01 Aug Will Drug Legalization Stop Mexican Cartel Violence?
Deemed “a 40-year social experiment gone wrong” by some, and “a failed policy” by others (including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton), the United States’ War on Drugs has no doubt fueled much of the violence in Mexico today. To date, more than 70,000 people have died from clashes with Mexican drug cartels since 2006. Some of those killed include Mexican public officials, journalists and American tourists.
– $2.5 trillion has been spent on the War on Drugs since 1971
– The black market drug trade is worth more than $320 billion worldwide
– Drug sales in the U.S. send about $20 billion to Mexican cartels every year
– More than 10,000 children have been orphaned by the drug violence in Mexico
To be sure, the violent situation in Mexico is a complicated one, with a very long history. Crops such as opium and cannabis have been grown in much of the country for well over a century, providing impoverished towns with income through organized crime. The cartels themselves are different from your typical U.S. “street gang.” Many of these organizations are run with the efficiency of a large corporation, and boast assets worth billions. Without the protection of laws and regulations to help control their merchandise, as is the case with the legal market, these organizations turn to corruption and violence as the most effective means of control.
The Sinaloa cartel is perhaps the best example of organized crime in Mexico. It has been in operation for more than 25 years, and is considered to be the most powerful cartel in the country. In fact, this particular cartel has experienced expansion and higher profits since the drug cartel crackdown in Mexico began in 2006. The cartel boss, Juaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is one of the most wanted men in the world, with a $5-million reward offered for information leading to his capture. Sinaloa operations have been uncovered as far away as Egypt, Europe, Australia and Malaysia. Their presence in the U.S., where most of their business is takes place, is extensive. Sinaloa branches are reported to be in every major U.S. city, and in 1,286 U.S. communities total.
The U.S. War on Drugs
Despite the U.S. Drug War spending billions, both domestically and internationally, fighting these cartels, drug use rates and sales have only increased. In fact, over 22.6 million U.S. citizens currently use illegal drugs—that’s nearly 9 percent of the country’s population, up from only 6.2 percent of the population in 1998. Rates of methamphetamine and heroin use in particular have been on the rise, and the Mexican cartels are only too happy to supply the demand. For this reason, many public officials, including former CIA officers, heads of state, judges, and a growing number of law enforcement officers are beginning to question the effectiveness of U.S. drug policy. Keeping many popular drugs illegal, critics argue, helps fund the violence both in Mexico and the U.S., raises incarceration rates and doesn’t actually curb drug use.
The War on Drugs in the U.S. hasn’t worked, “because it hasn’t broken the system,” states a former national intelligence officer, “They’ve arrested dealers. But the distribution system and its network are alive and well.” To break that system, many are looking to take away these cartels’ biggest source of income through drug legalization.
Effects of Legalization
So how, exactly, would the legalization of drugs such as marijuana in the U.S. affect Mexico’s violent and powerful cartels? The black market is in a constant state of flux, and due to its nature, the numbers are very hard to pin down, but officials estimate that U.S. marijuana sales account for 60 percent of the cartels’ total profits. One recent report published by the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO), in the fall of last year, just before marijuana legalization was passed in Washington and Colorado, estimates that the Mexican cartels could be hit hard. They’re likely to experience total profit cuts by more than 20 percent from marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington alone, losing an estimated $1.425 billion to Colorado and $1.372 billion to Washington. Interestingly, the powerful Sinaloa cartel may have the most to lose. According to one crime analyst, legalization in Colorado and Washington could wipe out 50 percent of their profits, at least in the short term. Should larger states like California vote in full legalization as well, cartel profits could take a much larger hit.
The black market, however, is very fluid, and organized crime in Mexico has proven to be adaptable and quick to react to changing U.S. drug needs. As Mexican marijuana is already becoming out-competed by the higher quality and cheaper U.S.-grown marijuana, cartel-run cannabis fields are being replaced with opium poppy fields to help supply a growing need for heroin. This rising need for heroin, while still very small compared to rates of marijuana use, is a reflection of the rising prescription painkiller problem in the U.S., as addicts turn to heroin when the painkillers become unavailable.
Despite their adaptability and involvement with other criminal activities, the violent Mexican drug cartels stand to lose a significant loss in profits if the U.S. continues to shift its drug policies toward legalization. And in some cases, the loss from marijuana legalization alone could cause a large enough cut to cripple their structure and significantly reduce cartel presence in U.S. cities.
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