How Legal Pot Could Save Thousands of Lives? Hint: Stop Feeding the Mexican Death Cartels

As the marathon to legalize marijuana plows forward, a key to winning over many of the leftover prohibitionists might lie within two questions: exactly how significant is the illicit pot trade in the violence south of the border, and what are the long-term implications for Americans as a result of Mexico’s indefinite narco war? Being a former federal agent who has worked on the border and enforced the U.S.’s drug laws, I know that neither of these can be answered with exact precision, but one can hope that illustrating the obvious will at least get us closer to the finish line.

As for the first question, the vastness of the southern border makes it impossible to determine the absolute value of marijuana to the drug cartels, or Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO’s) for the trendy types. Most smuggled goods breeze by U.S. law enforcement undetected, with authorities most likely snagging just 15 percent of the incoming dope on their best days. This is through no fault of their own though, as the hellish terrain of the southwest makes it impossible for cops and feds to cover adequately. Especially for the fact that the dividing line is nearly 2,000 miles long—and it’s mostly filled with rivers, rocks, mountains, and tunnels. Taking the unknowns of the border into account, along with the biggest factor—being that the marijuana industry is completely uncontrolled and off the books when it comes to any sort of regulation—it is clear why it’s unpractical to determine the substance’s exact profit margins on the bankrolls of Mexican drug trafficking organizations. Though that didn’t deter a research group last year from conjuring up a magic number at the last minute—just in time to help sink a marijuana legalization ballot initiative (more on that in a minute).

Let’s forget the speculation and get to certainties: what is plain as day is the fact that the demand for cannabis sativa is responsible for more deaths in Mexico than anything else—and after half a decade of unrelenting bloodshed—the body count just recently surpassed the 50,000 mark. Personally, that’s a bitter pill to swallow considering 50 percent of Americans now believe marijuana should be outright legalized, according to Gallup’s most recent poll from October 2011.

For over forty years, ganja has been the steadiest and most reliable source of income for Mexican traffickers, and it’s still the primary substance that lures most wannabe sicarios into the drug running game. Most green-horn dope peddlers don’t get their start by transporting tons of coke at a time; rather, they have to earn their stripes by moving up the marijuana food chain—and many don’t make it past that point in their careers to begin with.

Most followers tuned in to the legalization debate are already well aware of weed’s contribution to the chaos, yet there are still millions of unaware Americans who automatically assume it’s the costlier drugs at the heart of the violence. Obviously heroin, meth, and cocaine are significant players in their own right, but by they’re nowhere near the bread and butter that pot is to the cartels. This is further illustrated by the fact that the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has consistently reported a drop in cocaine shipments from Mexico, and additional studies have shown that the use of the three aforementioned drugs is on the decline in the United States (meanwhile, marijuana consumption continues to rise). 

Having worked extensively along the border as a special agent for the Department of Homeland Security (Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s office of Homeland Security Investigations, or ICE HSI, to be exact), I know firsthand the futility behind continuing to wage an all-out war against a plant, especially one that American consumers are demanding more than ever. Realistically, when it comes to the sheer volume of weed arriving daily from Mexico, the entire border from Brownsville to San Diego is like a full-time smuggling feeding frenzy, with DHS personnel practically cross-trained as factory workers in light of the constant pot seizures and undercover controlled deliveries. Lord knows my former brothers would be helping the U.S. more by making better use of their time, like dismantling human trafficking networks for example. These cells are active all across the country, and they’re responsible for numerous deaths—like the gruesome slaying recently of Carina Saunders outside of Oklahoma City.

I mentioned earlier that some researchers have already made “best” guesses towards marijuana’s margins south of the border, and specifically I was referring to the highly criticized Rand Corporation study from 2010. The think tank based out of Santa Monica, California concluded that marijuana revenues from American consumers make up a dismal 16 to 25 percent of the total profits earned by Mexican traffickers. These parameters were significantly lower than any previous estimates, in particular a 2006 report from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) that concluded that more than 60 percent of cartels’ profits are derived from marijuana. Similar data from the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) from 2005 has marijuana earnings ranging upwards of $14.3 billion annually, more than doubling that of cocaine at $6.2 billion. Either way, being an original DHS agent from the obsolete U.S. Customs Service, there is no way that I could ever take Rand’s estimates seriously, especially since the research group is partly funded by the U.S.’s pro-drug-war government and the results were geared towards the prohibition side of the argument. 

To add even more sketchiness to the equation, the coincidental findings were released to the media in October 2010, just one month before California’s November 2nd vote on Proposition 19. This initiative would have legalized marijuana in California for anyone 21 and older, the prospect of which sent the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration into a frenzy, with nine former DEA bosses calling on President Obama and the executive branch to sue California should the measure pass. It’s no secret that pot prohibition enforcement is a hefty chunk of the DEA’s annual budget, so the last minute panic from the veteran big wigs was to be expected. All law enforcement agencies have egos, and legalizing the elephant in the room would have substantial financial implications on drug enforcement agencies. In any regard, the spin that Rand spoon fed the media helped deflate much of Prop 19’s momentum in the weeks leading up to the election, mostly because the monetary impact that legalization would have on the cartels was substantially called into question.

Thankfully, there have been subsequent record setting cannabis seizures that provide more tangibility for future voters to rely upon. Last July 15, the biggest marijuana plantation in Mexico’s history was located in the state of Baja California. According to General Alfonso Duarte of Mexico’s Army, the 300-acre operation was capable of producing over a hundred tons of pot annually, worth an estimated $160 million, and the Defense Department says the plantation is four times larger than the previous record-setting harvest. (There has been some debate over whether this discovery was larger than the infamous “El Bufalo” discovery from Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua in November 1984. It’s actually a matter of semantics because the present day discovery consisted of a single field that was larger than any one of the Buffalo’s 13 fields.)

This record-breaking find just goes to show that marijuana from Mexico is in no way, shape, or form on the decline (even with the increase in homegrown production here in the U.S.). When Mexico’s military raided the plantation, they captured close to 60 individuals in the fields, and this is only a fraction of the estimated workers. The operation was ultimately traced back to the Sinaloa cartel, which is Mexico’s largest drug trafficking franchise headed by country-boy capos Joaquin Guzman and Ismael Zambada, (or El Chapo and El Mayo).

This was just one of many heavyweight marijuana busts from the past two years; here are just a handful of similar scenarios that typify the situation along the U.S./Mexican border:

  • Another costly bust for the Sinaloans took place in the same region less than a year earlier in October 2010, when 105 tons of marijuana was seized from warehouse cargo containers.
  • A month later on Thanksgiving Day, another 30 tons of pot was discovered after DHS personnel in the United States located a tunnel connecting San Diego with Tijuana.
  • An almost identical scenario played out just recently on November 16, 2011, when DHS seized 17 tons of marijuana after discovering another California tunnel.
  • Just two weeks later, on November 29, 2011, one of the most sophisticated tunnels ever was located by DHS in the same region, though just three tons of pot was found this time around.

On a side note, when I say DHS personnel, I am mainly referring to my two former employers: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Both border enforcement agencies were formed upon DHS’s inception in 2003, and both consist of components of the former U.S. Customs Service and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.  

The prior discoveries are just a few examples of the many colossal marijuana seizures that occur all too frequently, and even though the ones illustrated took place on the Pacific Coast, rest assured that the scene is one and the same across the entire border, all the way to the southeastern Gulf of Mexico. However, there aren’t always newsworthy tunnels involved since you can’t build one under the Rio Grande. My experience along the border stems mostly from working in south Texas—where weed constantly floods the Rio’s gates, and I can attest to the fact that cannabis is definitely the primary money maker for the cartels in Mexico’s Gulf region (primarily Los Zetas who are the most brutal of them all). 

Sometimes I think this debate might be over by now if everyone had the chance to see inside the seized property vault shared by DHS in Laredo, Texas. It’s packed to the gills with marijuana and one glimpse would turn most skeptics into believers—and what’s still even more frustrating is the fact that all of this marijuana smuggled from Mexico doesn’t even account for the additional tons that the cartels are growing here on American soil.

As for future implications and fallout for us here in the United States as a result of Mexico’s drug war, there’s no denying the spike in cartel-related violence experienced by border states in 2011—mostly Texas and Arizona. This trend can only increase considering a full-scale war has again been brewing in our backyard for five years; and like my mother taught me, you can’t ever bet against Isaac Newton. 

Being someone familiar with both uniformed interdiction and plain-clothes criminal investigations (in immigration and drug enforcement alike), I can attest that spillover from Mexico's narco war is already here. And even though the term “spillover violence” has been coined in such a way that makes it sound limited to the border regions, people need to keep in mind that once runaway assassins from Mexico reach the United States, most don’t stick around too long in the borderlands before heading further north into America’s interior. Most of these sicarios have networks already established here to assist them with finding work and obtaining illegitimate documents. In fact identity fraud is another major concentration under the DHS umbrella, and it’s something that I see becoming more alarming in the future; especially since the Department of Justice’s 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment says that Mexican criminal organizations are now active in at least 1,000 U.S. cities. (If this statistic alone isn’t a screaming wakeup call for the millions of disengaged Americans who continuously ignore the dangers of marijuana prohibition, then who knows what it will take.)

More food for thought is the fact that a high percentage of crime in Hispanic neighborhoods goes unreported. A number of inhabitants in these neighborhoods are illegal residents who want nothing to do with law enforcement, so many problems most likely either “disappear” or they get resolved in house.

Ultimately, it’s a futile waste of time to try and play the percentage game when it comes to an illicit commodity like marijuana, or the potential far-reaching effects that Mexico’s eternal violence will have for everyday Americans. There are too many unknowns that need to be factored in. It’s best to stick with the facts, and the facts in this case are rather simple: millions of Americans like to toke marijuana—and the amount of users is on the rise (despite law enforcement’s best efforts at cracking down). Meanwhile, violence as a result of marijuana prohibition has no end in sight and it too is also on the rise. If this trend continues, Mexico could not only crumble to pieces, but it could do so while collapsing more and more into the United States. In other words, something has got to give, and it has to give sooner rather than later before we all feel the harsh and realistic effects of our nation’s failed drug policy. 

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