By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
The narcos, as the drug racketeers are known, have been battling it out among themselves over the immensely profitable smuggling corridors to the United States—the world's largest consumer of illicit drugs—and the production of marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin on Mexican soil. The Mexican cartels, with murderous intent, have been in an extended drug war contesting market boundaries while leaving behind many casualties in a country that some have termed a failed state, suffering the structural erosion of national institutions, the complicity of officials and police forces, ruled through narco-terrorism, producing a theatre of terror.
It was in the nineteenth century that Chinese merchants introduced opium to the Western hemisphere through the ports of northwest Mexico. The cocaine trail from Columbia went through Mexico and into the United States. The Mexican cartels developed operating centers in many American cities. The cartel structures are complex—the largest being the Sinaloa—with operatives at many levels, terror squads and sophisticated logistics and equipment.
By the 1970s, the Mexican narcotrade was becoming a national business. The appetite for recreational drugs in America was on the rise. Cocaine come in from Columbia and hauled by trucks to the U.S. border. Narco business was blooming and otherwise law-abiding middle-class Mexicans were prospering as entrepreneurs of proscribed narcotics. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared that drug abuse had reached the dimensions of a national emergency and a war on drugs was officially declared.
The newly created DEA warned in 1974 that heroin, also called Mexican mud, was in great demand. Mexican narcotraffickers, the DEA declared, controlled 75 percent of the American heroin market. In January 1974, Operation SEA/M (Special Enforcement Activity in Mexico) was inaugurated to control opium and heroin trafficking. Mexico and the U.S. launched a joint 1976 eradication program in the so-called Mexican Golden Triangle. Helicopters dumped herbicides on the fields of Durango, Chihuahua and Sinaloa, eventually destroying 22,000 acres of poppy, enough to produce eight tons of heroin.
The DEA hailed the success of the operation. The purity of Mexican heroin fell to its lowest level, to just five percent. Four thousand narcos were arrested. Later it was acknowledged that the major drug lords remained at liberty. Little note was taken of the consequences of the spraying on the inhabitants. As many as 2000 villages were abandoned or destroyed. The displaced families migrated to the cities where they became the new urban poor. As one report concluded, "The lack of space and employment pushed them into crime or they died of hunger, the kids did not go to school, they were social rejects and they took jobs in whatever they could."
Those who remained in the highlands also did not fare well. The areas were under Marshall Law, crops and animals stolen, villages decimated, the people dispersed, leaving behind a few elderly residents with few resources to resume their lives.
Into the 1980s, the Columbian Medellin and the Cali drug cartels cornered the trade in Latin America. The American authorities and Interpol focused on these two suppliers of cocaine and heroin. Mexican trafficking was largely restricted to supplying "mules" to move product along the transportation routes. The Columbians would deliver the narcotics across the water to Mexico and the Mexican narcos would smuggle them across the border to the American market.
The porous U.S.-Mexican 2000-mile-long border allowed many crossing points for the contraband (including narco tunnels), with generous bribes to officials smoothing the way. As the Mexican cartels evolved to self-sustaining entities, they took charge of the business of deliveries from Colombia through Mexico and northward. As the cartels achieved strength and wealth the drug lords became ambitious and deadly. Having insured that the right people were bribed and the population sufficiently cowered (fearing the narco enforcers), the distribution of local drugs and the Columbian product had a road to the international border that was clear of obstructions. The ranks of the cartels filled with eager young men and boys from humble backgrounds and with nothing to lose. Now they were flush with arrogance, money and the power of the gun.
By the 1990s, the Mexicans were well integrated into the trafficking systems. Most of the Columbian cocaine consumed by American addicts was coming through the Mexican cartels. The soaring profits encouraged the growth of other cartels and the inevitable quarrels over territorial rights.
Mexico's army has been involved in drug wars since the 1930s. Soldiers would be dispatched to destroy marijuana and opium crops in various parts of the country. The United States first entered the scene in the 1960s. Officially, in 2007-2008, in Sinaloa alone over 100,000 narcotic fields were laid waste, 418 landing strips shutdown, 250 narco aircraft seized, almost one thousand narcos arrested and 1000 weapons taken.
Such success has been insufficient to stem the growing tide of spreading narcotrafficking or to weaken either narco recruitment or morale. The cartels have the ready cash and ability to buy protection and thwart all governmental efforts to destroy them. The army is inadequate, policemen are on the cartel payrolls and inter-cartel battles are frequent. Ciudad Juarez murders reached 5000 from 2003 to 2009. The presence of thousands of soldiers and federal police in that border city has not been effective in controlling the streets. A written note left after a slaying declared, "La Familia doesn't kill for money, doesn't kill women, doesn't kill innocent people. It only kills those who deserve to die. Divine justice." Just as Mexico risks in becoming a failed state, Ciudad Juarez with its hundreds of active gangs at each other's throats exhibits aspects of its failure as a city.
A failed state is one that is characterized by strongman rule and weak institutions. There is a worrisome coziness between politicians and racketeering. The government fails to govern and civil servants are subject to corruption. A strong state can guarantee security, honest law enforcement, access to individual benefits and opportunities (education, health, employment, social security).
In failed (or weak) states, transparency, effective planning and execution of laws and regulations are problematic. As one glaring example in the case of Mexico, the state fiscal system is antiquated. In 2009, its tax collections approached only 12 percent of GDP, one-third the figure for the United States and on a par with the utterly failed state of Haiti. Organized crime is the peculiar symptom of nations with inept social and political systems.
The Mexican state has had increasing difficulty keeping its hold on the population and its institutions. This fragmentation has allowed open opportunities for drug cartels to operate, expanding and strengthening their narco-rackets. The erosion of the social fabric and the decline in morality, the increase in public insecurity, the cynical flouting of laws, the flagrant incompetence of its civil servants, the daily chaos—all such factors, one analyst has emphasized, has made "Mexico a society searching for a State."
There are areas in Mexico "where all vestiges of a functioning government have simply vanished…the climate if impunity, extortion, protection money, kidnapping, and, in general crime has become pervasive" The government admitted, in 2009, that there were hundreds of "zones of impunity" where lawlessness is ubiquitous and the people are gripped by the ever-present fear of the retributive justice of killing squads.
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