12,000 kilograms of cocaine, $60 million in currency, and 750 arrests connected to 750 distribution networks were major outcomes. Today, the territory of the Gulf Cartel is chiefl y controlled by Los Zetas, a paramilitary group of former Mexican military who served as enforcers for a period of time. Mexican drug organizations are known to operate in 195 cities and to send drugs to 230 cities.

Specialized professionals and high technology are stepping up the response of trafficking organizations—and the potential for violent conflict. According to the FBI, the Zetas, highly trained former Mexican soldiers, have become involved in smuggling both drugs and people into the United States, probably displacing the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas have surveillance operatives, checkpoints, and high technology. They have been linked to the possibility of smuggling special-interest entrants into the United States—that is, individuals who may or may not be connected to terrorism who originate from sending countries identified as having terrorist organizations.

The Calderon government has confiscated 70 tons of cocaine, 4,000 tons of marijuana, and 43,000 tons of methamphetamine precursor ingredients (Berrong 2009). The Mexican cartels have been able to thwart every effort to stop trafficking because they are flexible and adaptive organizations. Tony Payan (2006), an international relations and foreign policy specialist, characterizes the war on drugs at the border as a cat-and-mouse game in which the United States has tactical victories such as drug seizures and arrests but is losing in the conflict. U.S. escalation in personnel and technology has always resulted in DTO adaptation and a continued supply of drugs.

A. Drug Transport Methods at Border Crossings and Border Checkpoints

Heroin and cocaine have been too valuable to risk crossing in between ports of entry, as U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) agents could become aware and seize the load. As a result, most drugs are crossed through ports of entry. Social networks built on corruption on both sides of the border facilitate drug transport. Attempts are made to bribe U.S. Customs officers, sheriff s, and law enforcement personnel, and some give in to the offer of large sums of money.

DTOs often use vehicles rather than human carriers (“mules”) because it is impossible for customs to inspect every vehicle and item that crosses the border. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics indicates that the following numbers of vehicles, cargo containers, and individuals crossed in 2009: 2,432,495 trucks, 1, 555,466 loaded truck containers, 146,058 loaded rail containers, 6,348 rail passengers, 135,775 buses, 1,445,200 bus passengers, 40,576,475 personal vehicles, 91,139,705 vehicle passengers, and 23,538,289 pedestrians. Checking is done at random or on the basis of customs officers’ intuition, depending on signs of anomalies or driver nervousness. All roads located past the border leading into the U.S. interior also have checkpoints that are frequently manned by officers with drug-sniffing dogs. Payan indicates that many of the vehicles that cross drugs go through points of entry (POEs) rather than between them. It is estimated that 70 percent of drugs are crossed through the southwestern border in this way. Mexico has become the major supplier of marijuana, brown heroin, and Colombian cocaine.

In the past, cars, vans, and pickup trucks have been the favorite vehicle for crossing drugs. Today, this method is used by small operators. Hidden compartments in ordinary places in the vehicle are created. The drugs are then basted with masking scents tested by the cartels’ own drug-sniffing dogs. Vehicles are crossed in two ways. The first involves going to the checkpoint and hoping that drug-sniffing dogs, the reaction of the driver to stress, and the thoroughness of the inspection will not expose the drugs. The second method is to cross cars in groups and let one be caught, distracting officials from the others. Often workers are placed in locations where they can see if an inspector is distracted. But the best way to smuggle drugs is to bribe a U.S. officer working at a port of entry to let drugs pass through. Several cases in which law enforcement has been bribed turn up every year. A single corrupt official can allow massive quantities to be crossed, preventing other drug enforcement activities from stopping the flow.

Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, tractor trailer trucks have been extensively used to transport drugs. This is the preferred method of the largest cartels. The escalation of technologies used in the war on drugs has made it harder to bribe officials because of the risk of being caught. Now the drug cartels must spend millions on bribes in order to find Americans working at ports of entry who will take the risk.

B. Diversified Organized Crime Tactics

Controlling two types of smuggling, of people and drugs, has allowed the DTOs to use unauthorized migrants as a border-patrol diversion in order to cross drugs in a different area. Undocumented immigrants pay protection money to the cartels; then the cartels divert the immigrants to certain routes designed to attract USBP activity and remove attention from the route through which drugs will be smuggled.

Fencing, National Guard troops, and additional USBP personnel have made it more risky to use traditional drug smuggling routes. There has been a significant increase in the amount of cocaine and marijuana seized. National Guard groups placed along the Arizona border have resulted in a significant increase in detained unauthorized migrants as well. It is plausible that this has cut into the DTOs’ profit margins, prompting them to use of alternative methods.

III. U.S. Border Patrol Confrontations with Cartel Smugglers

The greatest risk that USBP officers take lies in dealing with drug smugglers and trafficking organizations. The USBP makes more drug smuggling arrests than any law enforcement agency, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Drug smugglers use violence to avoid arrest and will risk killing USBP officers. In effect, a major activity of the USBP has become drug interdiction rather than immigrant apprehension.

USBP officers’ jobs involve working individually in remote regions away from witnesses. In cases of human smuggling, they may face resistance, but drug smugglers may try to kill them. In June 1998, Alexander Kirpnick was shot and killed while attempting to apprehend five marijuana smugglers in the desert hills near Nogales, Arizona. Similar killings occurred in 2008 and 2009.

One issue in confronting drug smuggling is that the USBP is literally outgunned. The drug cartels have access to automatic assault rifles, while each USBP officer has only a revolver. Former Laredo, Texas, Sheriff Rick Flores (2005–2008) points out that smugglers have automatic assault weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, and Kevlar helmets with level-four body armor similar to that of the military.

The violence of drug smugglers’ reactions to attempts to stop and arrest them has increased. In the past, the sight of law enforcement would result in smugglers dropping the drugs or abandoning vehicles. Human smugglers would be arrested with the rest of the group. Currently, drug cartels are firing on the USBP, engaging in reckless high-speed chases, and initiating standoff s at the U.S.-Mexico border. The United States has no jurisdiction to pursue any smugglers into Mexico.

DTOs control increasingly sophisticated technology. Spotters using high-power binoculars, and encrypted radios are placed in the mountains. Despite the placement of interior checkpoints, smugglers slip through by crossing private property. The income realized from drugs allows them to invest in high technology, and they have even been able to decipher the USBP’s encrypted communication.

IV. Spillover Violence and Unintended Effects of U.S. Border Policy

Both Mexican and U.S. national security is threatened by narco-terrorism. Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano believes that drug-related violence in Mexico has the potential to spill over to the United States. Spillover violence incidents include trafficker-to-trafficker homicide and planned attacks on U.S. citizens, officials, or physical infrastructure (Peters 2009). Since Mexican DTOs have drug distribution networks reaching numerous U.S. cities, such attacks could become widespread. Those attacks that have already occurred in the United States involved mainly border cities. Such incidents have included inter-DTO homicide, kidnapping of smugglers or family members, and attacks on USBP officers. The National Drug Assessment, 2010 (Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center 2009, 16), states that “Direct violence similar to the conflicts occurring among major DTOs in Mexico is rare in the United States.” Indirect violence such as kidnappings and DTO conflicts may be more frequent. DTO “discipline” can include kidnapping, beating, torture and murder of organization members who fail to deliver drugs or money. Drug users may be kidnapped if they do not pay. Phoenix, Arizona, reported 267 kidnappings related to drug or human smuggling in 2009 (Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center 2009, 16). At present, U.S.-Mexico border cities are not experiencing heightened violence. For example, only 17 murders were reported in El Paso in 2008, and there were 13 through December 25, 2009 ( Johnson 2009).

In Mexico, kidnapping is a major problem. Through 2005, hundreds of Mexicans and sixty American citizens were kidnapped (Blumenthal 2005). Drug-related violence includes murder of government officials, journalists, and innocent bystanders. Threats have been made against Americans news media and journalists. DTOs seek to intimidate government, law enforcement, and the media as a way of reducing press coverage and public reaction. The U.S. State Department advises Americans to be alert and take precautions when they are traveling in Mexico.

Peter Andreas (2009), a political scientist, suggests that that there is an unintentional and reinforcing impact of the U.S. attempt to control its southern border with Mexico and the expansion of drug and human smuggling. He refers to this effect as unintentionally symbiotic and points out that the criminal justice complex at the border has been greatly expanded as a result. Throughout most of the 20th century, the southern border has been ineffectively policed and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as it was then known, now renamed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and a part of the Department of Homeland Security, did a largely symbolic job. Today, the worsening of the problem necessitates new strategies that may result in overturning past policy.

V. Strategies to Address the Problem

A. The War on Drugs and Expansion of Drug Trafficking

There are two views on whether border security initiatives are curbing drug trafficking. Payan (2006) feels that despite the expansion of USBP and Drug Enforcement administration personnel on the border, the quantity of drugs seized each year continues to increase, along with the total volume of drugs being trafficked. Drug trafficking organizations are so successful at moving product that the price of drugs on the street in urban cities has declined. The federal government’s border-control policy has not succeeded in controlling the cartels. The alternative view, put forth by the House Committee on Homeland Security, is that federal and state efforts to secure the border have resulted in the cartel’s current efforts to control human smuggling and enter into extortion, because drug seizures are making inroads on their profits. The controversy over whether the U.S.-Mexico border can be controlled cannot be resolved by examining rates of seizure of drugs, as supply can be increased if seizures are increased. Only information on street prices and availability can resolve this issue, and such data have not been a major concern in the debate over the impact of escalation in border security personnel and technology.

B. The Merida Initiative

The United States’ primary international program for control of drug trafficking is called the Merida Initiative (Seelke and Ribando 2009). Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti are participants. Issues addressed include drug trafficking, arms smuggling, money laundering, and transnational organized crime. For three years, $1.4 billion in technological assistance and training will be provided. In particular, helicopters, speedboats, and computerized intelligence systems for data sharing were to lead the investment. After an expenditure of $700 million, Congress voted to withhold funds pending review of the program’s efficacy (Landler 2009).

Can yet another United States program for control of international trafficking succeed? Drug trafficking through the U.S.-Mexico border has ties with transnational organized crime in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. Developing nations lack the funds, training, and technology to confront drug transit and associated crime. Furthermore, organized crime thrives in ungoverned social space (Velasco 2005; Grayson 2010). Weak national governments need to be strengthened and to gain credibility (Olson and Donnelly 2009). Democratic governments, as opposed to dictatorships, are not considered absolutely essential, but they are seen as being more effective at controlling crime. The widespread bribery and collusion of government and law enforcement officials allows drug trafficking organizations to gain political control. The lower standard of living and salaries increase the attractiveness of criminal offers, especially where law enforcement and judiciaries are weak.

Mexican citizens have protested and reform of law enforcement is occurring in Mexico. When local police proved ineffective owing to bribery and intimidation, the federal police were reorganized as a national police force. As drug-related violence escalated, the Mexican military was brought in. Twenty-four thousand military personnel have been involved in countertrafficking; they are thought to have had some effect in reducing violence, but primarily by displacing it or creating a condition of stalemate (Cook 2007). Local, state, and federal police and increasingly the military have been bribed and even recruited for work with drug trafficking organizations (Velasco 2005, 106–108).

Both police and the military have low salaries and poor working conditions. Less educated applicants are attracted to the low-prestige occupation of law enforcement. Police are easily corrupted because of their low pay and the Mexican history of corruption, particularly at the municipal and state levels. There is an established social climate that will be difficult to challenge or change without improving salaries and living conditions (Velasco 2005). The Merida initiative and other U.S. binational programs support the professionalization of Mexican law enforcement.

Efforts are being directed toward reform of Mexico’s judicial system. Mexico has an inquisitorial justice system but is enacting reforms that would move it toward adversarial justice, as in the United States (Olson 2008). Prosecution in inquisitorial systems involves evidence collection by prosecutors, who issue recommendations that lead to closed-door verdicts. The individual is not presumed innocent until proven guilty. Oral prosecution and defense, cross-examination of witnesses, and defendant access to evidence is limited. People are held until they can establish their innocence. It is thought that Mexico will have switched to an adversarial system of justice by 2015.

President Calderon has strengthened control over the Mexican military, but it is incomplete (Cook 2007; Grayson 2010). Reports of human rights violations point to disappearance, torture, murder, and arbitrary detention (Amnesty International 2009). Amnesty International (2009) documented five cases involving 35 individuals in a period of 12 months during 2008–2009 and has released information on other incidents. It is difficult to prosecute military personnel. Amnesty International (2009, 5) released the following quotation: “If you report us, something worse will happen to you, and no one will do anything to us because we are soldiers.” Crimes committed by the military are tried in a separate military judicial system, which may violate the Mexican Constitution. Amnesty International (2009, 22) indicates that

when abuses are committed by members of the military the response of the state at all levels is ineffective. The failure of both civilian and military authorities to take timely effective action to prevent and punish these grave human rights violations is tantamount to complicity. In some instances, the lack of cooperation by some military and civilian authorities with relatives or other relevant authorities, such as court officials or members of the [National Human Rights Commission] trying to establish truth and justice may even amount to concealment.

Steps taken within the military justice system to investigate these abuses and hold those responsible to account do not constitute a real intent to bring the perpetrators to justice. The lack of independence and transparency of the military justice system ensures victims and relatives are frequently denied access to justice. Consequently Mexico appears to be unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out investigations and prosecutions against its military.

The United States will withhold 15 percent of Merida funding if human rights violations by the military are not efficaciously handled (Seelke and Ribando 2009). In general, equity and transparency are needed to increase the credibility of the Mexican justice system and reduce corruption within it (Olson 2008). The Merida initiative seeks to provide resources for investigating and prosecuting crime related to drug trafficking. Unfortunately, Mexican law enforcement lacks scientific and legal skills. Organized criminals are present within all sectors of the criminal justice system, from patrol to prison, and without oversight.

Controversy ensued when the U.S. Joint Forces Command (2008, 36) labeled Mexico a potential “failing state.” Mexican President Calderon and other officials reacted extremely negatively to this assertion and maintained that there is no area in Mexico that is not under state control. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Clinton 2009) stated that she does not believe that Mexico has any “ungovernable territories.” Mexican authorities maintain that DTOs are weakening and that they are turning on each other owing to diminishing market share (Associated Press 2009). Jane’s Information Group (2009) has taken the position that drug traffickers only need to subvert the state through corruption rather than defeat it.

Mexico, a developing country with a limited budget, has a power asymmetry with the United States. This asymmetry contributes to the drug interdiction issue, because Mexico sees U.S. intervention as a challenge to its national sovereignty. Mexico resists any U.S. troop involvement on its soil. In Latin America, the United States is perceived as having a unilateral drug strategy rather than taking part in cooperative multinational efforts. The Obama administration inherited the Merida initiative and is changing direction. A new emphasis will be placed on developing law enforcement and communities (Thompson and Lacey 2010). Law enforcement training and technology and improved screening of drugs and vehicles at crossing points will be renewed and expanded. The latest concern is building economic opportunity in communities affected by poverty and crime. The biggest shift has been away from military assistance.

C. Reducing U.S. Drug Demand

In the 1960s, the United States instituted an international drug prohibition policy. President Richard Nixon began the War on Drugs, which critics have considered a damaging policy that undermines U.S. interests in Mexico and other drug exporting nations. In Mexico, efforts have included crop eradication and drug interdiction. A policy debate is being waged over the efficacy of these efforts. Advocates believe that the supply of drugs has been reduced. Critics consider that drug prices are lower than ever, but the U.S. government does not report this fact. The Obama administration is making a departure from the rhetoric of the War on Drugs. On March 25, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “Clearly what we are doing has not worked. . . . Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade” (2009).

Critics of U.S.-Mexico drug policy believe that demand reduction among U.S. citizens would limit the earnings of drug trafficking organizations. The Obama administration has begun new initiatives for drug treatment and prevention (Hananel 2010) and seeks to abandon the phrase “War on Drugs.” Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowski has stated: “Calling it a war really limits your options. . . . Looking at this both as a public safety problem and a public health problem makes a lot more sense.” The Obama plan calls for reducing the number of first-time users by 15 percent over five years and sets other goals for reducing driving under the influence of drugs, chronic drug usage, and drug-related deaths. Community antidrug programs will screen for drug use and mainstream medical facilities will be involved. Health personnel are encouraged to ask about drug use.

The debate on how to control drug use includes the idea of harm reduction through legalization. Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief, favors the legalization of drugs through state-run stores or distribution by registered pharmacists (Kristof 2009). Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times op-ed columnist, points out that the drug war had three major impacts: (1) it greatly increased drug users in prison populations from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 in 2009; (2) it empowered organized crime and terrorists who make billions in profit; and (3) the money spent on law enforcement, $44.1 billion, could be spent in other ways, including treatment and prevention. It has been argued that drug treatment is more cost-effective than interdiction.

Mexico has preceded the United States in adopting harm reduction by passing a law to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. Individuals will not be prosecuted but instead referred to drug treatment programs. Individuals will be required to enter a treatment center if they are found in possession of drugs a third time. This measure is in response the development of an internal drug addiction problem and designed to free up prison space for dangerous criminals. Critics of decriminalization argue that it will increase addiction.

In 2010, President Obama authorized 1,200 National Guard troops for the border and sought increased funds for border law enforcement (Archibold 2010). The New York Times responded in an editorial that “adding a thousand or so border troops won’t stop the cartels or repeal the law of supply and demand” (“Editorial” 2010).

VI. Conclusion

Drug trafficking and the associated violence is the major problem at the U.S.-Mexico border. Every escalation in border security by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the DEA, and other federal agencies has been met with adaptation by the drug cartels. Although many officials in Mexico and some law enforcement officers in the United States have been bribed, both Mexico and the United States are increasingly choosing to confront the cartels. Mexico estimates that the trade is based on 20 million users in the United States. The law enforcement approach to the war on drugs has not reduced the demand. This suggests that reducing the motivation of American citizens for using drugs and rehabilitating drug users would be an alternative way of reducing demand.

The United States has engaged in many wars: a war on drugs, a war on terrorism, and conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Has it won any of these wars? What are the criteria for deciding? The United States is pursuing its strategy of constantly escalating a quasimilitary struggle for control of the Mexican border. This strategy has never worked, and Mexican drug trafficking organizations adapt to change more rapidly than the Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy is able to do. It is unlikely that this problem will soon be resolved in the future any more than stopping cocaine smuggling in the Caribbean to Florida ended Colombian drug smuggling.

The United States may have waited too long to deal with the demand for illicit drugs in the United States. The billions of profit from drugs paid into Mexico, a country with a great deal of poverty, provide the motivation to engage in illegal trafficking. Drug lords are highly adaptable in finding ways to provide drugs, start habits, and maintain fixes. Imprisonment has not slowed demand. It remains to be seen if the prevention and treatment strategy of the Obama administration can be more effective.


Judith Ann Warner



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