Cocaine Trafficking in Mexico: Mexico’s “llello” Drug Trade a Waypoint for U.S. Demand

cocaine trafficking

Antecedents of Mexico’s drug trafficking include politically unstable predicaments fostered shortly after the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. Colonel Esteban Cantú was one such figure who used the illicit lore of narcotics to arm and supply his troops in the contentious border regions of Baja California. Cocaine, prefiguratively, was a middle-class, “bourgeois” drug reserved for artists and other Bohemian, anti-establishment types of Mexico’s post-revolutionary period.

Cocaine in the Post-Revolutionary Period

With the foundation of the state party in 1929, entrepreneurial drug trafficking was virtually non-existent, as political and military control of Mexico’s border regions gave any potential or emerging drug trafficker a presumable impediment to gaining control of important drug-smuggling areas. Those few cartels that did operate in these regions, with the largest base of their customers in the United States, did so by working alongside the politically elite and corrupt class of Mexico’s state party, and as a result were forced “to give up a substantial part of their profits”(Astorga, 87) to the Mexican government. Political entanglement with illegal drug trafficking reached a nadir in the 1980s and 1990s, and has since been a fomenting subject for U.S. and Mexican border relations, with a drastic increase of drug-related violence and murder in the last few years under PAN Mexican President Felipe Calderón

The Rise of the Drug Trade

Cocaine in post-revolutionary period and on through the 1960s was relatively weak in comparison to the sale and transport of opium and heroin, and later by increased consumer demand of marijuana in the United States. In the mid-1970s and 1980s, however, the illicit cocaine industry became the “most insatiable drug market in history.” (Astorga, 90) It was during this time that the roughly 100 to 200 crime syndicates operating in northern Mexico came to prominence as wholesale operators for Columbian cocaine. Mexico preeminently became sub-contractors to factory cocaine from Columbia, storing the cargo in Columbian-owned warehouses in Mexico where it was then shipped through Southwest U.S.-Mexico pipelines at a substantial profit (and increasing the mark-up price for its final street sale in the United States.)

Crime Syndicates

The most infamous of these crime families involved in the cocaine trade, known as the “mother of all modern gangs,” was led by former police officer (and bodyguard to a prominent Mexican governor) Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo. After Gallardo’s imprisonment in 1989, a shift in leadership established Gallardo’s nephews as leaders of the violent Tijuana-based crime syndicate known as the Tijuana cartel, the notorious crime organization responsible for a host of prominent kidnappings and murders along the Tijuana border in the 1990s and 2000s. Other prominent drug trafficking organization include the Juárez cartel, rivals of the Tijuana cartel who operate out of the Chihuahua region of Ciudad Juárez to smuggle cocaine and other drugs across the El Paso, Texas, border. The primary mode for drug trafficking across borders remains commercial shipping vehicles, replacing the reliance on air traffic once held by the “El Señor de los Cielos” [Lord of the Skies], Juárez cartel drug lord Amado Carillo Fuentes.

Cocaine’s Points of Entry

In his book An Industrial Geography of Cocaine, author Christian M. Allen cites a report by Peter Andreas in which “DEA officials concede that the majority of cocaine arrives through legal points of entry.” Agents also credit NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) as a “‘godsend’ to large volume drug trafficking.” (85) Cell-based networks in major American cities intercept the shipments of cocaine, which can be anywhere from a few kilos to multi-ton loads, and redirect them through ‘screens’ of other suppliers. Usually, the customers at this first stage are operators of other cells in connection with the Mexican organizations, but do not have knowledge of the organizations’ movements or shipment in order to counteract any possible police questioning if discovered by authorities. Some of the largest cell-area cities for Mexican-smuggled cocaine are Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Phoenix.

State of the Drug War

According to data reported by the Brookings Institute, 6,290 people died in Mexico in 2015 due to drug-related violence. The report cites that this rate is more than the total number of casualties in both the Iraq and Afghanistan war for the same year, and more than six times the number of average casualties in a civil war. In response, Columbia’s production of cocaine has increased 27% since 2014, according to reports released by the Guardian. The intervention of President Calderón’s US-backed Mérida Initiative, in effect, has seen little overall response to curtailing U.S. demand for cocaine.

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