Drugs in Mexico

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Organized international crime exerts its most prevailing influence in Mexico through drug trafficking. Transnational collectives and local organizations involved in the production, transportation, and distribution of illegal drugs have engaged in large-scale bribery of public officials, fostered waves of brutal violence, created nearly autonomous territorial fiefdoms, and openly flouted the rule of law. Soon after taking office in December 1994, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon received an official report warning that “The power of the drug-trafficking organizations could lead to situations of ungovernability….

[T]he advance of drug-trafficking promotes impunity and uncertainty in [public] institutions, justifies violence, and increases threats of the authorities” (Mark Fineman and Sebastian Rotella, 1996). For all these reasons Zedillo, like his predecessors, has proclaimed that drug trafficking represents a paramount threat to Mexico’s national security. The narcotics trade also creates serious problems for Mexico’s relationship with the United States. According to U. S.

government data, there are roughly 13 million current users of illegal drugs in the United States, spending approximately $60 billion per year on this habit (Office of National Drug Control Strategy, 1998). And it is estimated that Mexico now transports 50-60 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States, 20-30 percent of the heroin, and up to 80 percent of the imported marijuana. As a result, drugs and drug trafficking inevitably constitute a major issue in U. S. -Mexican relations. Drug trafficking in Mexico has undergone fundamental change in recent years.

From the 1930s through the 1970s, Mexico occupied a straightforward role in the international market, supplying some of the heroin and most of the marijuana imported into the United States. Both crops were raised by small-scale farmers in specific regions: opium poppies were cultivated in the north-central states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua, and to a lesser extent in Sonora; cannabis (for marijuana) was grown throughout the country, not only throughout the northwest but also with notable concentrations in Michoacan, Jalisco, and Nayarit.

During the 1950s and 1960s Mexico supplied as much as three-quarters of the U. S. market for marijuana and 10-15 percent of the demand for heroin; by the mid-1970s, after the rupture of the infamous “French connection” from Turkey through Marseilles to the United States in 1972, Mexico came to supply as much as 80 percent of the U. S. market for heroin . Throughout this period the processing and transportation of final products rested mainly in the hands of less than a dozen large and illegal organizations, although the marijuana industry was less centralized than the opium/heroin business.

During the 1970s key organizations were identified with family names: Herrera, Aviles Perez, Valenzuela, Araujo, Sicilia-Falcon. As a rule, these groups maintained close relations with local farmers, from whom they regularly purchased crops; they kept their headquarters in key production areas (Culiacan being one well-known site); and while they earned substantial profits, they did not expand their operations to reach new markets with new goods. They resorted to bribery and intimidation, of course, but mostly on the local and regional level, and they maintained relatively low political profiles.

While they exercised effective control over the Mexican narcotics trade, in other words, they were neither as powerful nor as internationally oriented as their Colombian counterparts. They were local organizations dealing in locally-grown products. The more that U. S. drug officials equated their activities with security policy, the less relevant became one of the basic assumptions behind U. S. drug control. Since Anslinger and Fuller first attempted in 1930 to fashion a global antidrug regime, the United States acted as if producer and transit countries, with a few notable exceptions, shared America’s goals.

That assumption changed entirely by 1969, transformed by the security imperative attending drug policy in the 1960s. The event most symbolic of the dramatic change in U. S. thinking was Operation Intercept at the Mexican border. In subjecting all traffic at the border to great delays in order to restrict the flow of drugs north from Mexico, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon did two things. First, it made interdiction as important as control at the source. Second, and more significant, it served notice that the production of drugs threatened U. S.

security and demonstrated a lack of political will by the country of origin in the fight against drugs. From 1969 on U. S. policymakers, whether in the executive branch or Congress, have assumed the existence of an adversarial relationship with a majority of producer states . Even as the assault on executive policymaking prerogatives was being defeated on one front, the drug-security nexus was being reinforced on another. The patience of the United States for the apparent inability of Latin American states to control production and trafficking was wearing thin.

As that happened, the pre- 1969 diplomacy of persuasion inexorably gave way to the politics of pressure. Following Operation Intercept, both the United States and Mexico endeavored to put the best possible face on a contentious situation by hastily devising what they termed “Operation Cooperation. ” Soon thereafter, authorities in Mexico City initiated La Campana Permanente, in which Mexican resources and assistance from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), one of the successsor agencies to the FBN, were used to curtail opium poppy growth and heroin production (Richard B.

Craig, 1978,: 107-31). So far as can be ascertained, Mexico’s drug control record in the late 1970s was a relatively good one. Yet, as the United States and Mexico tried to find common ground against drugs, political developments in Washington made that task much more difficult. The House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control (HSC) came into existence in 1976. Headed by activist congressmen dedicated to crop eradication who increasingly hoped to militarize the antidrug fight, the HSC looked beyond promise and began to assess performance in Latin America’s drug control record.

Again, Mexico caught the eye of drug control advocates in the United States. It is clear that President Jose Lopez Portillo had in his government officials who were profiting from drug prodution and trafficking. What Lopez Portillo knew about that situation remains unclear; in any event, by the time Ronald Reagan’s presidency began in January 1981, members of Congress and some administration officials, although few then in DEA headquarters, were doubting Mexico’s good faith regarding drug control. Ironically, Mexicans had their own doubts about the U.

S. antidrug commitment because of strict legal prohibitions against the spraying of paraquat on domestic marijuana. But the realities of power in U. S. -Mexican relations made that concern irrelevant in the bilateral relationship. Mexico, of course, was not the only country subjected to close scrutiny by drug control proponents in the United States. Colombia called attention to itself both when it considered a plan to legalize and tax the marijuana trade and after the boom in the cocaine industry became apparent.

Also, Peru and Bolivia were heavily criticized in Washington for failure to enforce the coca controls envisioned by the 1961 Single Convention. Bolivia especially fell out of favor with Washington during and after the year-long hold on power by General Luis Garcia Meza as a result of what has accurately been termed a “cocaine coup. ” To U. S. authorities, Bolivia seemed little more than a nation in thrall to the coca leaf and, hence, cocaine. Throughout the Andes, it seemed as though the so-called kings of cocaine were constructing a powerful, albeit decentralized empire.

In time, Mexican marijuana and opium became the targets of aggressive antidrug policies. In September 1969 the Nixon administration launched Operation Intercept, subjecting border crossings to intensive scrutiny and time-consuming harassment for nearly three weeks; after much frustration and scant seizures, the effort gave way to a face-saving Operation Cooperation the following month. It was in 1975 that, once again under pressure from the United States, the Mexican government initiated its Campana Permanente against illicit drugs.

Spearheaded by “Operation Condor,” the Campana launched a coordinated attack that focused on eradication of crops, interdiction of shipments, and disruption of commercial organizations. One particularly conspicuous element was collaboration with U. S. government agencies. Another was deployment of the Mexican army, which eventually devoted up to one-quarter of its personnel and resources to the antidrug campaign (Richard Craig, 1980: 345-63). The Campana had remarkable results. Apparently as a consequence, Mexico’s share of the U.

S. marijuana market plunged from more than 75 percent in 1976 to 11 percent in 1979, 8 percent in 1980, and down as far as 4 percent in 1981. Similarly, the Mexican share of the heroin market dropped from 67 percent in 1976 to 25 percent in 1980. (This did not mean, of course, that American consumers were using fewer drugs. Instead, the vacuum in the marijuana market was quickly filled by growers in Jamaica and Colombia and within the United States, and stepped-up quantities of heroin came from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

) Eventually, Mexican entrepreneurs managed to recuperate a sizable portion of market share: by the mid-1980s Mexico was supplying around 30 percent of the marijuana consumed in the United States and about 40 percent of the heroin. An unintended outcome of the Campana was intensified concentration within the Mexican drug industry. While Operation Condor pushed some prominent traffickers out of the business—such as Pedro Aviles Perez of Sinaloa—it also tended to strengthen the relative position of those who could survive.

Stepped-up enforcement also encouraged the leaders of survivor groups to reorganize their enterprises, relying heavily on their comparative advantages: bribery and violence. (Probably the most notorious kingpin of this era was Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, leader of the Guadalajara gang. ) As a result of this policy initiative, in other words, the Mexican drug industry came under the control of entrepreneurial organizations that were fewer in number, stronger in resources, and more dangerous to society and government. Since the mid-1980s Mexico has held fairly steady positions in the international markets for marijuana and heroin.

But there also occurred a major change, which came about when narcotraficantes from Colombia began seeking new routes for shipping cocaine into the United States. As U. S. law enforcement agencies cracked down on shipments through the Caribbean and South Florida in the early to mid-1980s, Colombian entrepreneurs—especially leaders of the sophisticated Cali cartel—turned their attention toward Mexico. Initially, they ferried relatively modest shipments of cocaine in Cessnas or other small planes from Colombia to Mexico and then, with the aid of Mexican collaborators, sent them overland to the United States.

In the early 1990s, as operations matured, Colombians began to fly their merchandise to central and southern Mexico in converted 727s and Caravelles capable of handling multiton loads; Mexican carriers would then take them north in trucks, small planes, and trains across the border to the United States, where operatives under the Colombians would break down the shipments for wholesale and retail distribution. Within the cocaine trade, Mexicans became classic “middlemen. ” These joint ventures with Colombians had far-reaching consequences. First, Mexico became the primary transit route for cocaine entering the United States.

As of 1989, the U. S. State Department estimated that 30 percent of U. S. -bound cocaine passed through Mexico; by 1992, the estimate surpassed 50 percent; for other years, the estimate has been as high as 75 to 80 percent. (It is most recently pegged at around 50-60 percent (U. S. State Department, 1989, 92). Along parallel lines, seizures of cocaine in Mexico began a steep upward climb in 1985; they more than tripled between 1988 and 1990, and have remained at high levels ever since. No matter what the indicator, one fact is inescapably clear: Mexico has become a major player in the international market for cocaine.

This development reshaped both the structure and the power of trafficking organizations. As, Mexico’s traditional marketing groups maintained close ties with producers, operated at local levels, and maintained low political profiles. The increase in cocaine traffic changed this picture in far-reaching ways. Where the Colombians forged joint partnerships with existing groups, as in Guadalajara, it expanded and strengthened their economic base; and where the Colombians enticed other criminal organizations into the cocaine trade, as in the state of Tamaulipas, it led to the emergence of new contenders.

Smuggling rings in Ciudad Juarez and Tamaulipas—virtually unknown in drug circles prior to the late 1980s—came to assume unprecedented importance. And when Mexican prosecutors cracked down on the Tamaulipas group, their efforts created new opportunities for their rivals in Ciudad Juarez, who quickly became the prime intermediaries along the market route from Colombia to the United States. Second, the profitability of the cocaine business greatly augmented the economic resources of trafficking groups. According to Thomas A.

Constantine, current head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, annual profits for Mexican traficantes now approach $7 billion; the Mexican attorney general’s office has placed the figure as high as $30 billion per year. Third, the emphasis on cocaine has severed the long-standing relationship between farmers and distributors. Mexico’s new traffickers therefore have less allegiance to local areas, less reason to concentrate their attention on the local scene. They are competing against each other for the same goods and the same market.

Ever the opportunists, Mexican traffickers have also turned toward the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine, one of the fastest-growing markets in the United States. In the form of crystal or “speed,” methamphetamine has gained notable popularity among U. S. middle-class, white-collar workers in their twenties and thirties. Once again, the syndicates have seized an opportunity: with the crackdown on methamphetamine laboratories in the United States, especially in Southern California, Mexicans have taken up the slack.

As a result of increasing production and availability, the average price has dropped by 20 percent (from $50 per gram to $40 per gram). As DEA head Constantine once put it: “The Mexican traffickers who flooded the U. S. with marijuana and heroin in the 1970s and 1980s and cocaine in the 1990s threaten to overwhelm us with methamphetamine now. ” With regard to this class of drugs, Constantine added: “We believe that the major drug gangs operating out of Mexico pose the largest threat currently” (Sam Dillon, 1995). U. S.

drug policy toward Latin America relied on the tactics of pressure rather than the diplomacy of persuasion in two other important respects since 1985. On 8 April 1986 President Reagan issued a national security decision directive to the effect that drug production and trafficking constituted a grave threat to the security of the hemisphere. It therefore followed than those nations under, attack by the drug merchants especially in the Andes, ought to defend them individually or in concert. In practice, this meant a greater emphasis on control at the source and even more vigorous efforts in source countries to interdict illegal drugs.

The United States would provide advice, training, and equipment, and the war against drugs would be waged, first, in Latin America and, second, in international waters. This strategy largely ignored, however, competing security objectives that could have compromised U. S. antidrug objectives. Panama’s General Noriega, for example, was arguably the Reagan administration’s most vital security asset in Central America, despite his well-deserved reputation for double-dealing. Noriega was deemed indispensable to the administration and remained so as long as William Casey headed the CIA.

And the administration chose to overlook the involvement of several Honduran military officials in the drug trade because Honduras willingly served as a sanctuary for the contras. Such contradictions in security priorities were not lost on those nations, notably Colombia, that was asked to serve in the front line of the drug war. Conclusion The complex policy choices facing U. S. authorities in the wake of the 1992 San Antonio meeting would be rendered far more problematic were narcotic foreign policy to remain based upon the politics of pressure and adversarial relationships.

President Bush and Secretary Baker, however, did have other traditions to draw upon even were they not going to reconsider the historic operating assumptions underlying U. S. strategy. They could, if they chose, adopt an internationalism approach similar to that which marked U. S. policy in the early 1930s. Immediately after the 2990 summit at Cartagena, Baker seemed about to do just that. At Cartagena, the UN, and a subsequent world cocaine meeting in London, Baker acknowledged that illicit drug traffic should be dealt with on a multilateral basis and that the United States clearly needed to address the issue of domestic demand for drugs.

Also indicating this belief had been Washington’s support for the 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Yet, as always, multilateralism could only accomplish so much. The rationale for revising U. S. drug strategy would therefore have to reside elsewhere, perhaps in the U. S. experience with drug control in Asia since around 1980. Neither the politics of pressure nor the diplomacy of persuasion meant much in the Asian context. Drug-related events there unfolded without regard for Western interests. At the same time, U. S.

authorities were right to view the situation, whether in Southeast Asia or in Southwest Asia, as basically inseparable from regional security concerns. In that light, the presence of DEA advisers in China, Thailand, Laos, and even Myanmar (Burma) became explicable. That is, at any given moment the control of opium production and trafficking could assist the political, and hence security, goals of local ruling elites. Whenever their interests and those of the United States coincided, as they did in the late 1970s in Thailand and in Laos and China a decade later, limited progress was evident in the war against drugs.

Yet wherever chaos attended the political scene, as was the case in Myanmar or in Afghanistan, efforts to advance the cause of drug control accomplished little. The central point here is that antidrug programs in Asia existed as simply one of several foreign policy interests for the United States. If expectations are low regarding what can be achieved in the short term, policymakers have nevertheless begun to understand the historical complexity of the Asian situation. When comparable understanding accompanies U. S. drug control strategy elsewhere, particularly in Latin America, U. S.

officials may be better able to appreciate the great complexity of the drug situation, both abroad and at home. Should that day come, then policymakers might comprehend the shortcomings of a supply-side approach and in so doing finally learn the lessons that producing countries have been trying for decades to teach them. Reference: Mark Fineman and Sebastian Rotella, “The Drug Web That Entangles Mexico,” Los Angeles Times, 1 March 1996. Office of National Drug Control Strategy, The National Drug Control Strategy, 1998: A Ten Year Plan (Washington, D. C. : The White House, 1998), 74-75.

Richard B. Craig, “La Campana Permanente: Mexico’s Antidrug Campaign”, Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 20 ( May 1978): 107-31. Richard Craig, “Operation Condor: Mexico’s Anti-Drug Campaign Enters a New Era,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 22, no. 3 (August 1980): 345-63. Sam Dillon, “Power in Drug Trade Shifts from Colombia to Mexico,” The Sacramento Bee, 27 Dec. 1995. U. S. State Department, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, March 1989 (Washington, D. C. , 1989), 92;

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