The Mexican Drug War – Part I

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First in a series on the Mexican Drug War

By Joe Chivers

It is no exaggeration to say that the Mexican Drug War is one of the worst crises of modern times. Thanks to a mix of the U.S.’ war on drugs, prohibition, and the black market, anywhere from 56,000-90,000 people have lost their lives since 2006, and over a million people have been displaced. Thanks to the United States’ long and porous borders, smuggling has always been widespread from its neighbours both to the south and the north. From bootleggers during prohibition to marijuana and black tar heroin in the 1960s and 70s, the industry has always been massive and profitable. In 2012, it was estimated by the New York Times that the Sinaloa Cartel, based in the northwestern city of Culiacan, made an annual profit of around $3 billion dollars. That’s a profit comparable to that of Facebook in the same year. While a kilogram of cocaine may only be worth around $2000 in Colombia or Peru, its value increases dramatically in other locations. Once it hits Mexico, its value shoots up to $10,000, and once in the United States, around $30,000. With money like this to be made, it is no surprise that the war shows no sign of ending. So how did we get here? In this series, we will look at how the Mexican Drug War came to be, its current state, and the possible futures open to the suffering Mexican people.

As previously mentioned, Mexico has always been a longstanding route for contraband coming into the United States. As noted by Gabriela Recio, in her article “Drugs and Alcohol: US Prohibition and the Origins of the Drug Trade in Mexico, 1910-1930,” in the late 19th Century, when morphine was legal to buy, it is estimated that around three percent of the U.S. population was addicted. While this was in fact, mostly upper-class women, racial panic spread like wildfire. Fears of the white population centered around the use of cocaine amongst black people in southern society, and Latino and Asian users of opiates, thus anti-drug laws began to be brought in. This was the beginning of the prohibition we know today. By 1922, drugs had become dramatically more prohibited than they had been previously, alongside alcohol. However, people still wanted to use a variety of drugs for any number of reasons, and they would get them. The Mexican states of Sinaloa, Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, and Nayarit began to export marijuana and opium into the United States, while other states smuggled alcohol. You may have noticed that the states where drug production began, far back in the early 20th century, continue to be at the forefront of the drug war today.

Jumping forward a few decades to the 1960s, we come to the huge industry that was Mexican marijuana smuggling. While still profitable today, the spread of legalization is beginning to take a bite out of the cartels’ profits. In the 1960s, however, with the hippie movement in full swing, most of the pot smoke which curled into American skies originated in Mexico. Other sources of the drug included Jamaica, but a pair of successful interdictions on the part of the Jamaican and Mexican governments in the 1970s led to a big fall in marijuana production, producing a vacuum which was to be filled by Colombian syndicates. The Mexican cartels would overtake the Colombian ones again in 1986, marking the first shifts of power between the two nations’ cartels.

It was to be the 1980s which would begin to truly cement the position Mexico occupies today. It is here that we begin to see the true beginnings of what we would recognize as the modern war on drugs, and the contemporary black economy.

In the early 1980s, the famed Medellin Cartel was exporting huge amounts of cocaine to the United States, as made famous in the TV show Narcos. Those familiar with the show will know the prime route at the time: from Colombia through the Caribbean to Miami. South Florida was cocaine central at this time, with drugs passing through by ship and plane. Such a huge and obvious smuggling route couldn’t and didn’t remain the only route though. It wasn’t long before the infamous drug lord, Griselda Blanco, who oversaw an operation staffed with so-called “cocaine cowboys” was taken down. In 1985, she was arrested by the DEA, leading to the Medellin Cartel’s diversification of routes. The Colombian cartels took advantage of Mexico’s long history as a smuggling hotspot, with routes and safepoints already laid out. It couldn’t have been safer or more ideal.

Both the Medellin Cartel and their rival the Cali Cartel wanted access to this lucrative corridor, and they got it. Enter Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, a drug lord known as El Padrino — The Godfather. Gallardo, one of the founders of the Guadalajara Cartel, was one of several coordinators of the smuggling operation, which it is estimated made a profit of around $5 billion every year. However, his control was, like many circumstances in the line of work, transitory. In 1985, undercover DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was kidnapped by corrupt police, tortured, and murdered in response to the destruction of a massive pot plantation belonging to the cartel. The following investigation was massive, an attempt to show American strength in the drug war which had been declared by Nixon and intensified by Reagan.

Gallardo went into hiding in Guadalajara as a result of the operation. In 1987, he called a meeting in Acapulco with the aim of decentralizing the cartel, attempting to increase its resistance to law enforcement. The cartel was subdivided into the Tijuana territory, overseen by his nephews, the Ciudad Juarez territory to his associates the Carrillo Fuentes, and the Sinaloa territory would be controlled by Joaquin Guzman Loera (El Chapo) and Ismael Zambada Garcia. Following Gallardo’s 1989 arrest, and subsequent move to the Altiplano maximum security prison, from where he was unable to oversee the operations, the groups fragmented and became bitter rivals.

One of the next gruesome milestones would be the foundation of the group known as Los Zetas in 1999. Los Zetas, now a powerful cartel, began when former special forces operative, Arturo Guzman Decena, was hired by the Gulf Cartel, which had just gone through a tumultuous and bloody leadership battle, and brought with him thirty former special forces soldiers as his bodyguard. The troops, trained in urban warfare, became the Gulf Cartel’s paramilitary wing, responsible for maintaining the cartel’s supremacy through any means they deemed necessary.
In 2006, the Mexican Drug War as we know it now came into being. Felipe Calderon, of the National Action party was elected, and began to take a more active stance on cartel violence. A major operation was launched in Michoacan state, when 6500 federal troops were sent on a mission to combat the cartel’s violence. This operation is still ongoing.

As we can see, although players and products changed, the modern Mexican underground drug trade, and the violence that comes with it, share the same common root as the original smugglers who brought contraband into the United States in the 1920s: prohibition. Where once it was marijuana and alcohol, now cocaine is the cash product of choice. However, all were once, or are now illegal, and it is this illegality that continues to fuel the fire.

In the next article, we will examine the state of the Mexican drug war since 2006; its immense human cost and how the war on drugs continues to perpetuate the conflict.

Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.