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Drug trafficking in the United States dates back to the 19th century. From opium to marijuana to cocaine, a variety of substances have been illegally imported, sold and distributed throughout U.S. history, often with devastating consequences.
Early Opium Trade in the United States
During the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants arriving in California introduced Americans to opium smoking. The trading, selling, and distribution of opium spread throughout the region.
Opium dens, which were designated places to buy and sell the drug, began to crop up in cities throughout California and soon spread to New York and other urban areas.
Before long, Americans were experimenting with other opiates like morphine and codeine. Morphine was especially popular for use as a pain reliever during the Civil War, which caused thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers to become addicted to the drug.
The Harrison Act of 1914 outlawed the use of opium and cocaine for non-medical purposes, but the illicit drugs continued to circulate.
In 1925, a black market for opium opened up in New York’s Chinatown. At this time, there were about 200,000 heroin addicts in the United States.
The distribution of opiates continued during the Jazz Era of the 1930s and 1940s. Marijuana also became a popular recreational drug in some communities during this era.
Mafia Drug Smuggling
American Mafia families were caught smuggling and selling illicit drugs as early as the 1950s, in addition to gambling and other illegal activities. These organized groups paved the way for future drug cartels that focused on drugs for their revenue.
The Mafia’s participation in drug trade was sometimes known as the “French Connection” because smugglers in New York City would seize shipments of Turkish opium that arrived from Paris and Marseilles, France.
The Vietnam War and Drug Trafficking
The U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War led to a boost in heroin being smuggled into the United States between the years 1965-1970.
Drug use among Vietnam soldiers was widespread. In 1971, reports showed 15 percent of active soldiers were heroin addicts, and many more smoked marijuana or used other drugs.
The number of people dependent on heroin in the United States soared to 750,000 during these years.
Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel
In the late 1970s, the illegal cocaine trade became a major moneymaking opportunity throughout the world. The Medellin Cartel, an organized group of drug suppliers and smugglers based in the city of Medellin, Colombia, began operating during this time.
In 1975, Colombian police seized 600 kilos of cocaine from a plane. Drug traffickers retaliated by killing 40 people during one weekend in what became known as the “Medellin Massacre.” The event triggered years of violence that led to assassinations, kidnappings and raids.
The Medellin cartel surged to power in the 1980s. It was run by brothers Jorge Luis, Juan David, and Fabio Ochoa Vasquez; Pablo Escobar; Carlos Lehder; George Jung; and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha.
During the peak of its reign, the Medellin cartel brought in up to $60 million a day in drug profits.
Importantly, the U.S. and Colombian governments ratified a bilateral extradition treaty in 1981. This treaty became a significant concern for Columbian traffickers.
Manuel Noriega and the Panamanian Drug Trade
In 1982, Panamanian General Manuel Noriega allowed Medellin drug lord Pablo Escobar to ship cocaine through Panama.
Around this time, Vice President George H.W. Bush created the South Florida Drug Task Force to combat cocaine trade through Miami, where violence involving traffickers was steadily increasing.
After learning of the Medellin cartel’s undertakings in Panama, a Miami federal grand jury indicted the group’s top leaders in 1984. A year later, U.S. officials found out that the Medellin cartel had a hit list that included American embassy members, their families, journalists and businessmen.
In 1987, the Colombian National Police captured Carlos Lehder and extradited him to the United States, where he was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 135 years.
General Noriega surrendered to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1989 when the United States invaded Panama. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison on eight counts of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering.
Also in 1989, Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez was killed by Colombian police during a raid.
The Ochoa brothers surrendered in 1990 but were released from jail in 1996. Fabio Ochoa Vasquez was arrested again for new crimes in 1999.
George Jung served nearly 20 years for drug-smuggling. He was released from prison in 2014 but was arrested again in 2016 for violating parole. Jung’s life story was portrayed in the 2001 movie Blow.
Pablo Escobar surrendered to the Colombian police in 1991, but escaped during a prison transfer a year later. Police relocated him in 1993, but he was killed as he tried to flee from authorities.
The Cali Cartel
When the Medellin cartel was brought down, the Cali Cartel stepped up. This organized operation emerged in the early 90s and was based in southern Colombia.
Its founding leaders included brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela; Jose Santacruz Londoño (also known as “Chepe”); and Hélmer Herrera (also known as “Pacho”).
At the peak of the Cali Cartel, it was thought to have control over about 80 percent of the cocaine supplied to the United States. By the mid-90s, the organization became a multi-billion-dollar smuggling business.
In 1995, top Cali cartel members were captured and arrested. A year later, all of the Cali kingpins were behind bars.
El Chapo, Los Zetas and Mexican Drug Cartels
By the mid-1980s, the U.S.-Mexican border became the main transport route for cocaine, marijuana and other drugs into the United States. By the late 1990s, Mexican traffickers dominated drug distribution and introduced methamphetamine.
The Sinaloa Federation, which is still operating today, is perhaps the largest and most well-known Mexican drug cartel. It’s also known as the “Pacific Cartel,” the “Guzman-Loera Organization,” the “Federation,” and the “Blood Alliance.”
According to the U.S. Attorney General’s office, the Sinaloa cartel imported and distributed almost 200 tons of cocaine and large amounts of heroin between 1990-2008.
The infamous drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman led Sinaloa beginning in 1989. In 2003, the United States Department of the Treasury considered Guzman the “most powerful drug trafficker in the world.”
After several arrests and escapes from prison, Guzman was recaptured by Mexican authorities in 2016. In early 2017, he was extradited to the United States to face criminal charges.
Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel
Another Mexican cartel, known as Gulf, started in the 1920s but didn’t gain ground in the area of drug trafficking until the 1980s. Gulf became one of Sinaloa’s main rivals in the 2000s.
The Gulf Cartel worked with Los Zetas, a group made up of former elite members of the Mexican military. Representatives of Los Zetas essentially worked as hitmen for Gulf.
When the two groups split in 2010, a bloody fallout occurred that has been called the most violent period in the history of organized crime in Mexico.
Los Zetas had a reputation for ruthless violence that included leaving body parts in public places and posting killings on the Internet. The group’s former leader, Miguel Angel Treviño, was arrested in 2013.
The impact of Mexico’s drug cartel violence is still felt today. Newer cartels have emerged in recent years, and some have formed after breaking with old alliances.
According to the 2015 Congressional Research Service report, Mexican drug wars claimed more than 80,000 lives between 2006 and 2015.
CIA and Drug Trafficking
Over the years, journalists and writers have made claims that the CIA has been involved in various drug trafficking operations.
One of the most notorious accusations involved the CIA’s connection to the Nicaraguan Contra War during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. In 1986, the administration acknowledged that the Contras may have engaged in activity with drug traffickers but insisted that leaders of the rebels were not involved.
In 1996, a series of newspaper reports known as the Dark Alliance, which was written by journalist Gary Webb, claimed that the CIA may have offered the Contra smugglers support and protection. These claims are considered controversial and continue to be debated.
Drug Trafficking in Recent Years
Drug trafficking in the United States remains a significant concern.
Organizations in the Middle East, including the Taliban and al-Qaida, have become major players in the production and shipment of illegal drugs.
Mexican and Columbian cartels remain problematic for the U.S. government, in particular the DEA.
In 2013, six substances accounted for nearly all drug trafficking offenses: powder cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, crack cocaine, heroin, and oxycodone.
A 2014 report revealed Americans spent about $100 billion a year over the previous decade on illicit drugs.
While drug trafficking may never completely dissipate, government officials and agencies are currently working on new strategies to stop illegal substances from being brought into and transported throughout the United States.
History of Drug Trafficking - Colombia, U.S. and Mexico - HISTORY
Chairman Feinstein, Co-Chairman Grassley, and distinguished members of the caucus, on behalf of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert S. Mueller, III, we appreciate your invitation to testify today regarding violence in Mexico and its implications for the United States. The Department of Justice law enforcement agencies have outstanding relationships with law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border. With the assistance of our counterparts, the Department strives to coordinate investigative activity and develop intelligence in order to efficiently and effectively manage law enforcement efforts with the goal of identifying, infiltrating, and dismantling drug trafficking organizations that are directly responsible for the violence in Mexico.
The DEA, in conjunction with the FBI, has been at the forefront of U.S. efforts to work with foreign law enforcement counterparts in confronting the organizations that profit from the global drug trade. The Department recognizes that in order to effectively attack the international drug trade it has to forward deploy its personnel into the foreign arena. DEA has the largest federal law enforcement presence overseas. DEA has 83 offices in 62 countries and works with host governments in assessing drug threats, gathering intelligence, targeting major drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), and, in coordination with the Department of State, assisting host governments in developing comprehensive counternarcotics strategies. The FBI has a legal attaché office in Mexico City which works closely with counterparts, shares intelligence, and coordinates international investigations. In addition, the FBI has Border Liaison Officers who travel to Mexico on a weekly basis to coordinate with law enforcement partners.
The Southwest border (SWB) of the United States is the principal arrival zone for most of the illicit drugs smuggled into the United States, as well as the predominant staging area for the drugs’ subsequent distribution throughout the country. According to El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) drug seizure data, most of the cocaine, foreign-source marijuana and methamphetamine, and Mexican-source heroin available in the United States is smuggled into the country across the SWB. The SWB is particularly vulnerable to drug smuggling because of the enormous volume of people and goods legitimately crossing the border between the two countries every day. Moreover, large sections of the nearly 2,000-mile land border between Mexico and the United States are both vast and remote, and this provides additional smuggling opportunities for Mexican DTOs. Once at the border, Mexican traffickers use every method imaginable to smuggle drugs into this country including aircraft, backpackers, couriers, horses and mules, maritime vessels, rail, tunnels, and vehicles.
In response, the DEA and FBI, in cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and other federal, state, local, and foreign counterparts, are attacking these organizations at all levels. The disruption and dismantlement of these organizations, the denial of proceeds, and the seizure of assets significantly impacts the DTOs’ ability to exercise influence and to further destabilize the region. Key to DEA and FBI operational success is the collection and sharing of intelligence, which is made possible and enhanced through EPIC, DEA’s Special Operations Division (SOD), the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) Fusion Center, and DEA’s and FBI’s participation in the intelligence community. In short, guided by intelligence, DEA and the FBI are working diligently on both sides of the border to stem the flow of illicit drugs and assist the government of Mexico (GOM) in breaking the power and impunity of the drug cartels.
The Scope of Drug Trafficking on the Southwest Border
Prior to addressing Mexico’s security situation, it is important to have a clear picture of the illicit drug-trafficking industry within Mexico as it relates to the United States. No other country in the world has a greater impact on the drug situation in the United States than does Mexico. The influence of Mexico on the U.S. drug trade is truly unmatched: the result of a shared border Mexico’s strategic location between drug-producing and drug-consuming countries a long history of cross-border smuggling and the existence of diversified, poly-drug, profit-minded DTOs. Each of the four major drugs of abuse—marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine—are either produced in, or transshipped through, Mexico before reaching the United States. The vast majority of bulk currency interdicted within the U.S. is derived from drug trafficking activities. It is estimated that approximately 18-39 billion dollars annually is moved from the interior of the U.S. to the Southwest border on behalf of Mexican and Colombian DTOs. Thus, billions of U.S. dollars are sent back to Mexico annually. From the Mexican perspective, the flow of vast sums of money engenders corruption. The strategic consequence of the continuous seeping of illicit proceeds into the Mexican economy discourages the long-term growth of—indeed even the incentive to sustain—legitimate businesses and institutions. For all of these reasons, the U.S. and Mexican governments share the responsibility to defeat the threat of drug-trafficking.
Heroin: Mexico is an opium poppy-cultivating/heroin-producing country. While Mexico accounts for only about 6 percent of the world’s opium poppy cultivation and heroin production, it is a major supplier of heroin to abusers in the United States, particularly in regions west of the Mississippi River. It has been alarming to note that Mexican black tar and brown heroin has appeared increasingly in eastern-U.S. drug markets over the past several years. According to DEA’s Heroin Signature Program (HSP), Mexico was identified as the source country for 39 percent of the samples classified under the HSP during 2008, the largest representation of Mexican-source heroin in the United States in the past 20 years. We assess with high confidence that Mexican cartels are seeking to maximize revenues from an industry that they control from production through distribution.
Marijuana: Mexico is the number one foreign supplier of marijuana abused in the United States. In fact, according to a 2008 inter-agency report, marijuana is the top revenue generator for Mexican DTOs—a cash crop that finances corruption and the carnage of violence year after year. The profits derived from marijuana trafficking—an industry with minimal overhead costs, controlled entirely by the traffickers—are used not only to finance other drug enterprises by Mexico’s poly-drug cartels, but also to pay recurring “business” expenses, purchase weapons, and bribe corrupt officials. Though the GOM has a robust eradication program, many of the military personnel traditionally assigned to eradicate marijuana and opium poppy have recently been diverted to the offensive against the cartels.
Methamphetamine:Mexico is also the number-one foreign supplier of methamphetamine to the United States. Although the Mexican government has made enormous strides in controlling—even banning—the importation of methamphetamine precursor chemicals such as ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenyl acetic acid, Mexican methamphetamine-producing and trafficking organizations are proving to be extremely resourceful in circumventing the strict regulatory measures put in place by the Calderon Administration. As with heroin, there is considerable financial incentive for the Mexican DTOs to sustain a trade they control from manufacture to distribution and, in fact, Mexican authorities seized more methamphetamine labs in 2009—than in the five previous years combined.
Cocaine: Mexico’s importance in the cocaine trade cannot be overstated. Since the 1980s, Mexico has served as a primary transportation corridor for cocaine destined for the United States. While Mexico is not a coca-producing country and therefore cannot control the trade from beginning to end, traffickers in Mexico have managed nonetheless to exert increasing control over the trade in exchange for shouldering the greater risk inherent in transporting the cocaine and ensuring its distribution in the United States. In recent years, Mexican trafficking organizations have extended their reach deep into South America to augment—or personally facilitate—cooperation with Colombian sources of supply, or to develop relationships with alternate sources of supply in other cocaine-producing countries, particularly Peru. Demonstrating an even further reach into global cocaine markets, Mexican drug traffickers have evolved into intermediate sources of supply for cocaine in Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East. More important for our discussion today, Mexican DTOs dominate the wholesale distribution of cocaine and other drugs of abuse throughout the U.S.
Current estimates suggest that approximately 93 percent of the cocaine leaving South America for the United States moves through Mexico. In just the past year, however, more cocaine—about 60 percent of the 90 percent, according to inter-agency estimates—stops first in a Central American country, before onward shipment to Mexico, than at any time since the inter-agency began tracking cocaine movement. This trend suggests that the Calderon Administration’s initiatives, particularly those related to port security and the tracking of suspicious aircraft, are having an impact on how the cartels do business, requiring them to take the extra—and ostensibly more costly and vulnerable—step of arranging multi-stage transportation systems.
Changes in cocaine movement patterns are not the only measurable trend. Beginning in January of 2007—immediately after the Calderon government was installed—the price per gram of cocaine in the United States began to rise, with a correlative drop in cocaine purity. We are now in a 36-month sustained period of declining purity and increasing price in nearly every major cocaine market in the United States. During this period, we have seen prices increase by almost 72 percent and purity fall by nearly 33 percent.
Violence in Mexico: Statistics and Causes
While it may seem counterintuitive, the extraordinary level of violence in Mexico is another signpost of successful law-and-order campaigns by military and law enforcement officials in Mexico. The violence in Mexico can be organized into three broad categories: intra-cartel violence that occurs among and between members of the same criminal syndicate, inter-cartel violence that occurs between rival groups, and cartel-versus-government violence. It is important to note that intra- and inter-cartel violence have always been associated with the Mexican drug trade. DEA and FBI assesses that the current surge in violence is driven in large measure by the GOM’s proactive actions against the traffickers, along with other variables, such as cartel on cartel violence.
The drug trade in Mexico has been rife with violence for decades, though the level and the severity of violence we are seeing today is unprecedented. Without minimizing the severity of the problems we are confronted with today, it is nonetheless critical to understand the background of the “culture of violence” associated with Mexican DTOs and the cyclical nature of the “violence epidemics” with which Mexico is periodically beset. We do not have to go very far back in history to recall the cross-border killing spree engaged in by Los Zetas operatives in the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo area during 2004-05. But one thing must remain clear in any discussion of violence in Mexico, or violence practiced by Mexican traffickers operating in the United States: drug gangs are inherently violent, and nowhere is this more true than in Mexico, where Wild West-style shootouts between the criminals and the cops, and/or elements of opposing trafficking groups is far too common. Since 2007, there have been over 22,000 drug-related murders in Mexico, as reported by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office.
We cringe at news stories detailing the arrest of a “pozolero” (stew-maker), a killer who disposes of his victims’ body parts in barrels of acid, or the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of countless victims decomposing under a layer of lime. But these and other gruesome tactics are not new. What is both new and disturbing are the sustained efforts of Mexican DTOs to use violence as a tool to undermine public support for the government’s counter-drug efforts. Traffickers have made a concerted effort to send a public message through their bloody campaign of violence. They now often resort to leaving the beheaded and mutilated bodies of their tortured victims out for public display with the intent of intimidating government officials and the public alike.
Particularly worrisome are those tactics intended to intimidate police and public officials, and law-abiding citizens. The intimidation of public and police officials through violence or the threat of violence has a more insidious side. Not all corruption is a clear cut, money-for-cooperation, negotiation: the intimidation of officials, threats against their lives or their families’ lives, is a much more widespread and effective tactic, and likely accounts for a plurality of corrupt law enforcement officials in Mexico.
Murder is not solely a coercive strategy on the part of the cartels. The murders are acts of desperation. Operational successes by the military and law enforcement, and massive reforms being undertaken by the judiciary, have provided the catalyst for much of the violence. The deployment of tens of thousands of military troops—mobilized specifically to confront DTOs in “hot spots” throughout the country—along with concerted law enforcement operations targeting specific cartel members or specific import/export hubs, have disrupted supply routes both into and out of Mexico, and have shattered alliances. Entry ports for large maritime shipments of cocaine from South America, previously wholly controlled by the cartels through corruption, intimidation, and force, are instead patrolled and inspected by vetted members of Mexico’s armed forces. The lucrative transportation corridors within Mexico and into the United States, once incontestably held by cartel “gatekeepers” and “plaza bosses,” are now riddled with military checkpoints and monitored by Mexican law enforcement.
Disrupted supply routes translate to intense competition between the drug trafficking organizations who control still-viable routes, and those who want to control them. These stressors are further compounded by shifting alliances, long-standing feuds, and record-breaking seizures by the GOM. Challenging the status quo and holding the traffickers accountable demonstrates the resolve of President Calderon’s government. Successfully transforming the situation from one that represents a serious threat to the national security of both Mexico and the U.S. to a problem that can effectively be dealt with as a traditional criminal justice problem will require considerably more work, particularly with regard to institutional reform and anticorruption efforts. Fortunately, President Calderon has already committed to these reforms, both in rhetoric and in action.
Excessive violence by the cartels is a national security problem for Mexico, and—as our close neighbor and political ally—presents high stakes for the United States. In the past year, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have worked diligently to reach a consensus view on “spillover” violence and on U.S. vulnerability to the Mexican cartels’ violent tactics. These discussions required the interagency to define “spillover” in practical terms. As agreed to by the interagency community, spillover violence entails deliberate, planned attacks by the cartels on U.S. assets, including civilian, military, or law enforcement officials, innocent U.S. citizens, or physical institutions such as government buildings, consulates, or businesses. This definition does not include trafficker on trafficker violence, whether perpetrated in Mexico or the U.S.
Spillover violence is a complicated issue. It is crucial, in order to address the problem with the appropriate programs, resources, and operations, that we understand the difference between the intentional targeting of innocent civilians in the United States, or official U.S. government interests in Mexico or the United States, and actions that are characteristic of violent drug culture, such as the killing of an individual who owes a drug debt to the organization. Certain isolated incidents in the United States, such as the torture by a Mexican trafficker of a Dominican drug customer in Atlanta, are frightening, but do not represent a dramatic departure from the violence that has always been associated with the drug trade.
Much of the risk of spillover violence is posed by younger-generation traffickers whose approach to the drug trade is less rational and profit-minded than that of their “elders,” or by multi-national street and prison gangs working in concert with Mexican cartels as enforcers and street-level drug distributors. As the GOM has continuously and successfully disrupted the cartels’ command and control structure through operations against their leaders, less-experienced “junior” cartel members are inhabiting roles formerly held by traffickers of long standing who, while violent, tended to be more deliberate and cautious in their actions. In Ciudad Juarez, where three individuals associated with the U.S. consulate were killed in March, the Barrio Azteca (BA) street gang is the best known of several gangs being used as enforcers by La Linea, gatekeepers for the Juarez Cartel. The BA has been linked to drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion, assaults, murder, and the retail sale of drugs obtained by Mexican DTOs. Elsewhere in Mexico, the link between street gangs and the Mexican cartels is more fluid and tenuous, with gang members typically filling retail drug sales roles rather than providing enforcement.
Between March 18 and 21, the FBI and DEA led a collaborative effort of more than 200 federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel in “Operation Knockdown.” Through Operation Knockdown, interviews of over 350 Barrio Azteca gang members in El Paso and New Mexico were conducted. The interviews focused on the activities of drug hit squads in the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso corridor, with a particular focus on gathering intelligence related to the March 13 murders of three individuals associated with our consulate in Ciudad Juarez. The interviews were also an attempt to generate information regarding the FBI Top Ten fugitive and BA member Eduardo Ravelo’s possible location. Intelligence from Operation Knockdown led to 54 arrests, and the seizure of various items of documentary evidence. As a result of this heightened law enforcement pressure, officials are gleaning actionable information directly from gang members.
Government of Mexico Initiatives
In the three years since Felipe Calderon assumed his post as President of Mexico, he and his administration have acted with unprecedented vigor and resolve against organized crime and its primary purveyors, the drug cartels. With sustained efforts in attacking the insidious problems of drug-related corruption and violence on every front, the Calderon Administration must be credited at least partially with the sustained reduction in the availability of cocaine in the United States.
Having deployed the military to replace state and local police in the most violence-plagued areas of the country, President Calderon attacked the very core of cartel power: the corruption of public officials. With narco-corruption cases increasingly pointing to high-ranking federal officials in the Mexican government, President Calderon launched Operation Limpieza (Clean Sweep). Designed to improve operational integrity within several Mexican government agencies, including the Attorney General’s Office (PGR), the Secretariat of Public Security, and the military, Operation Limpieza has already resulted in the arrests of dozens of corrupt public officials, and the drafting of a joint GOM-U.S. Department of Justice proposal on police and judicial reforms. Benchmark reforms include improvements in internal security processes (such as background investigations, internal affairs/disciplinary actions, and ethics training), information security processes (such as evidence handling and case file management), and physical security processes (such as structural improvements and access limitations).
The Southwest border is a particular focus of the Department’s corruption-fighting efforts. Of the 700 FBI agents leading our charge against public corruption, approximately 120 are working along the Southwest border. The FBI coordinates its investigative efforts along the Southwest border with the Department of Homeland Security - Office of Inspector General (DHS-OIG) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement - Office of Professional Responsibility (ICE-OPR) Customs and Border Protection- Internal Affairs (CBP-IA) Transportation Security Administration (TSA) the DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). As a result, over 400 public corruption cases originate from that region. In fiscal year 2009, there were over 100 arrests and over 130 state and federal cases prosecuted.
The FBI’s 12 border corruption task forces along the Southwest border share information with the Southwest Intelligence Group (SWIG), EPIC, and Mexican legal attachés to both identify and disrupt Mexican drug trafficking organizations from utilizing and soliciting United States public officials to commit criminal activities. The National Border Corruption Task Force (NCBTF) has been established at FBI Headquarters. Consisting of representatives from the FBI, DHS-OIG, ICE OPR, CBP-IA, and TSA, this task force ensures general guidance and oversight of border corruption programs across the country. Internally, our NCBTF is coordinating with other impacted divisions at FBI Headquarters. These include the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence, Counterintelligence Division, Counterterrorism Division, and Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. Through trend analysis, intelligence and information sharing, and the utilization of lessons learned and best practices, we are becoming more nimble in our approach and making great strides. In addition, the GOM created the Special Organized Crime Court (SOCC), which has jurisdiction over organized crime investigations throughout the Republic of Mexico, and has three primary functions: 1) to authorize the provisional detention of organized crime suspects 2) to authorize search warrants and 3) to authorize the interception of communications for evidentiary purposes. The SOCC has nationwide jurisdiction, which not only eliminates the administrative inefficiencies of the previous system, but should also resolve intimidation and corruption-related issues associated with the previous requirement that prosecutors go to local judges in close proximity to the suspected criminal activity.
In June 2008, President Calderon approved a Constitutional amendment permitting the GOM’s transition from a written inquisitorial (confession-based) justice system, to an oral adversarial (investigations-based) system. This transition is a significant step toward improving transparency in legal proceedings in Mexico and helps insure the integrity of the judicial process.
The United States is engaged in cooperative efforts with Mexican law enforcement to provide information, training, and equipment that will allow Mexican authorities to investigate, capture, and prosecute members of Mexico’s most dangerous and powerful drug cartels. The quantifiable impact of huge drug, weapons, and money seizures presents an incomplete picture. While more difficult to measure, the enormous psychological impact of high-level arrests and record numbers of extraditions completes the picture. No other action by the GOM strikes quite so deeply at cartel fears than an arrest and extradition.
Beginning only weeks after his inauguration, President Calderon began extraditing high-profile criminals to the United States. In January 2007, President Calderon took the politically courageous step of extraditing 15 individuals to stand trial in the United States, including notorious Gulf Cartel head, Osiel Cardenas-Guillen who, just this past February, was sentenced to 25 years in prison. In fact, February 2010 was a landmark month. On February 19, the GOM extradited Vicente Zambada-Niebla, son of kingpin Ismael “Mayo” Zambada-Garcia and a leader in the Sinaloa Cartel. On February 25, Miguel Caro-Quintero was sentenced to 17 years in a U.S. federal prison, after having been extradited last January. Miguel Caro-Quintero had assumed control of the family organization after the arrest of his brother Rafael Caro-Quintero, who was complicit in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena.
Since that day, the government of Mexico has extradited in excess of 280 criminals to the United States. These individuals are associated with some of the most notorious Mexican drug trafficking organizations: the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, and the Arellano Felix Organization.
During the past year, the GOM has achieved unprecedented success in apprehending high-value targets based in Mexico. For example, in March 2009, DEA fugitive Vicente Zambada-Niebla, mentioned previously as a recently-extradited leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, was arrested in Mexico City. In October 2009, another Sinaloa Cartel leader and DEA fugitive, Oscar Nava-Valencia (known as "El Lobo") was apprehended near Guadalajara, Mexico. Nava is currently incarcerated in Mexico, pending extradition to the U.S. In December 2009, the "Boss of Bosses" Arturo Beltran-Leyva was killed in Cuernavaca, Mexico during an arrest operation after a two-hour gun battle with Mexican military forces. Beltran was considered one of the most powerful drug lords in Mexico. And finally, on January 12, 2010, DEA and the U.S. Marshals Service identified the residence of one of Mexico’s most wanted fugitives and co-leader of the Tijuana Cartel, Eduardo Garcia-Simental (known as “El Teo”), who was responsible for many of the homicides, kidnappings, and tortures in Tijuana. El Teo’s brother, Manuel, and their chief lieutenant Raydel Lopez-Uriarte, were arrested less than one month later, on February 8. All these high-impact actions—seizures, arrests and extraditions—serve to make one important point: drug traffickers are inherently violent—but desperate, vulnerable drug traffickers operating under unprecedented stress are exceedingly violent.
Interagency Initiatives Along the Southwest Border
DEA and the FBI are agencies with global reach who work vigorously with law enforcement counterparts in both the United States and Mexico to address the violence in Mexico through joint investigations and the sharing of intelligence. We routinely collect and share intelligence pertaining to those violent drug trafficking organizations and armed groups operating in and around “hot spots” along the Southwest border. Additionally, DEA has the largest U.S. law enforcement presence in Mexico with offices in Mexico City, Tijuana, Hermosillo, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Mazatlan, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, and Merida. As of April 2010, DEA has 1,205 special agent positions working in domestic offices with responsibilities for the SWB, representing approximately 23 percent of DEA’s total special agent workforce. In addition, DEA has the largest law enforcement presence of any U.S. agency in Mexico, with 62 special agents. Overall, some 24 percent of DEA’s total special agent workforce is assigned to either Mexico or the Southwest border.
FBI Resolution Six (R-6) agents, co-located with DEA agents, coordinate drug and gang investigations conducted in Mexico. They are also responsible for supporting domestic cases for U.S. prosecution, cultivating liaison contacts within Mexico, and supporting bilateral criminal enterprise initiatives. Working closely with counterparts assigned to the Mexican Embassy, legal attachés, the El Paso Intelligence Center, and the Southwest Intelligence Group as well as with our federal partners in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, we leverage all available resources and expertise. Our close coordination with impacted state and local law enforcement and our Mexican counterparts allow us real-time access to intelligence and information that in 2009, alone, enabled us to realize over 800 convictions related to Mexican DTOs.
As the lead U.S. law enforcement agency responsible for enforcing the drug laws of the United States, DEA has been at the forefront of U.S. efforts to work with foreign law enforcement counterparts in confronting the organizations that profit from the global drug trade. DEA’s success is due, at least in part, to its single-mission focus. DEA is well positioned to mount a sustained attack on the command and control elements of drug trafficking organizations however, DEA does not operate in a vacuum. Rather, DEA and FBI, in conjunction with the Department of Justice the Department of Homeland Security the Department of Defense the intelligence community and state, local, other federal, and foreign counterparts, mount a coordinated attack against all levels of the drug trade with an aim at disrupting and dismantling the command and control elements of these organizations.
Several noteworthy interagency efforts are being coordinated along the SWB:
- Most recently, on June 5 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Attorney General Holder, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Napolitano, and Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Director Kerlikowske released President Obama’s NationalSouthwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, designed to stem the flow of illegal drugs and their illicit proceeds across the Southwest Border and to reduce associated crime and violence in the region.
- The SWB Initiativeis a multi-agency, federal law enforcement operation that attacks Mexico-based DTOs operating along the SWB by targeting the communication systems of their command and control centers. The SWB Initiative has been in operation since 1994. As part of a cooperative effort, DEA, the FBI, CBP, ICE, and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices around the country conduct wiretaps that ultimately identify all levels of Mexico or Colombia-based DTOs. This strategy allows tracking of the drugs as they flow from Colombia or Mexico to the streets of the United States.
- The Southwest Border Intelligence Collection Plan (SWBICP)was initiated by DEA in October 2009 to provide a regional intelligence collection framework to support enforcement operations on the SWB of the United States. The SWBICP provides operational, tactical, strategic, and policy-level intelligence used to support investigations, regional planning, and resource decision-making. Intelligence gathered under the guidance of the SWBICP is shared with the intelligence community and other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The SWBICP also provides a mechanism to collect information needed to assess counterdrug measures and security threats along the U.S.-Mexico border. The SWBICP evolved from DEA’s previous highly-successful SWB-focused intelligence collection plan, Operation Black Flag.
- The Concealment Trap Initiative (CTI)targets those vital service providers who build concealed trap compartments or use natural voids in vehicles or other conveyances and residences for DTOs to conceal bulk cash or other contraband. Drug traffickers recognize that “bulk” currency is subject to seizure and easily forfeited when discovered by law enforcement authorities. To counter this, drug traffickers employ a myriad of techniques, including the use of concealment traps, to impede and frustrate law enforcement’s efforts to discover and seize illicit drug proceeds. The CTI addresses the challenge of helping law enforcement officers and agents keep up with the technology behind these traps, including training them to identify and locate the traps, and establish probable cause toward obtaining a search warrant or consent to search the vehicle or residence in which the trap is located. DEA expended $3 million on the CTI program in 2009, and seized over $28 million, in addition to drugs and weapons.
- Bulk Cash Seizures represent the cash proceeds obtained from the illegal trafficking of drugs, weapons, and persons and are targeted by DEA, FBI, ICE, and other federal and state and local law enforcement partners for use in obtaining valuable investigative leads and intelligence data. Going forward, information regarding bulk cash seizures will be simultaneously shared between ICE’s Bulk Cash Smuggling Center (BCSC) in Vermont and the National Seizure System (NSS) at EPIC. ICE’s BCSC is a 24/7 investigative support and operations facility providing real-time tactical assistance to the field, while the EPIC-NSS functions as, among other things, a repository for detailed bulk currency seizure information from both domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies. NSS analyzes volumes of bulk currency seizure data and develops investigative lead reports and responds to requests for bulk currency seizure data from agents and officers in the field. EPIC provides a broad spectrum of interagency information and intelligence systems which are capable of immediately assessing the information and assisting law enforcement agencies in obtaining probable cause for search warrants, link cases together and follow up on existing cases.
- Since the FBI’s establishment of the Safe Streets Violent Crimes (SSVC) Initiativein 1992, we have focused on violent gangs by identifying major groups who act as significant criminal enterprises. The Department’s goal is not just to disrupt their activities, but to dismantle these dangerous gangs entirely. FBI agents assigned to each of the eight FBI field offices along the border conduct multi-subject and multi-jurisdictional investigations concentrating resources to remove the leadership and the most dangerous gangs and seize their criminally obtained assets. As of March 1, 2010, there were 124 pending kidnapping cases and 33 pending extortion cases throughout the FBI’s eight border field offices.
- In addition, the FBI has established Violent Crime Safe Streets Task Forces (SSTF)in San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix, El Paso, San Antonio, and Houston. By coordinating our efforts with partners at all levels of law enforcement, we are able to leverage all available resources and expertise while sharing intelligence and information. For its part, the SSTF program also coordinates with our colleagues at the El Paso Intelligence Center, the Southwest Intelligence Center, the Mexican Embassy and Mexican legal attaché, as well as with Mexican law enforcement.
- Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF):The OCDETF program was initiated in 1982 to combine federal, state, and local law enforcement efforts into a comprehensive attack against organized crime and drug traffickers. DEA and the FBI are active components of the OCDETF program, including OCDETF Strike Forces. OCDETF Strike Forces collaborate with the Southwest Border High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) regional task forces in Arizona, California, New Mexico, West Texas, and South Texas. Southwest Border HIDTA Task Forces represent federal, state, and local partnerships that target Mexican drug cartels and their smuggling and transportation networks that spawn cartel violence along the border. The Southwest Border HIDTAs is one of 29 HIDTAs which are funded via the Office of National Drug Control Policy. HIDTA Task Forces have had enormous success dismantling major Mexican drug trafficking organizations linked to Mexico-based cartels.
- DEA is a member of the DHS Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST), an ICE-led initiative designed to increase the flow of information between participating agencies regarding transnational criminal organizations and violent gangs operating along our shared borders. In particular, BESTs target the underlying source of cross border violence along the SWB: weapons smuggling, narcotics and human smuggling as well as bulk cash smuggling. BESTs commenced in Laredo, Texas in July 2005 DEA’s participation in the Laredo BEST began on May 3, 2006. Based on the success of the Laredo BEST, the BEST program has expanded to 17 locations, 10 of which, including Laredo, are situated along the SWB: Rio Grande Valley, Texas El Paso, Texas Las Cruces, New Mexico Deming, New Mexico Tucson, Arizona Phoenix. Arizona Yuma, Arizona Imperial Valley, California and San Diego, California. BESTs incorporate personnel from ICE CBP USSS DEA Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives FBI U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, along with other key federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies including the Mexican law enforcement agency Secretaria de Seguridad Publica (SSP).
- The Department’s Drug Flow Attack Strategy (DFAS)is an innovative, multi-agency strategy, designed to disrupt significantly the flow of drugs, money, and chemicals between source zones and the United States by attacking vulnerabilities in the supply chains, transportation systems, and financial infrastructure of major drug trafficking organizations. DFAS calls for aggressive, well-planned, and coordinated enforcement operations in cooperation with host-nation counterparts in global source and transit zones. Operation All-Inclusive (OAI) is the primary DFAS enforcement component in the source and transit zones. Iterations of OAI have been staged annually since 2005.
- Operation Doble Via (ODV), the domestic component of OAI, was conducted between April and September 2007 to disrupt the flow of drugs, chemicals, and money across the SWB. ODV took place on both sides of the border and the main participants were DEA, CBP, Texas Department of Public Safety, and several Mexican agencies, including the Federal Investigative Agency (AFI), the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), the military, and the Deputy Attorney General’s Office of Special Investigations on Organized Crime (SIEDO). Operation Doble Via IIwill be conducted this year, with a focus on the Arizona-Mexico border. Through the collection of law enforcement intelligence information and the development of investigations specifically targeting the Arizona border region, ODV-II will seek to dismantle those drug trafficking organizations and other armed groups responsible for the violence in Sonora, Mexico and the movement of drugs, weapons, and money across the border with Arizona.
- EPIC is a national tactical intelligence center that focuses its efforts on supporting law enforcement efforts in the Western Hemisphere, with a significant emphasis on the SWB. Through its 24-hour watch function, EPIC provides immediate access to participating agencies' databases to law enforcement agents, investigators, and analysts. This function is critical in the dissemination of relevant information in support of tactical and investigative activities, deconfliction, and officer safety. EPIC also provides significant, direct tactical intelligence support to state and local law enforcement agencies, especially in the areas of clandestine laboratory investigations and highway interdiction.
- EPIC’s Gatekeeper Projectis a comprehensive, multi-source assessment of trafficking organizations involved in and controlling movement of illegal contraband through “entry corridors” along the SWB. The analysis of Gatekeeper organizations not only provides a better understanding of command and control, organizational structure, and methods of operation, but also serves as a guide for policymakers to initiate and prioritize operations by U.S. anti-drug elements. Numerous “Gatekeepers” have direct links to Priority Target Organizations and/or Consolidated Priority Organization Targets.
- Implementation of License Plate Readers (LPR)along the SWB by the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security has provided a surveillance method that uses optical character recognition on images that read vehicle license plates. The purpose of the LPR Initiative is to combine existing DEA and other law enforcement database capabilities with new technology to identify and interdict conveyances being utilized to transport bulk cash, drugs, and weapons, as well as other illegal contraband. Almost 100 percent of the effort and cost associated with monitoring southbound traffic is directed at the identification, seizure, and forfeiture of bulk cash and weapons, while the effort and cost of monitoring northbound traffic is both enforcement and forfeiture-related, in that suspect conveyances can be identified for later southbound monitoring. DEA components have the ability to query and input alerts on license plates via an existing DEA database, and other law enforcement agencies can do the same via EPIC. DEA and CBP are currently working together in order to merge existing CBP LPRs at the points of entry with DEA’s LPR Initiative.
- The OCDETF Fusion Center (OFC) provides investigative and operational intelligence support to OCDETF investigations through the development of organizational target profiles and the development of specific investigative leads. These leads and intelligence products are disseminated to the appropriate field elements of the OCDETF agencies through SOD. Intelligence and leads relating to other criminal activities, including terrorism, are disseminated through SOD to the appropriate agencies.
- The DEA-led multi-agency Special Operations Division’s (SOD) mission is to establish seamless law enforcement strategies and operations aimed at dismantling national and international trafficking organizations by attacking their command and control communications. SOD is able to facilitate coordination and communication amongst law enforcement entities with overlapping investigations and ensure tactical and operational intelligence is shared and that enforcement operations and investigations are fully coordinated among and between law enforcement agencies.
The daily challenges posed by drug trafficking organizations in the United States and Mexico are significant, but are overshadowed of late by a very specific set of challenges: ensuring that the rampant violence in Mexico does not spill over our border closely monitoring the security situation in Mexico and, perhaps most importantly, lending our assistance and support to the Calderon Administration to ensure its continued success against the ruthless and powerful cartels. The GOM has realized enormous gains in re-establishing the rule of law in Mexico, and in breaking the power and impunity of the DTOs who threaten Mexico’s, and our, national security. The Calderon Administration’s gains translate to an unparalleled positive impact on the U.S. drug market as well: from January 2007 through December 2009, the price per gram of cocaine increased 72 percent from $98.88 to $169.93, while the average purity decreased by almost 33 percent. These statistics paint a clear picture of restricted drug flow into the United States and decreased availability. While spikes—upward or downward—in price and purity have been observed in the past, these indicators typically normalize within a few months. Unlike in the past, we are now in the midst of a sustained, three-year period of escalating prices and decreasing purity. Anecdotal evidence from around the country and closer to home here in the District of Columbia, including intercepted communications of the traffickers themselves, corroborates the fact that President Calderon’s efforts are making it more difficult for traffickers to supply the U.S.
market with illicit drugs.
The Department recognizes that interagency and international collaboration and coordination is fundamental to our success. It is imperative that we sustain the positive momentum by supporting President Calderon’s heroic efforts against organized crime. We must also manage expectations, as we anticipate that the gruesome violence in Mexico may get worse before it gets better. We must recognize that we are witnessing acts of true desperation: the actions of wounded, vulnerable, and dangerous criminal organizations. We remain committed to working with our U.S. law enforcement and intelligence partners as well, to stem the flow of bulk cash and weapons south, while also working to sustain the disruption of drug transportation routes northward. Bringing to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States, or any other competent jurisdiction, those organizations and principal members of organizations involved in the cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit trafficking in the United States remains the core of our focus.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss this important issue. We will be happy to answer any questions that you may have.
History of Drug Trafficking - Colombia, U.S. and Mexico - HISTORY
This wealth—coupled with Havana's renowned hedonism industries of casinos, prostitution, and sex clubs—created a fertile location to test-market cocaine as a leisure drug. Entrepreneurs in Bolivia and Chile began exporting cocaine to Havana for further distribution to the U.S. and beyond. By the mid-1950s, Havana had emerged as the nexus of this intercontinental cocaine trade.
By driving out drug dealers, however, the 1959 Cuban Revolution transformed cocaine distribution. Smuggling corridors disappeared, as this network of traffickers based in Havana sought places of refuge throughout the Americas, from Argentina (to set up operations near Bolivia) to Mexico (to establish distribution facilities) and to Miami (an important entry point to the lucrative U.S. market).
For its part, the illicit drugs trafficking complex in Mexico matured as it became increasingly integrated into local political and social structures.
In 1947, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall forwarded a report by Harry Anslinger, the U.S. representative on the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs, to the U.S. ambassador in Mexico City. The report focused on opium production in Mexico, noting the principal producing area covered nearly 6,000 square miles, numbered 4,500 fields with an annual production of 32 to 40 metric tons of opium. During the year, the Mexican government was only able to eradicate 200 fields, equal to 90 acres of fields, which paled in comparison to the 10,000 to 12,000 acres under production at the time. There were at least 12 clandestine labs that apparently processed half of the raw opium produced in Mexico into either morphine or heroin.
U.S. criminal groups in Mexico encouraged the cultivation of opium and worked to produce less bulky, yet more valuable derivatives. Traffickers utilized twenty to thirty airfields to facilitate the movement of these drugs into the United States. Air trafficking of drugs intensified in the coming years, prompting the Mexican government to postpone all commercial flights in the states of Chihuahua, Durango, Sinaloa, and Sonora. By the 1960s, officials estimated traffickers used some 300 airfields in northern Mexico alone.
The Rise of Colombia and the "War on Drugs:" 1960s to 1984
The structure of the international drug trade again changed in the 1960s and 1970s as demand for marijuana surged in the 1960s and for cocaine in the 1970s and 1980s.
As traffickers became more sophisticated and demand increased, the U.S. Government declared a War on Drugs in June 1971. And while the United States devoted more resources to eradication, interdiction, and the extradition of traffickers, the level of drug violence in Latin America and the U.S. surged dramatically. This violence was one of the most tragic, unintended outcomes of American anti-drug efforts.
By 1975, the epicenter of marijuana production shifted from long-dominant Mexico to Colombia, spurred on by a sharp rise in demand for marijuana in the U.S. After constant prodding by the U.S., the Mexican government initiated Operation Condor in 1975—cracking down on opium and marijuana production and distribution in the northwestern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa. The United States locked down the Mexican border while the Mexican state launched a campaign against its domestic producers.
These policies inadvertently offered Colombian traffickers an opportunity to seize the marijuana market. By the end of 1970s, Colombia owned seventy percent of the marijuana reaching the United States from abroad.
Colombia had a long history at the heart of regional contraband trade and smuggling. This, and a tradition of tremendous political instability, contributed to its ascension to the global apex of the trafficking of illicit drugs. Fabulous inequality of the national wealth coupled with the success of the Cuban Revolution to inspire entrenched guerilla warfare. There were an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 guerilla combatants in Colombia by late 1980s. Left-wing violence produced right-wing responses, with a great expansion in the 1980s, with some 138 organizations, some of which contained retired and active military personnel. Violence became part and parcel of political life.
The marijuana trafficking complex proved critically important for the local economy in Colombia. Between 30,000 and 50,000 small farmers along Colombia's Atlantic coast relied on marijuana cultivation. The system also included as many as 50,000 additional seasonal workers, traffickers, security, financiers, and others.
New moneyed drug elites married into local prominent families, attempted to bribe officials at all levels, and bought up legitimate businesses to launder cash. Unfortunately, as production and profits surged, so did the violence as police and judicial institutions waned.
Cocaine distribution followed the networks established for the marijuana trade. Here, political events in Chile also pushed the drug trade to Colombia. Chile became an important smuggling corridor after cocaine production in Peru was criminalized and Bolivia emerged as a center of coca production in the 1950s. Trade grew until the army, led by Augusto Pinochet, overthrew Salvador Allende in September 1973.
Entrepreneurs from Medellín, Colombia seized on the opportunity presented by the collapse of democracy in Chile and the elimination of Chilean smugglers. And they took drug transportation to new levels. In the mid-1970s, Carlos Lehder and Jorge Luis Ochoa transformed the trafficking of cocaine into huge airlift operations.
After consolidating control of the South American market, the traffickers in Medellín looked to control wholesale distribution in the highly profitable United States. As a result, Miami—the principal port of entry—became a virtual war zone, with a homicide rate of seventy per 100,000 in 1980. (By comparison, the 2010 homicide rate for Miami was fifteen per 100,000 and about six per 100,000 in the U.S. as a whole in 2007.)
By 1981, seventy percent of all marijuana and cocaine coming into the United States passed through South Florida. In 1976, between 14 and 19 metric tons of cocaine were smuggled into the U.S. That number jumped to nearly 45 metric tons annually by 1982. Colombian traffickers generated roughly $1.5 billion in revenue from the marijuana and cocaine trade in 1980 and almost $3 billion in 1985.
Time Magazine's famous November 1981 lament, entitled "Miami: a paradise lost," reported on the problems of trafficking, violence, and money laundering in South Florida, while the television show Miami Vice seared the images of Latin American drug runners, bosses, and heroic law enforcement officers into U.S. popular culture.
The 1981 kidnapping of the sister of Jorge Luis Ochoa, a prominent trafficker based in Medellín, by leftist M-19 guerrillas proved a critical moment in the evolution of Latin American drugs trafficking. The guerillas demanded a $1 million ransom. In response, Ochoa called together the leading traffickers to meet at his family restaurant. There, all agreed that their wealth made them targets of the guerillas and paramilitaries. Each trafficker offered up $7.5 million to form MAS, a Spanish acronym translating to "Death to the Kidnappers."
This agreement started the Medellín cartel and effectively ended the cocaine wars that bloodied the streets of Miami. In addition, each trafficker donated money to build a massive cocaine lab on the Yarí River in southern Colombia.
A division of labor soon emerged. Jorge Luis Ochoa and his two brothers oversaw the distribution networks in Florida and California. Carlos Lehder organized the air transport into the United States, using a Caribbean island as a stopover. The most infamous member of this cartel, Pablo Escobar, served as the muscle. It is believed that he employed 200 gunmen and established two assassin training schools.
Medellín traffickers attempted to expand their social and political sway in an attempt to normalize their business in Colombian society. Traffickers contributed to political campaigns. Several, such as Lehder, bought radio stations and newspapers. Escobar created a welfare program, gave alms to the poor, built low-income housing in the slums, and won election as an alternate congressman on a Liberal Party ballot.
At the same time, the trafficking in drugs supported many legal businesses throughout Latin America. For instance, Argentina experienced a surge in hydrochloric acid exports to Bolivia in the 1980s, an additive in the production of cocaine. (In the earlier part of this century, Argentina witnessed a similar surge in ephedrine exports to Mexico, a critical ingredient in the production of methamphetamines.)
Other events in the early 1980s transformed the landscape of Colombian drug production and distribution. The extradition treaty between Colombia and the United States, which was signed in 1979 and enacted in 1982, provoked a spike in violent crime by the cartel.
In addition, a joint Colombian police-DEA raid on the Yarí River facility in March 1984 netted a seizure of fourteen tons of cocaine (with an estimated street value of $1.2 billion), seven airplanes, and some weapons and production materials. The cartel responded by assassinating the Colombian minister of justice.
Colombia unleashed a crackdown on the Medellín cartel following the assassination, which forced Escobar and the Ochoa brothers to hide in Panama in May 1984. While there, these traffickers attempted to negotiate a settlement with the Colombia government. The men, who controlled three-quarters of the South American cocaine trade, offered to turn over landing strips and labs, promised to invest their capital into national industries, and proposed to pay $15 billion in cash, the equivalent of Colombia's foreign debt. The deal was refused due to pressure from the Reagan administration and Colombian popular resentment to negotiating with the cartel.
As a result of the Colombian government's refusal of their offer, the cartel began to make new connections with Central American traffickers who introduced the cartel to Mexican heroin and marijuana smugglers and Mexican authorities willing to be bribed. These ties opened Colombian cocaine to smuggling routes in the American southwest and set the stage for the rise of violent Mexican trafficking organizations.
Following 1984, the Medellín cartel began to self-destruct, even as its power and attending violence grew. The Ochoa brothers turned themselves into Colombian officials in 1990 for lenient prison sentences and were released in 1996. Pablo Escobar was shot and killed with the help of U.S. material aid in 1993. Carlos Lehder is serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison.
Yet, the connections made by the Medellín cartel with Mexican traffickers while in Panama in 1984 proved to be a turning point, with Mexican groups increasingly ascendant in the movement of drugs into the U.S.
By 1986, traffickers had diverted forty percent of cocaine flowing into the United States from the historical Caribbean routes to transit networks along the U.S.-Mexican border. Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, a former bodyguard of the Sinaloan governor, was the first Mexican trafficker to move Colombian cocaine into the United States across the southwestern border. Today, ninety percent of cocaine smuggled into the United States passes through Mexico.
A Return to Mexico: 1984 to the present
With the demise of the Colombian cartels, which controlled distribution into North America, Mexican drug trafficking organizations now dominate the wholesale drug trade in the United States. The business is extremely lucrative with wholesale illicit drug trade earnings now estimated between $13.6 and $48.4 billion annually. Mexican and Colombian trafficking organizations annually smuggle an estimated $8.3 to $24.9 billion in drug proceeds into Mexico for laundering.
There are four major Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs)—the Gulf, Sinaloa, Juárez, and Tijuana—who have sometimes formed alliances. The Tijuana and Gulf organizations joined forces after their respective leaders struck an agreement in prison. The so-called Federation emerged after agreements by leaders from the Sinaloa, Juarez and Valencia cartels.
Evidence suggests Mexican DTOs are working in conjunction with American gangs to distribute products such as methamphetamines. Mexican operations are mainly interested in the wholesale trade and leave the retail to American gangs.
The emergence of enforcer gangs is a direct consequence of internal fighting among the Mexican DTOs. The most notorious of these gangs are the Zetas, originally employed by the Gulf Cartel as assassins on their behalf (as well as its rivals).
The Zetas were almost certainly formed by a group of 30 officers who deserted from the Mexican military's Special Air Mobile Force Group (GAFES) to the Gulf cartel in the late 1990s. This background allows the Zetas, who number between 31 and 200 men, to carry out more complex operations and use more sophisticated weaponry.
Officials believe this organization controls trafficking routes along the eastern half of the U.S.-Mexico border and have set up airfields in northern Guatemala to assist in logistical support and transportation of cocaine from Colombia.
Mexican and U.S. drug officials now say that the Mexican cartels have closed ranks, including the apparently short-lived "New Federation" that included the Gulf, Federation and La Familia organizations. This new conglomerate has begun to fight the Zetas, who are now viewed as having become too powerful and determined to take over the trade themselves. The violence long associated with Colombian drugs trade now characterizes the Mexican trafficking complex.
Latin America and the Future of Narco-trafficking
The many legal prohibitions and international efforts to eradicate illicit drugs, especially since the "war on drugs" began, have done little to end narco-trafficking. Instead, they have tended only to influence the location of production and methods of distribution. Demand for these drugs and their attendant profitability continue to drive the cycles of manufacture and circulation of these products.
Traffickers are constantly adapting to the state of the market. Of the five principal illicit drugs trafficked into the United States, only cocaine is on the decline. The trafficking and availability of heroin, methamphetamines, marijuana, and ecstasy are all increasing, and Latin American DTOs are involved in four of the five commodities. (Ecstasy is the domain of Asian DTOs that use Canada as a gateway into the United States.)
Colombian DTOs are increasingly identifying new markets for cocaine. Europe is an attractive destination because profitability is similar to the U.S. market, yet the penalties for trafficking at the wholesale and retail levels are significantly less onerous than in the U.S. legal system. Law enforcement officials have noticed an increase of cocaine trafficked in Spain and United Kingdom as Colombians are using unstable West African states as transit nodes. In addition, Colombians are penetrating Asian markets with greater intensity, using Hong Kong as a gateway into China and Thailand. Mexican DTOs are now the premier traffickers of methamphetamines into the United States.
The future of narco-trafficking in Mexico remains unclear. The Mexican state initiated a frontal assault in 2006, under the aegis of President Felipe Calderon. Since then, more than 23,000 Mexicans have lost their lives. In 2009, there were 2,100 drug-related murders in Ciudad Juarez—a poignant contrast to El Paso, just on the other side of the Rio Grande, which had only ten homicides that year.
In response to the violence, grieving families have criticized this frontal assault policy, much of which is underwritten by U.S. taxpayer dollars. Some have formed civil-society groups that demand a rethinking of policy and argue that trafficking must be controlled, but not at the expense of the larger Mexican social fabric.
An open question concerns the 2012 Mexican Presidential election. Certainly, the issue of trafficking will frame the campaign debates as many observers are predicting an almost certain victory for the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), regardless of its candidate.
Addressing the desire to consume these narcotics and stimulants, however, is the issue that must be the basis for designing programs and policies that can diminish the abuse, addiction, and violence associated with the drugs trade.
As noted in the Global Commission's report, the number of global consumers of opiates, cocaine, and marijuana increased from 1998 to 2008—and this in spite of the billions of dollars spent, the tens of thousands of lives lost, and the hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated for production, distribution, and consumption.
The report also urges countries to rethink how to treat various social groups along the drug commodity chain, such as creating programs for farmers to grow alternative and equally remunerative agricultural products and secure access to markets.
Without the simple admission by the U.S. and other destination markets that demand drives production and distribution, control of this trade is likely to remain a futile endeavor.
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The Context of Violence and Illicit Drug Trade in Mexico
In the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, drugs such as marijuana, opiates, and cocaine were commonly used in Mexico, predominantly for medical reasons . Opium derivatives such as morphine and heroin, and pharmaceuticals such as cocaine, coca wines, and marijuana cigarettes, were prescribed by doctors and easily obtained in pharmacies, popular markets, and even hardware stores. The cultivation of opium in Mexico began during the latter part of the 19th century, primarily in northwestern states like Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua, and Durango . With increased consumption within the Mexican population, authorities put in place regulations to ensure improved production quality in an attempt to protect the consumers. However, the Mexican government at that time did not deem it necessary to prohibit the production and use of these drugs. The implementation of drug prohibition in the USA in the 1920s created ideal conditions for drug trafficking, with legal commerce on one side of the USA-Mexico border and prohibition on the other . In 1917, the Mexican congress passed an amendment that prohibited the trade of opium, morphine, ether, cocaine, and marijuana under pressure from the US government. The key reasoning for outlawing the commerce of these substances was that they were deemed “noxious to health.” Despite these obstacles, the illicit drug trade continued to grow, with much of the smuggling activity taking place via Mexicali and Tijuana in the Baja California territory. In the 1930s, as a response to the passing of the USA marijuana tax act, marijuana production increased substantially in Mexico . In 1947, the Mexican government created the Federal Security Agency, a police force with power to intervene in drug-related issues. The initial investigations of the agency revealed that several politicians within the border regions were directly involved in, and in some cases even in control of, the illegal trafficking businesses. In most border cities, the individuals involved in the drug trade were merchants, including people from all social classes. Later, these individuals and their future generations succeeded in establishing a drug-trafficking dynasty that allowed their illicit businesses to grow and spread nationwide . It was estimated that by the 1960s there were approximately 300 clandestine airfields in Northern Mexico, making the country extremely appealing to the Colombian cartels that were looking for a suitable center for distribution to the USA. By the late 1970s the drug-trafficking business in Mexico and its related violence had grown dramatically in collaboration with the Colombian cartels. Regular confrontations began between rival trafficking groups and also against the police within urban areas of several cities. The trade of marijuana from Mexico to the USA was further enhanced by the demands of some soldiers addicted to drugs returning from war areas in the Far East .
Faced with the increasing influx of illicit drugs into the USA from Mexico, President Nixon's government launched a plan for rigorous inspection of vehicles crossing the border . Around the same time, the Mexican government initiated a series of military operations against the drug traffickers and their plantations, destroying tons of drugs. However, despite these actions, drugs continued to flow into the US market as Colombian marijuana replaced Mexican marijuana and the business relationship between the rtels” of both countries began to flourish. This alliance resulted in an era of unparalleled success for drug trafficking, fueled by the increasing demand for Andean cocaine during the 1980s and the 1990s [3, 4, 5].
The US “war on drugs” policy attempted to tackle the trafficking problems within Mexico. Mexican cartels including the “Sinaloa” and the “Tijuana” cartels were prosecuted. Despite these apparent successes, drug-related violence increased, largely as a result of the new strategies used by traffickers following the dissolution of the Colombian cartels . Mexico now serves as the new stage for the war on drugs. US authorities have estimated that close to 90% of the cocaine entering the country crossed the USA-Mexico land border . Mexico is currently experiencing a situation comparable to that of Colombia two decades ago, with increased violence, kidnappings, and murders, and a rampant increase in crime, with two critical disadvantages . Firstly, the government is attempting to tackle a social problem, whose participants infect different levels of the country's social spectrum with corruption, bloody intimidating behavior, and a total disregard for authority. Second, the territory of Mexico is extensive and is more difficult to control, with expansion into less organized countries on the extremely vulnerable south region due to a poor socioeconomic status leading to public insecurity worsened by limited law enforcement institutions .
Drug Trafficking: Central America’s Dark Shadow
For years, Central America has served as a one-way transit route for drugs traveling north toward the United States. Now, with increasingly frequent crackdowns on drug trafficking in Mexico and continued U.S. demand, Central America has become a pivotal route an astonishing 84 percent of illegal cocaine that reaches the U.S. passes through Central America. [i] Colombia and Mexico are the predominant producers of narcotics, and the resulting drug trafficking throughout Central America cannot be ignored. As F rancisco Campbell, the Nicaraguan Ambassador to the U.S., remarked to a COHA audience, “Unlike the imaginary threats of the past, this one is real. This is the first time we can talk about an honest hemispheric threat.” [ii] Central America needs to implement integrated and viable security strategies to ensure hemispheric security, while the U.S. must refocus its efforts and assume greater responsibility as the largest consumer of Latin American drugs.
Since 1997, the Coast Guard has seized an extraordinary 806,469 pounds of cocaine and 333,285 pounds of marijuana in transit from South America through the Caribbean, the primary drug route prior to the 1990s. [iii] As the Coast Guard’s increased surveillance and policing of the corridors significantly limited the flow of drugs through the Caribbean, the drug trade simply shifted from the Caribbean to Mexico, with Central America serving as a critical transit route.
Militarized enforcement strategies in Colombia and Mexico also contribute to the shift of drug traffic to Central America. In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama wrote, “As Mexico and Colombia continue to apply pressure on drug traffickers, the countries of Central America are increasingly targeted for trafficking of cocaine and other drugs primarily destined for the United States.” [iv] Central America is no longer merely a transcontinental passageway for an illegal economy totaling USD 34 billion. [v] This shift in drug trafficking routes has brought about profound national security threats and unprecedented levels of violence and organized crime throughout the region.
The “northern triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has become greatly destabilized, and appears to be undergoing a rapid transformation into the new frontier for dangerous Mexican cartels. Guatemala now transports 60 percent of drugs in transit from South American-drug producing countries to the U.S., and reports reveal murder rates twice as high as those found in Mexico. [vi] Guatemala’s largely ungoverned border with Mexico makes the country a prime location for the thriving drug trade and the encroachment and proliferation of Mexican cartels, namely Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel. The Guatemalan security forces lack adequate weapons to confront traffickers, and the judicial system is essentially unable to enforce the law, as only one of every 20 murders is ever solved and prosecuted. [vii]
In addition to the influx of violent crime, the “northern triangle” has also emerged as a potential producer of narcotics. It was previously believed that Honduras served merely as a transfer point for narcotic shipments between South America and the U.S. However, in March 2011, police encountered the nation’s first cocaine processing lab on a coffee farm north of the capital, Tegucigalpa, which reportedly had been run by Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel for the past two to three years and was capable of producing approximately one ton of cocaine per month. [viii]
Drug-related corruption has thoroughly infiltrated Central American governments and business elites. Cartels have penetrated key state institutions throughout Central America, including the police, army, executive branches, and judicial systems. Drug-related violence and costly law enforcement also impact Central American economies by reducing the availability of already limited resources. According to the World Bank, “dealing with crime and violence costs Central America around 8% of its GDP.” [ix] Consequently, combating drug trafficking has become an inherently daunting challenge.
The changes in drug trafficking patterns, combined with the accompanying spike in violent crime has led to the Obama administration to officially include Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica on the “Majors List”, a compilation of “major drug transit or major illicit drug-producing countries” already occupied by other Central American, South American, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern countries. [x] The increase in violence, corruption, and production illustrate the alarming spread of cartel activity in Central America. Crackdowns in Mexico and South America continue to put pressure on cartels, forcing them into Central America’s most vulnerable states.
Central American Recognition and Cooperation
The drug trafficking crisis, once an isolated concern, now affects the entire Central American region. While partial solutions can come from individual nations, a more integrated approach must be implemented regionally with cooperation from South America and the U.S. Historically, widespread cooperation and integration have been lacking in Central America. Developing a coordinated strategy is, therefore, no easy task corruption, mistrust, and a plethora of domestic objectives make synchronizing goals and resources difficult.
Despite these snares, the Central American Integration System (SICA) was partially designed “ to set up a new model of regional security based on the reasonable balance of forces, the strengthening of civilian authority, the overcoming of extreme poverty, the promotion of sustainable development, the protection of the environment, and the eradication of violence, corruption, terrorism, and drug and arms trafficking.” [xi] At a SICA summit this June, leaders from seven member nations committed to develop and implement a joint security strategy. With these unmistakable efforts for cooperation and integration against drug traffickers, SICA has become an expression of Central America’s united political will to resolve this crucial security issue.
Clearly, Central American nations are acknowledging the harrowing reality of the situation. One proposed model to combat drugs being used in Nicaragua actively encourages the development of isolated and vulnerable communities, which may easily fall prey to powerful and wealthy drug cartels. [xii] Given that crime is “ both the cause and consequence of poverty, insecurity and underdevelopment,” according to Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime , this approach has the potential to be the most effective method to deal with drug control and crime prevention . [xiii]
Not only would these measures reduce susceptibility to infiltration by providing communities with a direct connection and sense of support from the state, they are far more affordable and effective than large, expensive militarized programs. Federico Arce, attaché to Ambassador Campbell maintains that “Community programs are not expensive – helicopters are expensive.” [xiv] Options exist, even with budget constraints. Other goals that have been proposed and, in some cases, adopted include the creation of consistent legislation concerning drug trafficking, border agreements and border security policies to prevent drug criminals from escaping to other Central American states, and a more thorough process of purifying law enforcement sectors. These alternative development models must take priority. However, such initiatives have traditionally been second to other measures, such as interdiction, and face a steep upward battle without significant international support.
The U.S. Factor
The U.S. tends to attribute Central America’s drug problems to the region’s weaknesses: small size, limited resources, corruption, poverty, lack of integration, weak governments, ineffective law enforcement, and unstable economies. Many local inhabitants agree that these areas need improvement however, they also argue that the roots of the problem extend much deeper.
According to the 2011 UN World Drug Report, the largest hemispheric and global cocaine market “continues to be that of the United States, with an estimated consumption of 157 mt [metric tons] of cocaine, equivalent to 36% of global consumption.” [xv] It is this demand that sustains the Latin American drug industry and forces Central America to assume the position of middleman.
It is far too convenient for the U.S. to simply sweep aside its own role in the crisis and focus on Central America’s weaknesses. The U.S. must stop ignoring its consistently destructive role in the war on drugs and translate the idea of co-responsibility into action. A congressional aide with experience on Latin America suggests, “The U.S. Government should do more to understand how the cartels operate in the United States and U.S. officials should use the resulting intelligence and analysis to more aggressively confront the cartels in the United States.” [xvi] As long as a demand exists, drugs will be produced and transported, thereby exacerbating drug violence problems in Central America. [xvii]
Washington’s solution has been to pour billions into counter-narcotic efforts, such as the costly and criticized Mérida Initiative, which provides “equipment and training in support of law enforcement operations and technical assistance to promote the long-term reform, oversight and professionalization of [Latin America’s] security agencies.” [xviii] As of 2010, Congress had appropriated USD 1.3 billion for Mérida programs in Mexico, while only USD 248 million was allocated to Central America. [xix] The U.S. must re-appropriate these funds in order to sufficiently support Central America’s battle against its greatest threat.
Ultimately, however, the U.S. must enact policies that will reduce the high domestic demand for cocaine. Otherwise, any counter-narcotic efforts throughout the rest of the hemisphere will be meaningless. Reforming and introducing new drug policy represents a long-term commitment, and is something of a recurring nightmare for Washington policymakers. But as Arce suggests, “Even if policy takes a long time, there is maneuverability” and the possibility of pursuing other options. [xx]
As history has revealed, the drug war is capable of changing fronts. Efforts must keep up with the emergence of new trafficking routes, instead of focusing on previous threats. Without proper policy adjustments, corruption, violence, and organized crime will continue to flourish in Central America.
Previous strategies in the war on drugs, such as expensive militarization programs, or controversial reforms, including legalization, are slow and relatively ineffective responses to a problem that is growing exponentially. Instead, the U.S. needs to support local and regional programs in Central America designed to fight the drug trade through improved education, rural development, and employment opportunities. The U.S. also needs to address domestic factors that influence the drug trade.
These dual objectives should be the focus of continued bilateral aid and regional cooperation. Only then will technical assistance to rectify the integrity of law enforcement and justice sectors — which will in turn better fight organized crime, violence, corruption, and protect human rights — have any chance of success. [xxi] Hemispheric communication, coordination of efforts, a new sense of urgency, and a long-term financial, social, and political commitment to the crisis must be the first steps for nations afflicted by the drug war.
References for this article can be found here.
Recent Central American History
Today, people in the United States consume at least $100 billion in illicit drugs per year, making it easily the largest drug market in the world. The staples of the illicit drug economy have historically been marijuana, cocaine, heroin, with methamphetamine, fentanyl, and other prescription pills joining more recently. Drug culture and the drug trade in the United States has existed at least since the mid-nineteenth century, but the episode most relevant to today’s circumstances involves the drug revolution of the 1960’s in which some US citizens increasingly consumed massive amounts of illicit substances, and their government responded by fighting a war against it. As the War on Drugs has played out, it has become increasingly apparent that governments across the hemisphere are losing this war (or unwilling to win it), as the demand has never been higher for illicit substances. Tracking how the drug trade has evolved and why it has been so difficult to stop are necessary considerations to understanding the current conflicts that exist in the US, Mexico, and Central America today.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the foreign actors who most capitalized on the potential of United States’ drug markets were the notorious Colombian cartels. Mexican smugglers, especially those from Sinaloa, had been smuggling contraband into the United States for decades. But when the United States targeted Sinaloa with crop eradication programs, production and distribution shifted to Colombia. The emergence of the Colombian cartels with their cocaine and marijuana signaled a significant development in the global drug trade, and the illicit cocaine trade to the United States exploded as organizations like the Medellin cartel started investing in mass coca production in the Andes during the 1970s and 1980s. As the Colombian cartels consolidated their trafficking operations, people in the United States were developing an insatiable demand for cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. Most people know the basics of Pablo Escobar and the rise of the Medellin cartel as they pumped drugs into the United States through Miami and made untold amounts of money, and many people know about his downfall and the dismantling of the Medellin cartel. The United States and the Colombian government worked in tandem to take down Escobar and his cartel as a part of the War on Drugs, but even as they took down the major cocaine kingpins in Colombia, the trade never ceased. In fact, despite spending billions of dollars trying to fight these cartels in an intensely violent chapter of Colombia, the cocaine trade from the Andes only increased over time. Instead of disappearing, the cocaine trade, as well as the marijuana and the heroin trade, evolved and adapted by moving drugs through the US-Mexico border as opposed to the coast of Florida. People who traded it became savvier and less traceable in their activities, and, ultimately, the bulk of the drug trade was inherited by Mexican organizations after the fall of the Colombian cartels. This shift in power and profits from Colombians to Mexicans in the late 1980s- early 1990s is critical to understanding the modern drug trade.
Mexican families in Sinaloa have had a long history of trafficking marijuana and opium into the United States, but the formation of the modern cartel structure we see today did not begin until the Colombian kingpins had fallen, making drug profits up-for-grabs. As a result of US interference in the Colombian trade to the coast of Miami, Mexicans had picked up considerable influence in trafficking drugs across the expansive land border. As consumers in the United States continued buying drugs, drug trafficking corridors between the US and Mexico became priceless. Eventually, various cartels would fight for territory in a series of wars that has rocked Mexico since 2006, conflicts responsible for at least 160,000 deaths and tens of thousands of more disappearances.
A critical turn in the conflict was with the 2006 election of Felipe Calderón to the Mexican presidency. He declared that the government would fight the drug cartels, but this decision sparked an escalation in violence that has developed into the wars we’ve seen over the last decade-and-a-half. Despite all the efforts against it, violence continues to erupt around the drug trade, and the entire hemisphere is facing a series of crises related to drugs. Heroin, and now fentanyl, have never been more widely used in the United States. The cocaine trade remains one of the most profitable in the world. Mexican cartels still control the vast majority of the trade, but these cartels have fractured and splintered into more elusive, localized entities in response to conflict amongst each other and the governments of the US and Mexico. There is also some evidence that some of the profits from the trade might be flowing more towards central American gangs, but the relationship and differences between Mexican Cartels and Central American gangs is incredibly complex and ever-evolving.
Traditionally, Central America has played the transportista role in the cocaine trade from the Andes to the United States. When smuggling routes shifted from coastal routes to the US/Mexico land border, drug traffickers needed places and people in Central America to stash and move their drugs North. While the vast majority of profits went to the cartels responsible for transporting the drugs across the US border, the profits from these transportista networks were incentives enough for everyone from poor farmers to wealthy elite families to become involved with trafficking cocaine through Central America. Central American gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have a limited role in trafficking drugs. These organizations can serve as muscle for drug trafficking operations and can accumulate localized power, but the majority of the drug trade through Central America is run through well-connected, elite families who have operatives throughout the insidiously corrupt governments and are often tied to the former military regimes of these countries. For example, the Honduran president’s brother was arrested in Miami on drug trafficking charges.
As has been historically demonstrated, by the time there enough information to make conclusions about drug-trafficking organizations, their alliances, and their conflicts, the situations will have changed. Cartels and gangs who traffic drugs have embedded themselves in national political and economic structures across the region. Corruption and drug money in the Mexican federal government, police, and military is astoundingly profound. Central American governments are notoriously corrupted by the drug trade. US Customs and Border Patrol has also experienced serious problems with corruption. While there is emerging hope for a profound shift in US drug policy, efforts to pursue alternative approaches to the prohibitionist model remain quagmired. As it stands now, the drug trade and the violence that accompanies everyone and everywhere it encounters remains one of the most serious national security threats to nations across the Western Hemisphere, but it is clear that this problem can not be completely or even partially solved by the construction of a wall when the fact that around 80% of the drugs imported into the United States happens through legal US border checkpoints.
Sources: Gootenberg, Paul. Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Benjamin, T. Smith. “The Rise and Fall of Narcopopulism: Drugs, Politics, and Society in Sinaloa, 1930-1980.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 7, no. 2 (2013): 125-65. (JSTOR)
Linton, Magnus. “Pablo’s Party: The State Gets Cancer.” Translated by John Eason. In Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make It, 107-59. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2014.
- For brief estimates of how much the US spends on drugs, see https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_briefs/RB9700/RB9770/RAND_RB9770.pdf
- For useful graphs that display trends in global drug use, see https://www.unodc.org/wdr2017/field/WDR_2017_presentation_lauch_version.pdf
- For more information about the history and development of the Sinaloa cartel, see https://www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/sinaloa-cartel-profile/
- To read more about Colombia’s cocaine production in the present day, see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/world/americas/cocaine-colombia.html
- For a brief timeline with facts about the drug wars in Mexico, see https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/02/world/americas/mexico-drug-war-fast-facts/index.html.
- For a detailed report on Mexican trafficking organizations and the present situation in Mexico’s Drug War, see June Beittels’s Congressional report https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41576.pdf
- For more information on Mexico’s Drug war with helpful maps, graphs, and explanations, see the Council on Foreign Relation’s report https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/mexicos-drug-war
This entry was posted on April 11, 2019 at 5:11 pm and is filed under US-Latin America Relations with tags Colombia, Colombian Cartels, Drug Trade, Mexican Cartels, Mexico, US-Mexico Border, Violence in Latin America, War on Drugs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.
Timeline: America's War on Drugs
Carlos Enrique Lehder Rivas, a former Colombian politician, was accused of heading the Medellin drug cartel. In the 1980s, the drug ring was responsible for smuggling 74 percent of the cocaine used in the United States. This mug shot of Lehder was taken after his 1987 arrest for drug smuggling. Bettmann/CORBIS hide caption
U.S. soldiers advance toward their position at a military command post loyal to Gen. Manuel Noriega on Dec. 23, 1989, in Santiago, Panama. Noriega was accused of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. Manoocher Deghati/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega on Jan 4, 1990, in Miami. He surrendered to the DEA in Panama the day before. He's currently in a federal prison in Miami. DSK/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
Posters display the portrait of the late Colombian drug cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, who was killed by police in Medellin in 1993. The posters read "Pablo for President-Sovereignty-Independence." These were posted in Bogota more than a decade after Escobar's death, during the 2006 presidential race. STR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
A Colombian soldier advances in a field of coca, while a plane sprays deadly defoliant in September 2000. U.S. and Colombian officials have declared their seven-year-long spraying policy a success. But Colombian coca production has not decreased — just dispersed to smaller, harder-to-find locales. Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
A poppy field in bloom in northeastern Afghanistan. In 2005 the country produced 90 percent of the world's opium, which is refined into heroin for sale in many parts of the world. U.N. experts warned that the country was turning into a "narco-state" less than four years after the fall of the Taliban. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images hide caption
An Afghan Counter Narcotics Police officer guards plastic bags of opium. More than 1,650 pounds of opium were siezed from inside a fuel tanker in May 2005 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images hide caption
Four decades ago, the U.S. government declared a "war on drugs." From the rise and fall of kingpins to current efforts to interdict and stamp out drugs, follow events so far:
July 14, 1969: In a special message to Congress, President Richard Nixon identifies drug abuse as "a serious national threat." Citing a dramatic jump in drug-related juvenile arrests and street crime between 1960 and 1967, Nixon calls for a national anti-drug policy at the state and federal level.
June 1971: Nixon officially declares a "war on drugs," identifying drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1."
July 1973: Nixon creates the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to coordinate the efforts of all other agencies.
November 1975: Colombian police seize 600 kilograms of cocaine — the largest seizure to date — from a small plane. Drug traffickers respond with a vendetta, killing 40 people in one weekend in what's known as the "Medellin Massacre." The event signals the new power of Colombia's cocaine industry, headquartered in Medellin.
1976: Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter campaigns for president on a platform that includes decriminalizing marijuana and ending federal criminal penalties for possession of up to 1 ounce of the drug.
1979: Carlos Lehder, co-founder of the Medellin cartel, purchases a 165-acre island in the Bahamas. Small planes transporting drugs from Colombia to the United States use the island to refuel. Operations continue on the island until 1983.
1981: The Medellin cartel rises to power. The alliance includes the Ochoa family, Pablo Escobar, Carolos Lehder and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. The drug kingpins work together to manufacture, transport and market cocaine. The United States and Colombia ratify a bilateral extradition treaty.
1982: Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Noriega allows Pablo Escobar to ship cocaine through Panama. In the United States, Vice-President George H.W. Bush combines agents from multiple agencies and military branches to form the South Florida Drug Task Force, Miami being the main entry point at the time.
In March, Pablo Escobar is elected to the Colombian congress he gained support by building low-income housing, doling out money in Medellin slums and campaigning with Catholic priests. He's driven out of Congress the following year by Colombia's minister of justice.
1984: Nancy Reagan launches her "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign. In July, The Washington Times publishes a story about DEA informant Barry Seal's infiltration of the Medellin cartel's operations in Panama. The story shows that Nicaraguan Sandanistas are involved in the drug trade. As a result of Seal's evidence, a Miami federal grand jury indicts Carlos Lehder, Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. (In February 1986, Seal is assassinated in Baton Rouge, La., by gunmen hired by the cartel.)
1985: Colombia extradites drug traffickers to the United States for the first time. U.S. officials discover that the Medellin cartel has a "hit list" that includes embassy members, their families, U.S. businessmen and journalists.
Mid-1980s: Because of the South Florida Drug Task Force's work, cocaine trafficking slowly changes transport routes. The Mexican border becomes the major point of entry for cocaine headed into the United States. Crack, a cheap, addictive and potent form of cocaine, is first developed in the early '80s it becomes popular in the New York region, devastating inner-city neighborhoods.
October 1986: Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which appropriates $1.7 billion to fight the drug war. The bill also creates mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses, which are increasingly criticized for promoting significant racial disparities in the prison population because of the differences in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. Possession of crack, which is cheaper, results in a harsher sentence the majority of crack users are lower income.
February 1987: In February, Carlos Lehder is captured by the Colombian National Police and extradited to the United States, where he's convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus an additional 135 years.
May 1987: After receiving personal threats from drug traffickers, the justices on the Colombian Supreme Court rule by a vote of 13-12 to annul the extradition treaty with the United States.
1988: Carlos Salinas de Gortari is elected president of Mexico, and President-elect George H.W. Bush tells him he must demonstrate to the U.S. Congress that he is cooperating in the drug war. This process is called certification.
1989: President George H.W. Bush creates the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and appoints William Bennett as his first "drug czar." Bennett aims to make drug abuse socially unacceptable. That same year, Forbes magazine lists Pablo Escobar — known for his "bribes or bullets" approach to doing business — as the seventh-richest man in the world.
December 1989: the United States invades Panama. Gen. Manuel Noriega surrenders to the DEA on Jan. 3, 1990, in Panama and is sent to Miami the next day. In 1992, Noriega is convicted on eight counts of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
1991: The Colombian assembly votes to ban extradition in its new constitution. Pablo Escobar surrenders to the Colombian police the same day. He is confined in a private luxury prison, though reports suggest that he travels in and out as he pleases. When Colombian authorities try to move Escobar to another prison in July 1992, he escapes.
1992: Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari issues regulations for DEA officers in his country. The new rules limit the number of agents in Mexico, deny them diplomatic immunity, prohibit them from carrying weapons, and designate certain cities in which they can live.
November 1993: President Clinton signs the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which increases the amount of trade and traffic across the U.S.-Mexican border. This makes it more difficult for U.S. Customs to find narcotics moving across the border.
December 1993: Pablo Escobar, in hiding since mid-1992, is found by Colombian police using American technology that can recognize his voice on a cell phone call and estimate his location. He tries to flee but is killed.
May 1995: The U.S. Sentencing Commission releases a report that acknowledges the racial disparities for prison sentencing for cocaine versus crack. The commission suggests reducing the discrepancy, but Congress overrides its recommendation for the first time in history.
August 2000: President Bill Clinton gives $1.3 billion in aid to Plan Colombia, an effort to decrease the amount of cocaine produced in that nation. The aid supports the aerial spraying of coca crops with toxic herbicides, and also pays for combat helicopters and training for the Colombian military.
2003: In February, three Americans — contracted by the Pentagon to help with Colombia's anti-drug effort — are taken hostage by guerrilla fighters after their surveillance plane crashes. In April, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act is enacted, which targets ecstasy, predatory drugs and methamphetamine.
2004: Along with the State Department and the Department of Defense, the DEA announces its involvement in the U.S. Embassy Kabul Counternarcotics Implementation Plan. It's designed to reduce heroin production in Afghanistan, the world's leading opium producer.
January 2006: Authorities announce the discovery of the longest cross-border tunnel in U.S. history, the work of what they call a well-organized and well-financed drug-smuggling group. The half-mile long tunnel links a warehouse in Tijuana, where about two tons of marijuana were seized, to a warehouse in the United States, where 200 pounds of the drug were found.
Sources: Based on reporting from PBS' Frontline series and NPR staff.
Drug trafficking and Colombian ‘peace’
Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal and has been translated with permission. Click here to read the original article.
It’s been almost two-and-a-half years since FARC guerrillas signed a peace accord with the Colombian government. But the agreement has failed to eliminate many of the underlying causes of the conflict that continue to affect the Andean nation. Perhaps chief among them is drug trafficking.
Since the beginning of the peace talks between former President Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrilla Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), coca cultivation in Colombia has grown relentlessly. In 2012, 47,490 hectares were used for coca cultivation, according to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In five years, that acreage multiplied by more than 3.5 times over in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, 171,000 hectares were used for coca cultivation. The FARC has disappeared, but the demand for cocaine has not diminished and other armed actors have quickly taken their place.
Money for the war
Drug trafficking has been the fuel for violence in Colombia for decades, especially given its ability to provide economic resources for internal conflict. In its initial phases, the intensity of the conflict was relatively low, but it exploded between 1990 and 2010, as did the drug trade. The trade permeated all layers of the conflict, from the guerrillas to violent right-wing paramilitaries.
For Kyle Johnson, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, it’s important to remember that “the FARC was just one actor in a complex chain” of drug trafficking, who “played a key role” in the phenomenon, especially in “the territorial control and the routes” of the business, but that had little relevance at the level of international distribution. Johnson believes that “the role of the FARC in drug trafficking was a bit exaggerated” by some governments and analysts, which generated “a slightly exaggerated expectation” of the impact that the disarmament would have on the illegal economy.
The FARC initially distanced themselves from drug trafficking, but in the 1980s they adopted a tax called “grammage” that taxed activities related to illicit trade in the territories under FARC control, such as crops, processing laboratories and the exportation of drugs. Drug trafficking cartels did not welcome this initial foray into the drug trade, and they soon joined forces with the paramilitaries to fight the guerrillas.
The narco-paramilitary alliance was one of the causes of the resurgence of violence in the armed conflict, as well as the growing participation of the FARC in the drug trade. Beginning in the 1990s, “the FARC began to take a look at anything” that would generate income for combat, explains Johnson. Some fronts began to be directly involved in the commercialization of cocaine and to occupy a “higher position in the drug trafficking chain.” With extensive control over the various Colombian borders, the guerrillas could take the product to Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama. The disparities between the various fronts widened, leading to certain blocks of the FARC becoming more deeply involved with the drug trade. According to figures published by Professor Jerónimo Ríos in Brief History of Armed Conflict in Colombia, drug trafficking came to supply between 40 and 50 percent of the FARC’s income in its final years.
The new drug trafficking landscape
The transition of the FARC to normalized political life did not signal the end of drug trafficking in Colombia—far from it. Juan Carlos Garzón, a researcher at the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP), says that since the beginning of the negotiations between the guerrilla group and the Santos government, “a realignment of illegal actors began” in the territories previously occupied by the insurgent group, a dynamic that was consolidated with the FARC’s abandonment of weapons. In many of these territories, the “deficient capacity of the state to reach these areas” meant that the illicit economics didn’t disappear when the FARC disbanded. While Johnson admits that the Colombian government could not have prevented the new actors from establishing themselves in these zones, he says that “the plans to occupy them should have been implemented earlier. [The Armed Forces] have the belief that disbanding an armed group meant controlling their previous territory, but this relationship is not as direct as they thought.”
The redistribution of illegal drug trafficking groups did not occur uniformly throughout the country. In some cases, “the FARC’s capabilities were transferred” to other organizations through “explicit or implicit agreements”, Garzón explains. In others, conflict led to the conquering of abandoned FARC territory this was particularly prevalent in border areas, including the Catatumbo, adjacent to Venezuela, where the guerrillas of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and the armed members of the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) continue to fight for control of the territory. Similar conflict is ongoing in the Urabá region, on the Panamanian border, where the ELN and the Gulf Clan, the biggest gang to emerge from the paramilitary groups, continue fighting for territory. Garzón explains that the Colombian case is especially complex because, despite the disarmament of the FARC, there are still “many armed structures that remain in the territory.”
Among the most prominent of these armed groups are the heirs of the paramilitary groups, who have reinforced their presence since the FARC’s disbanding. Known as “Bacrim” (criminal gangs), they emerged after the 2006 demobilization of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the most powerful paramilitary group in the country. Despite the disappearance of the AUC, many members joined the ranks of smaller groups dedicated to criminal activity such as the Gulf Clan. The EPL, an old guerrilla group, is also an important actor. The FIP estimates that these groups have a presence in 1,323 municipalities in the country, and that in total there are approximately 2,100 members. They are no longer organizations with national scope, but instead focus on gaining control over specific areas.
The new drug lords rely on these disparate groups to carry out their illegal activities. The InSight Crime Colombian Organized Crime Observatory refers to them as “the invisible”, because they seek less public notoriety and exercise leadership from the shadows. Their structures are very small and depend on the outsourcing of most of their activity to the groups that operate in the territory.
Another actor that has emerged from the FARC’s abandonment of armed conflict is the ELN, the last operating guerrilla group in Colombia. In some areas there have been “transfers” between the two groups, in terms of both territory and fighters who have joined the ELN since FARC disbanded. Despite the fact that it’s difficult to concretely map, InSight Crime research shows that the ELN’s greatest expansion has occurred in the border areas previously occupied by FARC guerrillas. The clearest examples are the Vichada region, a department on the border with Venezuela lacking in state services, and the area surrounding Tumaco, one of Colombia’s main Pacific ports, which in recent years has been shaken by armed conflict between the ELN and other illegal groups, such as the “Bacrim.”
But perhaps one of the most direct consequences of the disarmament of the FARC has been the creation of bands of former guerrillas who abandoned the peace process and made their military and territorial knowledge available to the drug traffickers. Since the beginning of the process, there have been fronts that were reluctant to agree with the government. In 2016, the First Front of the FARC announced its withdrawal from peace talks and refused to demobilize along with its comrades. They were the first dissidents, but they were later joined by members of the Eastern Bloc, which operated in eastern Colombia. For now, there are at least 600 combatants organized into several groups. Johnson stresses that “the fronts more involved in drug trafficking”, which are therefore wealthier, “in general have generated greater levels of dissidence.”
The paths of dissident groups vary. Some are “much more similar to what the FARC were, in terms of their relationship with the population and control of their territory,” explains Garzón. These groups are especially prevalent in the “historical zones” of guerrilla rule, such as the central region of Meta. There, dissident groups have formed more recently than in other cases, a phenomenon Garzón attributes to “the delays and problems that have occurred in the reincorporation process and the security guarantees” for ex-guerrillas who gave up their weapons. “The peace process took a look time to take off”, as did economic resources offered by the government according to Garzón, these factors added to the “legal uncertainty for ex-combatants” that has pushed some former FARC guerrillas to abandon the reincorporation and join the swelling dissident ranks. 107 ex-guerrillas have been killed since the signing of the peace agreement, according to the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office.
On the other hand, there are groups born of former FARC members that “do not follow the political line” of the insurgent organization, says Garzón. These groups are “more fragmented” and arise from detachments of the peace process that are more individual and motivated to co-opt the criminal networks that already existed in the territory when the FARC was still active.
Poverty in coca-producing regions
Illegal cultivation occupies 171,000 hectares of Colombian territory. Since 2013, the area consumed by illegal coca cultivation has increased by an annual average of 45 percent. In addition, crops today produce 33 percent more coca leaf than they did in 2012. 25 percent of plantations are less than 20 kilometers from an international border the areas with highest concentrations of coca production include with border with Ecuador, the Pacific coast, the Venezuelan border, and regions near the Amazon and, therefore, Brazil.
This is occurring despite the fact that a key component of the peace agreement with the FARC was the Comprehensive National Plan for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS), a program that seeks to subvert the process of drug trafficking from its origin. Through economic and social incentives, the PNIS helps coca-producing families leave the illicit economy and begin to grow other types of crops. This is the Colombian government attempting to tackle the problem at its root: coca production is most prevalent where economic opportunities are scarce, in regions outside the reach of the services provided by the Colombian state.
According to the FIP, 57 percent of families living in coca-growing areas live below the poverty line, well above the average in rural Colombia (36 percent). A grower’s monthly income per hectare is about $131, half the Colombian minimum wage. However, for these families, coca cultivation is more profitable than the available alternatives, especially because of the lack of regional road infrastructure, which makes it difficult to commercialize legal agricultural products. Coca yields harvest more often, sells at a better price, and is collected by armed drug traffickers at family farms, which means farmers do not have to worry about distribution.
The implementation of the PNIS has been slow and difficult due to the security situation in the areas it targets, but also due to an “insufficient operational capacity” of the state, which has failed to dedicate sufficient economic and technical resources to the plan, according to the latest FIP report. There are currently around 99,000 families linked to the PNIS the UN estimates that there are some 200,000 coca farming families in Colombia, although Garzón says the real figure could be higher. The goal of the PNIS is the voluntary eradication of 51,824 hectares, of which it is estimated that 29,393 (56 percent) have been eliminated. The level of compliance of targeted families is high the FIP report claims that 94 percent have eradicated their crops. However, the vast majority of them have not yet generated an economic alternative to support the transition from coca cultivation. The arrival of the conservative Iván Duque to Colombia’s presidency has not helped his party, the Democratic Center, was fervently against the peace agreement with the FARC.
Several organizations have reported that, since Duque took office, the payments from the PNIS to participating families have been suspended. In addition, the general budget proposed by the Duque administration cut the territorial approach issues of the peace agreement, including the PNIS, by around $140 million while increasing defense spending by around 53 percent. “Duque decided to continue with the program, which is not a minor event,” says Garzón. However, he continues, the first months of his term have plunged participating communities into “uncertainty” because “many aspects of the PNIS have been frozen.”
Historically, Democratic Center governments have approached the fight against drug trafficking with an emphasis on forced eradication, through the intervention of the armed forces and the aerial spraying of glyphosate, instead of the voluntary eradication favored by the Peace Agreement. Although Colombia’s Constitutional Court banned the use of glyphosate in 2017, Duque put the use of the chemical back on the table at the beginning of his term. The real impact of aerial spraying is minimal: spraying 800 hectares of coca would reduce the supply of cocaine by 0.004 percent. Forced eradication at the hands of the army also present disadvantages in territories where the army has previously intervened, 35 percent of the area has reverted to coca production. According to Garzón, armed intervention fails to lead to “a change in the condition that led to cultivation in the first place.” For contrast, in areas where the communities voluntarily gave up cultivation, only 0.6 percent of families have re-planted coca bushes.
The “mere discussion of re-starting aerial spraying works against” the progress made by the PNIS because coca growers are opposed to the measure, says Garzón. In regions where the state has failed to establish a presence in other aspects, “communities see the arrival of the strong hand of the state” as something that prevents the possibility of “a relationship of legitimacy.”
Another difficulty faced by voluntary substitution efforts is the presence of the aforementioned armed groups involved in drug trafficking, who threaten the community leaders in charge of the process with violence in order to prevent the voluntary eradication of crops. In the first seven months of 2018, homicides increased by 40 percent in the municipalities where families were participating in the PNIS. The National Coordinator of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Growers (COCCAM) denounced the murder of 36 leaders of voluntary eradication efforts between January 2017 and June 2018.
For Kyle Johnson, Duque’s arrival to power “is a bit daunting.” The analyst expects “a more intense war” against armed groups that will likely be successful at dismantling military targets. However, he adds that “as long as the prevailing government philosophy is that the best way to protect the population is by killing the bad guys, we will not see much progress, because what these areas actually need is increased presence of government services.”
Since the disarming of the FARC, the actors, figures and methods have changed. But the conclusion is clear: drug trafficking in Colombia is more alive than ever before.
From Plant To Powder
The Medellín syndicate was involved in every part of the drug trade, from coca farms in Colombia to street dealers in the United States.
In the 1980s, a kilo of cocaine might cost $1,000 to refine, but Escobar’s agents could sell it for up to $70,000 in the U.S.
He began moving cocaine through poverty-stricken Haiti instead of the tourist enclaves of the Bahamas. Profits were so big, pilots made one-way trips to the Florida coast, dropping sacks of cocaine, ditching their planes in the sea and then swimming to waiting ships.
The cartel also began moving cocaine through Panama. From there Mexican couriers would take it overland through Mexico and across the border into the U.S. That meant befriending Mexican smugglers, which helped launch the Sinaloa, Juárez and Tampico cartels that have since turned Mexico into a virtual narco-state.
Throughout it all, the Medellín syndicate remained a decidedly wholesale organization. Escobar and his partners used a collection of distributors and retailers, from U.S. organized crime groups to small-town drug barons and Colombian émigrés, to control the majority of the cocaine moving through Southern Florida and over the Mexican border to the streets of America.
The distributors effectively became “franchisees” of the Colombians, says Paul Gootenberg, a historian and SUNY distinguished professor at Stony Brook University in New York. Violence, bribes and loyalty helped the Medellín syndicate control them. In fact, just the promise of violent retribution from Escobar’s enforcers if they didn’t pay for deliveries made it possible for the syndicate to control the retail side of the drug trade thousands of miles from home.
Prosecutors From The United States, Colombia and Mexico Strengthen Their Commitment to Dismantling Transnational Criminal Organizations
On June 12 to 14, in Cartagena, Colombia, prosecutors from Colombia, Mexico, and the United States came together for the second Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) Working Group. The mission of the Working Group is to engage in specialized training and to develop joint strategies and best practices to dismantle the transnational criminal organizations that threaten the three nations.
During the Working Group, experienced prosecutors from the three nations benefited from trainings on international judicial cooperation and money laundering, and began developing a road map for the development or dissemination of best practices and effective strategies to dismantle these dangerous enterprises. This effort is all the more critical given the increasing interconnectedness between Mexican cartels and Colombian drug trafficking organizations, which collaborate to improve their profits and ability to traffic narcotics, humans, weapons and other contraband into the United States, threatening its national security.
The TCO Working Group is a direct outgrowth of Presidential Executive Order 13773 – Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking – which recognized the threat that transnational criminal organizations, including transnational drug cartels, pose to the national security of the United States. In the Executive Order, President Trump prioritized the need to increase cooperation and information sharing with foreign counterparts, and to enhance their operational capabilities via increased security sector assistance, all with the goal of dismantling TCO. Since the 2017 Executive Order was issued, the President has continually reiterated the need to immediately attack the ability of these organizations to traffic narcotics and other criminality into the United States.