Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Mexico's Trapped Labor Force is Fertile Recruiting Ground for the Drug Cartels

Mexico’s disenfranchised often see the illicit drug economy as an escape route from poverty. Mexican drug cartels post annual gains between approximately $18 and $39 billion USD.[1] For Mexico’s poorest, the promise of quick and exorbitant profits is often too enticing to pass up. To put the allure of the drug trade into context, take for example the juxtaposition between Mexico’s drug and crude oil economies: In 2014, crude petroleum, Mexico’s primary export, was worth $37 billion, an estimated $3 billion less than the illicit drug economy’s worth at its highest value.[2] The oil industry, which until recently was controlled by PEMEX, the national oil company, employed 151,000 workers in 2013.[3] In the early 1990s, the Sinaloa Federation, the largest and most powerful cartel conglomerate at the time, employed an estimated 100,000 individuals.[4] While PEMEX’s 2014 workforce is somewhat larger, it is important to consider that the Sinaloa Federation was only one of dozens of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in the 1990s. As such, it is logical to conclude that the illicit drug economy in the ‘90s offered employment to a massive workforce. Since the ‘90s, Mexico’s drug industry has only grown in scale. To make matters worse, the narcotics industry, while far riskier than the formal economy, offers Mexico’s poor viable work opportunities. Recently, the spike in heroin use in the United States (a 90 percent increase between 2002 and 2013)[5] has contributed to a boom in production and illicit employment opportunities. Moreover, because of the state’s failure to suppress the drug economy, the drug business has taken on a veneer of folkloric invincibility that contributes to its attractiveness.

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Chile Is About to Decriminalize Marijuana

With its proposed changes to Ley 20.000 (Law 20,000), Chile joins a growing list of Latin American countries decriminalizing marijuana. The initiative, which would grant Chileans the right to possess up to 10 grams of cannabis and grow up to six marijuana plants at a time, was passed in Chile’s Chamber of Deputies on July 7 with 68 voting in favor and 39 against. The bill must first be adjusted by a health commission and then passed by the Senate before it officially becomes law, but strong support for cannabis legalization in the country illustrates that legalizing marijuana use appears to be the new norm in the Western Hemisphere and, once again, that the War on Drugs has been a failed campaign.[1]

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Colombia's Decision to End Aerial Coca Eradication: What's Next?

After two decades of coca crop-dusting as part of a counter-narcotics campaign, Colombia has decided to end its aerial coca eradication program. In a contentious decision, the Colombian government, more specifically, the National Narcotics Council, voted 7 to 1 on May 15 to officially suspend the program. The move was urged by President Juan Manuel Santos and the country’s Health Ministry on the heels of a March 2015 report by the World Health Organization’s International Agency on Research in Cancer that concluded glyphosate, the chemical used in the eradication program, was believed to be carcinogenic to humans. The decision represents a profound victory for the Left and green opposition in Colombia, which maintains that aerial spraying has produced detrimental environmental effects, damaged legal crops, and devastated the livelihoods of poor farmers. While the decision received approval from research and advocacy organizations throughout Colombia, it has led to harsh criticism by U.S. and Colombian law enforcement officials who claim that terminating the aerial spray program could lead to a boost in the production of cocaine. Facing mounting pressure, President Santos has reassured critics that Colombia will continue to find ways of eliminating illicit coca plantations used for cocaine production.[1]

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NAFTA: Great for the Illicit Drug Trade

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been critiqued as merely serving U.S. and Canadian interests, while making the rich richer and only providing marginal, geographically isolated benefits to the poor in Mexico. Although NAFTA promised to decrease migration to the north, increase foreign direct investment, and provoke universal economic prosperity in Mexico, such outcomes have not materialized. The agreement, however, has undoubtedly facilitated U.S.-Mexican trade. As former Mexican Foreign Minister (2000-2003) Jorge G. Castañeda argues, “NAFTA brought neither the huge gains its proponents promised nor the dramatic losses its adversaries warned of.”[i]Still, NAFTA has contributed significantly to one market in particular: the illicit drug trade.

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