Creating New Soldiers in Mexico’s Drug War

How U.S. drug policy is making Mexican cartels more deadly.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Barack Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, once said that he wanted to retire the phrase "war on drugs." But on the U.S.-Mexico border, where the drug war is less metaphorical, the United States remains an enthusiastic ally — and the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to show it. This year, the U.S. secretaries of defense, state, and homeland security, as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paid a high-profile group visit to Mexico to demonstrate U.S. solidarity in the fight against Mexico’s drug traffickers. While the current U.S. administration, more than its predecessor, recognizes the need to reduce the demand for drugs at home, much of its efforts are still focused on the United States’ southern neighbor: helping Mexico strengthen its military capacity and promote the rule of law.

Unfortunately, though, the United States has failed to come up with a working strategy to weaken the most powerful players in today’s drug trade: the handful of Mexican cartels that control the shipment of drugs across the border. Worse, U.S. efforts to make moving drugs across the border more difficult might be having the opposite effect: consolidating the illicit drug business into fewer and fewer hands and making the surviving heavyweights more difficult to defeat. The United States is, in essence, arming the drug cartels as it fights the drug war.

Every year, the United States illegally imports more than 200 metric tons of cocaine, 1,500 metric tons of marijuana, 15 metric tons of heroin, and 20 metric tons of methamphetamines. The more than $50 billion it has spent on interdiction efforts over the past quarter-century have barely made a dent in this demand.

The efforts have, however, altered the structure of the drug trade. The production of marijuana and heroin in Mexico through the 1960s and 1970s was the province of small-time operators, many of them family-type organizations, which could move drugs across a laxly policed U.S.-Mexico border without much risk of capture. But the cocaine epidemic and the advent of the U.S.-led "war on drugs" changed the nature of the business.

As the United States stepped up its enforcement efforts at key transshipment points — the Caribbean and the U.S.-Mexico border — and paid its Latin American drug war allies to do the same elsewhere, moving product into the United States became more difficult. Traffickers today must outwit American soldiers, Drug Enforcement Administration agents, and Border Patrol officers. An estimated 30 percent of drugs en route to the United States are now seized before they reach the border. Getting the rest there involves evading navies and coast guards at sea and radar surveillance in the air, or navigating an array of land hazards in Central America and Mexico: police and military checkpoints where officers often charge bribes proportional to the price of the drugs, as well as rival traffickers and other criminal organizations. Another estimated 15 to 20 percent is seized at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as 10 percent more en route to destinations within the United States — losses that of course also come with potentially harsh criminal sentences for the smugglers.

None of this has slowed the drug trade — demand, remember, has remained mostly constant. Instead, the cost of getting into the business has risen. To escape stringent enforcement, today’s smugglers need deep pockets to run the sophisticated logistics needed to escape detection and seizure, pay the necessary bribes, and absorb substantial losses of their product when seizures do happen. These barriers to entry have winnowed the trafficking business down to a handful of major players: first Colombia’s Medellín and Cali cartels in the 1980s and 1990s, and now the five key Mexican cartels. Smaller outfits, meanwhile, have found new, less daunting lines of work as suppliers and service providers for large syndicates.

As a result, a business that once enjoyed a certain degree of market competition is now an oligopoly. A diagram of the illegal drug industry today looks like an hourglass: At the production and the retail ends of the business there are hundreds of thousands of players — farmers, processors, distributors, dealers. In between, at the shipment and smuggling level, there are only a handful. For that handful, the stakes are enormous. The traffickers who move drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border keep nearly a quarter of the retail price of each kilo of cocaine, which can be bought in Colombia for $1,700 and sold to a wholesaler in the United States for $25,000. Over the past 25 years, the total earnings of the drug trade in Mexico have probably increased tenfold, while the number of organizations reaping the profits has remained small — as of 2006, six Mexican cartels controlled 90 percent of the United States’ illicit drug imports.  

As the cartels have shrunk in number, the pressure on them — from U.S. and Mexican authorities, and from their own competitors — has increased apace, forcing the organizations to become better equipped and more violent. Today’s Mexican cartels spend millions of dollars a year on assault rifles, explosives, armored high-end SUVs, and sophisticated intelligence operations, with the aim of avoiding interdiction and eliminating competitors.     

This is the grand paradox of drug enforcement. Unless enforcement agencies can intercept virtually all of the drugs crossing the border — something that approaches impossibility — their efforts are likely to simply produce more formidable opponents. The cartels’ profits will increase, and with them the dangers they pose to Mexican authorities and the Mexican population.

Marcelo Bergman is an associate professor in the department of legal studies at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (Center for Economic Research and Education) in Mexico City, and a recent fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.