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What Should You Know About Mexico’s Drug Cartels?

Kelley studies social issues, including crime, punishment, the Drug War, and America's criminal justice system.

Cartel members busted by Mexican authorities

Cartel members busted by Mexican authorities

Mexico’s Drug Cartels Are Everyone’s Problem

Curious about the cartels?

Mexican drug cartels seem to be at war wherever there's money to be made. Sophisticated and deadly, these drug armies have spread their dastardly trade throughout Mexico and into many other countries in Latin America. Incredibly ruthless and vengeful, the cartels’ paramilitary units kill tens of thousands of people each year, while controlling much of the world’s supply of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana, generating an estimated $40 billion per year in profits.

The tentacles of the cartels have also reached into the United States, where they control as much as 70 percent of drug trafficking. (This struggle has sometimes been called America’s Third War.) If a country with the resources of the U.S. can’t eliminate the cartels or at least reduce their strength significantly, what can be done about them?

Please read on to see what the world is up against in this herculean battle against perhaps the most formidable army of organized criminals the world has ever seen.

Cartel Head Threatens Journalist

Per an article on CNN’s website, dated 8/10/2021 and entitled “Mexico Drug Cartel Threatens Prominent News Anchor,” written by Karol Suarez, seems to show how dangerous it is to be a reporter in Mexico. In a video message posted on 8/9/2021, six armed men surround a man claiming to be Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” the leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), who threatens to "hunt down" and “get” news anchor Azucena Uresti. The man goes on to say, "I assure you that if you continue talking about me, Azucena Uresti, wherever you are, I'll get you, and I will make you eat your words, even if they accuse me of (committing) femicide, because you don't know me."

Azucena Uresti said she has entered a federal protection program and that she supports hundreds of other journalists who risk their lives reporting the news in Mexico.

According to the Mexico office of Article 19, 141 journalists have been murdered in the country since 2000. And, in 2021, the organization Reporters without Borders wrote, "Year after year, Mexico continues to be one of the world's most dangerous and deadliest countries for the media. Despite some limited recent progress, it is sinking ever deeper into a spiral of violence and impunity."

Mexico’s Drug Cartels Launder Money the New Fashioned Way

Not ones to fall behind the curve, it seems, Mexico’s drug cartels are beginning to utilize Bitcoin (BTC) when dealing with illicit activities. According to the article, “Mexican Authorities Struggle to Keep Up as Cartels Embrace Crypto,” on cointelegraph.com, dated 12/9/2020, Santiago Nieto, head of Mexico’s finance ministry’s financial intelligence unit, explained that Latin cartels often put $7,500 or less in various bank accounts to avoid having the amount flagged by law enforcement investigators.

In April 2019, Ignacio Santoyo and his sister were arrested for making cryptocurrency transactions in the amount of $22,000 on Bitso, a local BTC exchange. Authorities hope this bust and others involving members of the Latin cartels will deter organized crime from using digital assets in the future.

Unfortunately, Orlando Rosas, Mexico’s attorney general for the Cyber Investigations Unit, told Reuter’s new service that the Mexican government lacks the resources to pursue criminals using digital currency, which may have happened more than 1,033 times in 2020.

In January 2020, the US Drug Enforcement Agency reported a steep decline in hard currency seizures from $741 million in 2011 to $234 million in 2019, suggesting that organized crime may be using BTC transactions to conceal much of their money laundering activities.

DEA Arrests Hundreds of Cartel Members in the US

Quoting from an article on breitbart.com titled “600 Mexican Cartel Members Arrested Across the USA,” dated March 11, 2020, the Drug Enforcement Administration targeted members of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG), one of the fastest-growing criminal organizations in Mexico. Called Operation Python and centered in Texas, the DEA made 600 arrests and confiscated $5.7 million in cash, 1,490 kilograms of methamphetamine, and 690 kilograms of cocaine. The CJNG is run by Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes who has recently ramped up the drug dealing of the CJNG, causing much violence in parts of Mexico once free of such mayhem.

US authorities recently extradited El Mencho’s son, Ruben “El Menchito” Oseguera, removing him from a Mexican prison and taking him to the US for trial. (El Mencho, the father, has a $10 million bounty on his head.) Jessica Johanna “La Negra” Oseguera, El Mechito’s sister, has also been indicted for money laundering by US authorities. These busts may weaken the CJNG and also perhaps end the reign of terror by the Oseguera family.

Mexico's Drug Cartels Could Make More Money than Walmart

In reference to an article on the website for the Washington Post, dated June 24, 2019, and titled “Do Mexican Drug Cartels Make more than $500 billion a Year?” by Salvador Rizzo, Senator David Perdue says Mexico’s drug cartels make more than half a trillion dollars per year—that’s more than America’s largest companies, including Walmart, which reported over $500 billion in revenue in 2018. Comparing relevant numbers, in 2011 the United Nations estimated that organized crime throughout the world made $870 billion from the drug trade in 2009.

But estimates vary regarding the amount of drug money generated by Mexico’s drug cartels in the 2000s and 2010s. According to various agencies of the US and Mexico, as well as Reuters and Rand, the totals were $15.5 billion in 2005, $18 to $39 billion in 2008, $11 billion in 2010, and over $21 billion in 2018. None of these numbers approaches $500 billion per year, as Perdue claims. Nevertheless, $500 billion for the total worldwide drug trade seems a more accurate estimate and, fortunately, considerably less than the $870 billion suggested by the UN.

Mexico’s Drug Cartels May Want the Wall

Per an article on CNN.com, dated Jan. 8, 2018, entitled “Trump’s Mexico wall would be a gift to the drug cartels,” written by Alice Driver, who wrote that since Mexico’s drug cartels use such a wide variety of strategies to get drugs into the US—drones, submarines, scuba divers, ultra-light planes and even frozen sharks—building a border wall would actually benefit the cartels.

Driver also claims that President Trump doesn’t realize how hard it would be to build a border wall with Mexico because the wall builders would have to deal with numerous obstacles: floodplains, arroyos, canyons, rivers, streams, mountains, hilly terrain and boulder fields, and would also have to deal with international treaties and the rights of landowners who may refuse to sell their land to the federal government.

Moreover, in spite of the many obstacles to building the wall, the cartels would consider it nothing more than a mild distraction, and also realize that it could even increase their profits and strengthen criminal networks.

The driver also emphasized that most drugs enter the US via legal ports of entry or are stashed aboard container ships or other seagoing vessels. Drugs can also be smuggled into the US when the cartels utilize a vast underworld of interconnecting tunnels. She also pointed out that the drug war is made much worse because of America's insatiable desire for illegal drugs.

She concluded that none of the above would be stopped by the building of a border wall or fence (or extending the existing fence).

Could Drug Money Help Build the Border Wall

According to an article on Newsweek.com, dated 5/15/18, in an interview by Breitbart News, a right-wing news organization, Senator Bill Cassidy says that border security could be increased by using drug money seized or confiscated from Mexico’s drug cartels. Cassidy says the cartels take about $110 billion from the US each year and this money could be used to help build the wall. But there’s at least one obstacle to that idea: the Internal Revenue Service won’t allow confiscated money to be used to enhance border security or build infrastructure unless an amendment is passed.

Crackdown on Opioids Leads to Cartel Production of More Cocaine and Meth

According to an article on Nypost.com, dated 1/4/19 and entitled “Cartels Up Their Cocaine, Meth Game After Opioid Crackdown,” after the crackdown on opioid abuse in recent times, Mexico’s drug cartels are smuggling more cocaine and meth into the US, and these illegal products are even stronger and cheaper than what they sold before. Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy said this Mexican meth is so cheap that if you made it yourself, you’d spend more money than if you bought it on the street!

This increase in cocaine and meth smuggling has led to a steep rise in drug overdoses in states such as Kentucky, where cocaine and meth-related drug deaths rose 100 percent from 2015 to 2017. And often opioids such as fentanyl are laced with cocaine and meth, leading to even more deaths from overdoses. In Connecticut, deaths from cocaine mixed with fentanyl more than doubled from 2015 to 2017. Incidentally, this combination of cocaine and fentanyl gives the user a “speedball” like high, similar to heroin mixed with cocaine.

Moreover, this increase in the trafficking of cocaine and meth has led to an uptake in the number of seizures of such drugs in many eastern states; in fact, parts of Alabama, Illinois, and Minnesota have experienced record-breaking busts in recent years.

Cartels Use Genitalia-shaped Candles to Sneak Meth into the US

According to an article on FoxNews.com, dated 8/31/17, members of a Mexican drug cartel were busted while trying to smuggle candles laced with methamphetamine into the states of New York and New Jersey. These wax candles, shaped as phalluses or ones with religious or archaeological themes, were confiscated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which tricked the traffickers into delivering 1,300 pounds of these candles. Reportedly, agents of the DEA were shocked that the cartels would try to smuggle meth into the US using such an unusual method. The candles contained more than $1 million dollars worth of dope.

Cartels Increase Smuggling of Pot and Heroin into the US

According to the story “Mexico’s Drug Cartels Adapt to US Pot Legalization,” as shown on MSN.com, dated March 7, 2015, the cartels are expanding production of pot in Mexico, because three states in the US have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, while 23 states have legalized medical use. The US marijuana market is worth an estimated $41 billion per year.

As for heroin, the cartels have expanded their production in recent years too. In the state of Guerrero, where 43 students were allegedly murdered by a police-backed gang in September 2014, heroin production has increased by 300 percent. The main reason for this expansion is that in the US restrictions have increased on prescription opioids in recent years, making them harder to obtain and more expensive. Heroin, however, is often much easier to get and cheaper as well.

Jalisco New Generation Cartel May Be Mexico’s Largest

Per the article “Fighting Mexico’s New Super Cartel,” as provided by thedailybeast.com, dated March 25, 2016, the crumbling pueblo of Tecalcatepec has become a major distribution point for methamphetamine and controlled by the so-called Jalisco New Generation Cartel (JNGC), a Mexican mafia crime organization that’s incredibly violent even by the standards of the country’s other drugs cartels. Extremely large and ruthless, the JNGC murdered 30 members of a rival cartel in 2011, 12 of whom were women, and then dumped their bodies on a busy highway.

In recent times, the JNGC has attacked police and military units, killing dozens of police officers and shooting down an army helicopter, and then slaughtering the crew. Also, the JNGC has cells within the US, and its founder, known as El Mencho, has been trafficking drugs into the US for over two decades, prompting a price on his head of five million dollars. Fairly soon, the JNGC hopes to capture Tijuana, an extremely lucrative drug entrepot to the US.

Ciudad Juarez Has Suffered Greatly from Cartel Violence

No city in Mexico has suffered more from the ravages of the cartels than Ciudad Juarez, located just across the border from El Paso, Texas. This entry point into the lucrative drug market in the U.S. has become a battleground where everyone seems to be a target. In July 2010 a car bomb planted by the Juarez Cartel killed 15 people, most of them young people. Drug-related violence has killed thousands of people in Juarez.

As an example of how devilish the Juarez Cartel can be, it has developed an insidious way to smuggle drugs across the border by planting them in the cars of innocent people. The cartel gains entry to the vehicles by using locksmiths who have access to the VIN of automobiles, for which keys can then be made. Using GPS devices, the vehicles are tracked from Juarez to El Paso and then the contraband is picked up. Numerous people have gone to jail or prison for smuggling drugs they didn’t know they had in the trunks of their cars!

Also, as cartels tend to do, the Juarez Cartel has been responsible for numerous kidnappings, business extortion, and murders for hire, generating sidebar profits for the drug trade. This nefarious “business” has led to a turf war between the Juarez Cartel and the notorious Sinaloa Cartel, also known as the Golden Triangle.

Sinaloa Drug Cartel Engages in Drug Trafficking throughout the World

According to an NPR article entitled “A Look at Mexico’s Drug Cartels” published in April 2009, the Sinaloa Cartel smuggles Colombian cocaine and Mexican marijuana into the U.S. The cartel also operates numerous methamphetamine labs and ships heroin from Southeast Asia, much of this international junk ending up in the U.S.

But trafficking in cocaine seems to be the cartel’s major game. Its operation reaches from Mexico into Southern California and across the country to New York City, moving tons of cocaine into seemingly insatiable markets, overseen by local gangsters working in league with the cartel.

Cartels Use Weapons Bought in the US

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Guns in the U.S. Equip Cartels,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) estimates that 90 percent of all guns seized in raids come from the U.S. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean 90 percent of all firearms used by the cartels are of U.S. origin. Many are purchased from countries such as Guatemala and Portugal. The percentage for U.S. origin may be closer to 27% to 44%, according to the Office of Inspector General, in a study done in November 2010. The exact percentage may be impossible to ascertain.

Many of these weapons are military in nature – high-caliber rifles, semi-automatic pistols, and assault rifles, including AK-47s. Moreover, many gun shops have opened north of the Mexican border, and area gun shows offer buyers easy access to guns of all sorts. Tom Mangan, an ATF special agent pointed out that as the drugs head north, the firearms flow south, making armies out of the cartels.

Cartels Use Armored Vehicles or “Tanks”

Also called cokemobiles, some cartels have made their own tanks by converting cargo trucks. These makeshift armored vehicles are used to transport drugs, and weapons and some can hold as many as 20 men. Antitank weapons are needed to combat them. However, these narco tanks have a weakness: they use rubber tires that can be shot out and deflated. The tracks used on heavy equipment and military tanks would probably be more effective.

On a related note, in July 2008, a 30-foot narco submarine carrying more than five tons of cocaine was confiscated off the southwest coast of Oaxaca.

Mexico's Drug Cartels in the US

It’s been estimated that 70 percent of the drug trafficking in the U.S. is controlled by the Mexican drug cartels. But the U.S. appears to have no Mexican-like drug cartels. Why? According to a story entitled “Why the U.S. Doesn’t Have Mexico-style Drug Cartels” on the website Insight.org, the answer is that the U.S. does have drug cartels —they’re called street gangs and prison gangs.

In the U.S., where law enforcement is more effective and well-funded than it is in Mexico, any large drug cartel would attract the attention of the police and, aided by the military if needed, thereby bringing about its own demise. Instead, the drug trade is handled by smaller units that work with Mexican partners. In fact, drugs are often distributed on consignment, that is no money is paid upfront, allowing the gangs greater latitude in distribution. The cartels operate wholesale, while the gangs manage the retail. According to the World Drug Report, the U.S. drug market is worth an estimated $30 billion per year.

America’s Frankenstein Monster: Los Zetas

In an effort to help combat the Mexican cartels, the United States trained a group of Mexican soldiers that could confront the cartels with advanced weaponry. (Some of these soldiers may have been trained at the Military School of Americas.) Los Zetas were among the first cartel thugs to use paramilitary tactics, brandishing weapons such as 50-caliber machine guns, grenade launchers, and even ground-to-air missiles.

Unfortunately, the Zetas switched sides, becoming enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, the chief narcotraffickers on Mexico’s east coast. It’s likely the Gulf Cartel paid better than the Mexican government. Evidence of this is that one-eighth of Mexican soldiers eventually desert.

Los Zetas Recruits Kids

Throughout the state of Texas, Los Zetas is recruiting children as young as 11 to perform tasks for the cartel. For instance, Los Zetas has children move cars to see if the vehicles are under surveillance; it also has kids sell drugs or act as lookouts. Of course, when children are busted they receive much lighter sentences, a situation which Los Zetas exploits as much as possible. The cartels have a name for these kids: the expendables.

Corruption in Mexico Helps the Drug Cartels

As many people know, corruption in Mexico is legendary. But since the rise of the Mexican drug cartels in the late 1990s, corruption has blossomed like a vast plain covered with opium poppies. The drug cartels are difficult enough to fight, but corruption compounds the battle significantly. Police, military, and public officials have been implicated in taking bribes by the cartels. The list of alleged instances of corruption would be too long to list here.

Be that as it may, for example, in December 2005, 1,500 of Mexico’s Federal Investigations Agency’s 7,000 agents were under investigation for possible collusion with the drug cartels. In addition, in June 2007, President Calderon, suspecting bribery among his law enforcement people, dismissed 284 federal police commanders from states throughout Mexico.

Cocaine Economy May Have Saved Banks during the Great Recession

In March 2010, the U.S. bank Wachovia paid $110 million in fines for receiving as much as $378 billion from various Mexican drug cartels, in spite of the anti-laundering protocols in place. (Many other banks have been implicated in such illegal practices.)

According to the story “How a Big U.S. Bank Laundered Billions from Mexico’s Murderous Drug Gangs,” as provided on the website Guardian.co.uk, Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime during the banking crisis in 2008, said he had evidence suggesting the proceeds from drug trafficking and other crimes were "the only liquid investment capital" available to banks facing financial collapse. “Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drug trade,” he said. "There were signs that some banks were rescued that way."

After Wachovia received pressure from the U.S. Attorney General’s office, the Mexican cartels, essentially in protest, withdrew their money from Wachovia and other banks, and then the world credit crunch began a month later in August 2007. Shockingly, the withdrawal of this drug money from banks around the world may have precipitated the global financial meltdown!

Summing It All Up

It won’t be easy to beat Mexico’s drug cartels. Their numbers are too numerous, their soldiers too murderous, their armies too well-equipment and their pockets too deep. Harder still to defeat is humankind’s penchant for avarice, power, weapons, and drugs. An all-encompassing war waged by the Mexican government against the cartels, perhaps in conjunction with units of the U.S. military might weaken them a great deal, but for how long? Wouldn’t they grow back like a weed?

The answer to that question, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2011 Kelley Marks