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The 5 Blood-Soaked Drug Cartels Fueled by America's Drug War

Cartels spar over a powerful, illicit, global trade worth hundreds of billions.
 
 
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Photo Credit: By El chino antrax (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

The capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, was celebrated on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. But Guzman’s arrest will not change the grim reality of Mexico’s drug war: drug-related violence kills over 10,000 people a year in Mexico as cartels battle each other and civilians fall victim to the crossfire. A combination of bribery and intimidation has allowed cartels to infiltrate law enforcement and government at every level. The U.S.-led war on drugs, despite soaking up billions of dollars, has only brought about more war. It has done little, if anything, to stem the flow of drugs.

From modest, entrepreneurial beginnings, cartels now spar over an illicit drug trade worth hundreds of billions every year. In 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels, and violence exploded to its current levels. The struggle that has played out since then rewards the most violent, ruthless groups.

Two cartels, Sinaloa and Los Zetas, dominate Mexico’s drug trade, while others linger below, capitalizing on important choke points, and allying with one of the two giants for protection and use of smuggling routes.

Even if El Chapo has lived his last day as a cartel kingpin, the system that supports the cartels and the horrifying violence they commit is entirely unchanged.

A clear first step to help bring Mexico out of this quagmire is to legalize cannabis throughout the Americas. Estimates vary on how much cartels depend on marijuana sales, but they range from 30-50% of total revenue, according to Sean Dunagan, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and former intelligence research specialist at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Legalizing marijuana would take a giant chunk out of cartel profits, which would greatly reduce their power, he said. Of the drugs seized at the U.S.-Mexico border, Jamie Haase, a LEAP member who worked as a special agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says “97% of what we see is marijuana.” 

Uruguay has already legalized marijuana, and is keeping it cheap in an attempt to outprice cartels. Now other countries, including the U.S., need to follow suit.

The criminalized drug trade has fostered vast, diverse networks of ruthless gangs. To understand how little the capture of one drug lord really does to quell the drug war, here’s a look at the five cartels that sit at the top of the Mexican drug world.

1. Sinaloa

While many Americans learned of the Sinaloa cartel when news broke of El Chapo’s arrest, it has been smuggling drugs in, out of and through Mexico since 1989. In 2010, a U.S. official called Sinaloa “the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world.” Sinaloa is the dominant cartel on much of Mexico’s Pacific side, and its tendrils reach up into the U.S. and down into Venezuela and Colombia. Various reports have placed Sinaloa operatives throughout the Americas, Spain, and Malaysia. Sinaloa is also believed to be a major player in Australia’s cocaine trade.

The big prize, of course, is the U.S. market, and Sinaloa controls the smuggling routes along the U.S.-Mexico border from the Western end of Texas all the way to Tijuana. The U.S. doesn’t like to acknowledge that Sinaloa operatives are embedded in the woodwork of cities across the country, but the results speak for themselves.

“We pretend that the cartels don’t have an infrastructure in the U.S.,” says Fulton T. Armstrong, senior fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. “But you don’t do a $20 billion a year business. . . with ad-hoc, part-time volunteers.”

 
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