It cannot have escaped the attention of any North American reader that the United States and Mexico have spent quite a few years struggling to contain and secure a transnational conflict on their shared border. And in grand 21st century fashion, this war is fought in part by non-state actors: the famed cartels which dominate criminal life in Mexico. Their exploits have become the subject of much media attention over the last few years, as El Chapo, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, has escaped prison and been recaptured. Despite all of this pop culture fame, actual understanding of the cartels, their past, and what the coming years may hold for them remains minimal. So where did they come from and where are they going?
Mexico’s cartel culture has its roots in the 1970s and 80s, as the simultaneous growth of US demand for illegal narcotics and US law enforcement’s War on Drugs combined to send prices through the roof. Latin America became the obvious source for illicit substances, and Mexico’s long, porous northern border became an obvious point of transit. This was nothing new; during the Prohibition Era bootlegging and human trafficking were huge issues on the US-Mexico frontier, prompting some US lawmakers to call for border walls or fences.
However, America’s social attitudes toward drugs were changing. By the end of the 1990s there were serious calls for the decriminalization of marijuana. By 2010, laws were changing and pot was rapidly becoming accepted if not outright legal. The effect on the Mexican Cartels and their bottom lines was immediate. Best estimates from within law enforcement and the work of US researchers suggest that somewhere between 15% and 25% of cartel revenue was marijuana dependent. We also know that as laws changed in the US, Mexican cartels shifted focus away from marijuana. In 2009 the US Border Patrol seized four million pounds of pot moving from Mexico to the US. By 2015, that number was down to 1.5 million pounds, and it may fall even further.
Mexico’s cartels are fundamentally import-export and logistics businesses, which make their money by transporting and reselling goods at profit. As marijuana ceased to be a viable option, Mexican cartels fell back on their established business model and began to look for another American narcotic addiction to feed.
High Times in the Heartland
Cartel leaders found their next gold mine in America’s emerging meth and opiate crises. Meth provided a much needed boost to lagging profits, and became a surprising vector through which Mexican cartels expanded their activities into the US proper. From Arizona to the Ozarks, record quantities of these drugs were imported and manufactured. Mexican cartel agents found their way into the heart of America, running meth production and distribution directly from within the US. This bold step became an issue of national security, as the cartels rapidly expanded their operations. Their involvement added fuel to the fire of America’s growing problems with opiate addiction, which have expanded over the last two years into a full blown epidemic. Currently, opiate abuse kills 27,000 Americans annually. Those numbers are projected to increase.
While their narcotics activities found new focus, the cartels followed sound conventional business wisdom and sought to diversify their activities. They found two avenues for doing so, both of which introduce major global issues into the fray.
Stolen Oil, Stolen Lives
The border between the US and Mexico is best understood as a de facto nation of its own. For 50 or 100 miles on either side, it becomes its own country with its own rules, laws, and culture. These nebulous, liminal regions of the world often become the focus of smuggling. The cartels had established themselves in the narco-trade, and now they would evolve again and embrace human trafficking and stolen petroleum.
Human trafficking is not a new crime at all—it likely dates back to the first attempt to control borders of some sort in the ancient if not prehistoric world. In contemporary Mexico, the primary migrants originate in Central and South America and are en route to the US in search of economic opportunity, escape from political or legal persecution, or both. As Mexico’s cartels consolidate—from 47 in 2009 down to a dozen or fewer major operators today—the market has grown much more cutthroat. Simple illegal immigrant transport often devolves into extortion, forced labor, sex trafficking, or outright murder. The victims are some of the most vulnerable people in the hemisphere—there’s no great push for law enforcement or government intervention.
Oil theft is a more recent development, and possibly the most devious and clever play made by a Mexican cartel to date. Illegal tapping of Mexican oil pipelines and the hijacking of oil transport trucks has lead to $1.29 billion USD in lost revenue, according to PEMEX, the state-owned Mexican oil company. Beyond the financial cost, this new source of cartel cash has led to more inter-cartel violence, accidental death due to explosions and fires while stealing or transporting illicit oil, and a vast number of environmental concerns. This leads us to one final question: as anti-cartel efforts intensify and American attitudes toward drugs change, will the future of the cartel economy include more human trafficking, oil theft, and similar crimes? Or will they continue to evolve in new directions. The answer, as always, is complicated.
The War on Terror in the Borderlands
Allegations of cartel involvement with Al-Qaeda, Islamic State/Daesh, and similar Islamic terrorist groups date back to the earliest days of the War on Terror, as do allegations that cartels have helped smuggle terrorists and supplies across the border. As recently as 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated publicly that “the Iranian regime already exports terrorism” either directly or via intermediaries across a network which “stretches from Mexico to Thailand.” Mexico and other Latin nations have already become staging grounds for Islamic terror groups like Hezbollah. For Islamic terror groups interested in paying cash for movement across the US border, cartels would be their natural partners, with the logistical networks for trans-border operations already in place and a working business structure inside the US.
We face an uncertain future, both worldwide and upon our own borders, and that uncertainty will test both our resolve and our willingness to work with Mexico in finding solutions to our shared security concerns.