We’ve heard a lot about the drug wars in Mexico. We’ve even become familiar with the cartels that wage them- their names, territories and sagas given ample play in US media. But how much do we know about what drives the violence and keeps it aflame? In what ways are the cartels able to innovate in order to keep ahead of law enforcement on both sides of the US-Mexican border? Can law enforcement keep up with these ever-evolving organizations? If drug demand in the US were to vanish, how would the cartels cope? How much does corruption dilute successful cooperation between the United States and Mexico? Come join us for a chat about the ins and outs of Mexico’s Drug Cartels.

Confronting Drug Trafficking

Given its corruption problems and long border with the largest consumer of many narcotics, Mexico is a prime location for major narcotrafficking operations. The issue of curbing drug trafficking has long been front and center in these two countries’ bilateral ties. The United States not only has invested upwards of $10 million per mile to build a fence along the border and equip border patrol agents with drones, but also launched the Merida Initiative in an effort to eradicate narco-related crime.

Corruption on both sides of the border is one of the greatest obstacles in the combat against drug trafficking. It has facilitated the operations of drug cartels,  simultaneously debilitating both states’ efforts to confront them.

Cartel Evolution

Cartels have adapted swiftly to law-enforcement maneuvers. Structurally, to avoid the incarceration of leadership paralyzing their business, cartels are increasingly decentralizing. Governments’ increasing efforts have prompted drug smugglers to change their methods — using inexpensive catapults to fire contraband over the fence, digging sophisticated tunnels conditioning-equipped tunnels, and even growing marijuana in rural parts of the United States in order to circumvent border detection.

As border protection forces focus on narcotics, though, cartels have branched into alternative sources of income — human smuggling.  Violence and poverty fueled millions of Central Americans to flee their home countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to the United States. Cartels are both fueling the violence and utilizing their networks to facilitate smuggling of people, many of whom were extorted, assaulted, or killed during the horrific journey.

Mixed Signals on Future Battle

There is no sign of shrinking demand for drugs in the United States, as the growing heroin use is filling the gap of rapidly decreasing cocaine consumption. Synthetic cathinone, the cheap substitute for cocaine and more commonly known as “bath salts,” is also spreading across the United States.

The Great Wall of Mexico, proposed by Donald Trump, is definitely not a trump card for the future battle against cartels. No Mexican government would accept the idea, it would be prohibitively expensive and, as discussed in this episode and our Bangladesh episode, it would be ineffective. Instead of emphasizing on the heavily supply-side oriented policies of drug control that aim primarily to restrict the availability of illegal drugs, the United States should invest more resources into minimizing demand.

Want to know more?

Here are just a few resources for a more in-depth perspective:

About the Author
Lacey Bruske is a graduate from the George Washington University’s MA program in International Affairs. She hails from Portland, Oregon. Prior to attending GWU, she worked at the Department of Justice as an advocate for women who were victims of sex trafficking crimes and a legal assistant on drug trafficking crimes. She graduated from Utrecht University’s University College Roosevelt in Middelburg, The Netherlands with a B.A. in International Law and Foreign Relations. Her travels have taken her throughout Europe, but she hopes to broaden her scope to South America soon. Her academic interests include organized crime and trafficking of weapons, drugs and people.