Evolution Of Drug Trade Control Shows Shift, Not Slowdown

By Steven H. Salami

The involvement of the famous “five families” of the Italian-American mafia in the smuggling, distribution and sale of illegal drugs dominated United States, particularly in New York City, from the 1950s through the 1980s. The famous “French connection“ saw Turkish opium shipped through Paris into New York City, where the mafia would take possession of the shipments and distribute them throughout United States.

This mafia stronghold created the need for serious government involvement. Presidents Johnson and Nixon launched initiatives making drug trafficking the number one target of each administration. In 1971, President Nixon called the drug problem in America a “national emergency” affecting both the “body and soul” of America. He created the drug enforcement administration (DEA) in 1973 to wage an all-out war on drugs. However, little could be done to stop drug use in America, which reached its peak in 1979.

It was at this time that Colombian traffickers began to expand their operations beyond marijuana, establishing a beachhead in South Florida in the early 1980s.  Pablo Escobar became the most famous drug trafficker in history at this time, leading the Medellin Cartel. A transition was made from the Italian families to Colombian and Mexican Cartels who took a stronghold on the cocaine and methamphetamine market by establishing drug syndicate headquarters in Columbia and Mexico.

By the late 1990s, drug traffickers from Mexico dominated the drug trade and began to add methamphetamine production on a very large scale. Colombian drug traffickers expanded from cocaine into heroin.

From the families of the Italian mafia through the Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, the theme was the same: drug trafficking distribution and sale was ruled with an iron fist and drug battles were often waged in the streets with those who offered resistance or who tried to take over territory being met with violence and, often, death.  There was no compromise or negotiation – the cash cow that was the lifeblood of the families and cartels carried on essentially uninterrupted for the better part of 50 or 60 years.

Today, Mexican criminal groups control the supply and wholesale distribution of most of the illicit drugs in the United States with a presence in more than 1000 United States cities. The Sinaloa Cartel dominates the United States drug trade and Mexican TCO’s are the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States with no other group positioned to challenge them.

United States and Mexico have been cooperating in an effort to fight Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) most notably with the Merida initiative passed by the United States Congress in 2008. Based upon that initiative, the United States has provided Mexico with about $1.6 billion in aircraft equipment and the transfer of technology in training. They have also provided helicopters, surveillance aircrafts, vehicles with scanners, inspection equipment and trained dogs. Additionally, the project covers police training and investigation programs as well as the training officials to implement reform. This resulted in the arrest of El Chapo and his extradition into United States in 2017.

While the cooperation of American and Mexican government officials is overt, the question has been raised whether Mexican TCO’s have covertly been cooperating with American and Mexican officials as well, their motive being retention of their share of the illegal marijuana trade in light of its legalization in several of the Untied States.

The legalization of marijuana has put a major crimp in to the profit of the Mexican drug cartels, and there is evidence they are fighting back.  Since 2006 (around the time that marijuana legalization became a conversation in the United States), cartel tactics have escalated to include military-style weapons, beheading, torture and explosive devices resulting in the loss of over 60,000 lives.  This is because the Untied States is the biggest consumer of illegal drugs on the planet and Mexican criminal groups control the supply and wholesale distribution of most of the illicit drugs in the United States.

Legalized marijuana has slowly displaced black market “mota” supplied by Mexican cartels.  There has been a marked decline in marijuana seized at the Mexican border since 2014, the year Colorado and Washington became the first states in the U.S. to legalize marijuana.  Nine other states have since legalized marijuana with 22 others allowing medical marijuana for medical use. The steady decline in marijuana seized at the border gives rise to the presumption that Mexican TCO’s have slowly shifted their focus from marijuana to other illegal drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines.  Or have they?

The savvy of Mexican cartels should not be underestimated.  Violence and killings was their knee-jerk reaction to the initial wave of marijuana legalization.  That, coupled with the decrease in marijuana seized at the border since 2014, would lead one to believe that less marijuana is being smuggled into the United States.

Illegal pot farms have sprung up all over California, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Nevada and Arizona, and government officials are struggling to keep up.  Thus, it is clear that Mexican cartels have used the legalization of marijuana to their advantage, taking control of property in states that have legalized marijuana and growing their own crops.  This cuts down tremendously on costs of smuggling marijuana across the border, reduces risk and decreases the need for weapons, vehicles, fuel and manpower.  Incredibly, Mexican cartels have actually seen an increase in profitability since the legalization of medical marijuana in these states.

There is also evidence that Mexican Cartels have begun to exert their influence over local, legal medical marijuana dispensaries.  It is estimated Mexican TCO’s have a presence in more than 1,000 United States cities.  That is no small statistic.  The DEA has confirmed that the most powerful Mexican Cartels now have a presence in numerous U.S. territories.  Officials have traced wire transfers and transactions between Mexican-based companies and companies that are doing business in Colorado, California, Nevada, Washington and Utah in amounts that have raised eyebrows and red flags.  There have been no definitive findings yet but, as the saying goes, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.

In this high-stakes game of chess, it appears that for every move that is made to outsmart and outwit the Mexican cartels, the cartels have an equal counterattack which spawns new policy.  Perhaps the game is what it appears on the surface, but it is equally likely that what we see is not what is real.  Do not discount the possibility that all of this is showmanship and that the cartels are working behind the scenes with government officials, exerting strong-arm tactics to keep their piece of the market share intact at any price.  Officials benefit in the Court of public opinion, who see legalization of marijuana as a method through which the cartels have been weakened.  The reality, however, is that the cartels are more powerful than ever and as long as the demand for the product exists, the cartels will continue to rule, no matter the ever-changing methods they will be required to employ.



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