Drug War

Breaking the Bloody Mexican Drug Cartels

Support for legalizing recreational drugs is sweeping Latin America.

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When the Mexican legislature meets this fall, it is poised to pass a marijuana legalization bill. The legislation will legalize cannabis for all uses—recreational, medical, industrial—and will create a Mexican Cannabis Institute to grant licenses for the cultivation, processing, sale, import, export, and research of marijuana. The country's president and ruling political party have both endorsed the initiative, and it has already been approved by three Senate committees.

The bill's backers hope it will curb the influence of Mexico's drug cartels. Marijuana accounts for upwards of half of the cartels' revenues, which are estimated to range between $20 and $50 billion dollars annually.

The past year has been the bloodiest yet in Mexico's war against the cartels. When security forces in the city of Culiacan tried to arrest the son of drug lord El Chapo Guzmán in October 2019, they found themselves outnumbered and outgunned by the Sinaloa Cartel. In June, gangsters ambushed Mexico City's police chief with 400 rounds of ammunition from semi-automatic rifles; in July, cartel gunmen massacred 26 residents of a drug rehab center in Guanajuato.

In the past decade, Mexico has suffered 250,000 homicides because of the drug war. Whole swaths of the country are now controlled by organized crime, including the states of Guerrero, Michoacan, Morelos, and Tamaulipas. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) has killed more than 100 officials in the state of Jalisco alone, including federal, state, and local policemen, soldiers, mayors, and city council members. In June, it killed a federal judge and his wife. A U.S. Army Intelligence report estimates that over a six-year period, 150,000 of the Mexican army's 250,000 soldiers deserted, finding higher wages in the drug industry.

As Mexico's president from 2000 to 2006, Vicente Fox was a dutiful foot soldier in Washington's War on Drugs. But now Fox has been telling Time magazine that we should end prohibition "to take all the production chain out of the hands of criminals." 

Drugs, Fox added, are "bad for your health, and you shouldn't take them. But, ultimately, this is the responsibility [of] citizens."

Fox has been for legalization for a while. "We should look at it as a strategy to strike at and break the economic structure that allows gangs to generate huge profits in their trade, which fuels corruption and increases their areas of power," he wrote from his ranch in 2010. A decade later, he hopes this marijuana bill will be the first step toward legalizing all drugs.

Mexico is the latest in a series of Latin American countries to reject the U.S.'s approach to drug policy. Uruguay sits on a transit route for marijuana and cocaine. When Jose Mujica was elected president there in 2009, he cast a wary eye on the drug cartels that had taken control of nearby Paraguay. He knew they could easily seize Uruguay as well.

One of Mujica's first initiatives was to legalize marijuana, anticipating that all drugs might eventually follow. Latin American presidents had held back from legalization out of fear of retaliation by the United States. But by this time, several states in the U.S. had liberalized their marijuana laws. That helped give Latin Americans cover to opt out of the drug war themselves.

In 2009, the Argentine Supreme Court declared in a landmark ruling that it was unconstitutional to prosecute citizens for possessing drugs for their personal use. And in 2012, Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, suggested that the legalization of all drugs might be in order. Two years later, his country eased its prohibitionist stance by ceasing aerial fumigation of the coca crop. Four years after that, Colombia's Constitutional Court legalized recreational cannabis.

The insurgencies that have terrorized Colombia for decades have all been fueled by the illegal drug trade, says Daniel Raisbeck, who ran for mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, in 2015 and is a senior fellow at the Reason Foundation (which publishes this magazine). In 1979, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were militarily irrelevant, with a rag-tag army of around 800 troops. But in 1982, it made the strategic decision to take part in the drug trade. The FARC very quickly became very rich. By the end of the 1990s, it had around 20,000 troops.

Raisbeck himself lost a family member when the Medellín Cartel shot down a Boeing 727 passenger aircraft in 1989— in an attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate who was supposed to be on board. "This was but one of the many senseless, ruthless, and vicious acts of terror that I remember from my childhood," Raisbeck wrote in 2014.

Pedro Trujillo, a professor of international relations at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala City, lost two brothers to heroin overdoses. Trujillo thinks they might have been alive to this day if there had been clinics where his brothers could take safe, legal doses of the drug while getting addiction counseling. Trujillo proposes "legalization in combination with education about the dangers of drug use."

Latin America's wave of support for legalization comes at a time when there is growing skepticism in the United States about the drug war's efficacy, even among conservative lawmakers. In 2019, 91 Republicans joined 229 Democrats to pass legislation that gave marijuana businesses full access to the American banking system.

The drug war's beneficiaries have been armed criminals, from the FARC to the Mexican cartels to the Taliban. When Prohibition ended in 1933, so did much of the criminal violence that haunted the United States during the Prohibition era. Latin Americans have good reason to think the same thing will happen in their countries if they end narco-prohibition.

NEXT: A Vote for Joe Biden Is a Vote for a National Mask Mandate, Says Biden

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  1. It sounds reasonable to say that if we legalize drugs we remove the profit motive for the criminal behavior, but that leaves aside the Baptist/bootlegger coalition who don’t give a shit how much innocent people suffer and the regulator/regulated coalition that is hell-bent on the rent-seeking that’s going to keep legal drugs just as high-priced as the illegal stuff and therefore won’t do shit about removing the profit motive.

    1. You are correct that regulatory capture could reduce or even eliminate many of the gains of repealing prohibition.

      Sadly, I share your skepticism that legislatures will do the right thing and simply decriminalize.

      1. We have seen it in Colorado, Washington and California. If you legalize it and overregulate it, you maintain the incentive a for the black market to continue. While making it nearly impossible to legally deal with the black marketers.

        1. My dad lives in Colorado and according to him the price of legal marijuana products is around what I paid for the illegal stuff twenty years ago. Here in Maine recreational reefer has been legal for years, but there are no businesses selling it because the state still hasn’t gotten around to making their rules, and no one is foolish enough to set up a shop that would most certainly be in violation of these TBA regulations.

          1. The price of illegal marijuana even in states that border CO has dropped because of all of the legal stuff on the market. Which isn’t a counter to your statement, just another data point. i.e.: Yes, the legal stuff might cost what the illegal stuff cost 20 years ago, but it’s a lot less than what the illegal stuff cost 3 years ago.

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              1. Who realized selling marijuana from home was so profitable. Are you a legal dispensary or black market?

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      2. Legislators will do what it takes–mainly killing kids and brown people–to get the votes that keep their hand in the till. Voting libertarian gradually stops them from robbing and killing on that pretext. It’s simple arithmetic.

        1. I thought you were for killing kids? Or is that limited to infants?

    2. How can something be legal without rules? How can there be rules without enforcement by men with guns? The alternative is chaos and anarchy! How can a business be trusted unless they cough up tens of thousands of dollars for a permit and submit to regular inspections by government officials?

      It’s just plain nonsense to even think that people could safely grow a plant and dry its flowers. Pure fucking insanity.

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    3. Not to mention that I can buy a can of Coca-cola for less than $0.50 and, somehow even without regulatory capture, Coke still makes a shit-ton of money. Along thos same lines, I think it’s past time that we stop conflating legalizing marijuana with legalizing heroin or coke.

      Legalizing it might alleviate some issues with addiction and overdose but it fundamentally doesn’t remove them all. I’m pretty sure that even a lot of “libertarians” aren’t going to sit on their thumbs while the George Floyds of the world fentanyl themselves to near death and the former-cartel leaders rake in billions. Especially given the fact that plenty of non-libertarians didn’t do so when various government agencies fleeced the Purdue family and various tobacco companies.

      1. I think it’s past time that we stop conflating legalizing marijuana with legalizing heroin or coke.

        Honestly, at this point, I just say “fuck it”. Legalizing even cocaine and heroin can’t be as bad as what we’re already suffering while they’re illegal.

        1. Upvote your comment.

      2. Where did you get the time machine? Coke hasn’t been .50 a can in quite some time?

        1. I can get a cold can of Coke from a vending machine for 50 cents at the local Walmart. Costs less if I buy a case.

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      3. Addiction is a symptom of PTSD. Says Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine Eric Kandel.

        Dr. Lonny Shavelson found that 70% of female heroin addicts were sexually abused in childhood.

      4. Just as “expert witness” whores lie about drugs so laws can endanger us, so medical examiners lie about autopsies for prohibitionists to let killers with badges off the hook. Fat lazy cops murder people, and fat lazy political appointees suddenly say that people who outrun cops, or out-wrestle four of them were AKSHULLY in the final seconds of dying of overdoses–that in real life either happen instantly or make them helpless before they die lynched or riddled with bullets. Trumpistas’ lame BS will (I hope) defeat them.

    4. Suffer? Drug dealers help people.

      Addiction is a symptom of PTSD. Says Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine Eric Kandel.

      Dr. Lonny Shavelson found that 70% of female heroin addicts were sexually abused in childhood.

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  2. I wish them well, but the cynic in me thinks whether they make drugs even more illegal or make them legal, there are enough states where pot is still illegal that I wonder how much difference it will make.

    1. “I wish them well, but the cynic in me thinks whether they make drugs even more illegal or make them legal, there are enough states where pot is still illegal that I wonder how much difference it will make.”

      History seems to say that, short-to-medium term, you are probably correct. Hell, Mississippi didn’t legalize alcohol until 1966. and there are still a hundred or more counties and towns where one cannot purchase alcohol. But, eventually, as with booze in the US, it’s a good bet that most local jurisdictions will legalize them, if only to raise revenue through government-run businesses. “Decriminalization” will look different in different places.

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  7. Forcing people to get licenses to grow plants: that’s violence.

    1. More than that. It’s asinine.

    2. Stop it. End Joe Biden’s racist Drug War.

    3. Less violent than tossing people in jail for growing plants.

  8. The bill’s backers hope it will curb the influence of Mexico’s drug cartels. Marijuana accounts for upwards of half of the cartels’ revenues, which are estimated to range between $20 and $50 billion dollars annually.

    Marijuana? Or Marijuana in Mexico?

    Because I doubt its the latter, in which case this is just a tiny little baby step.

    1. gangsters ambushed Mexico City’s police chief with 400 rounds of ammunition from semi-automatic rifles

      What? Like, they just handed it over? Also, do you know how much 5.56 is going for right now? They were giving the guy a bonus for a job well done.

      1. As Mexico’s president from 2000 to 2006, Vicente Fox was a dutiful foot soldier in Washington’s War on Drugs. But now Fox has been telling Time magazine that we should end prohibition “to take all the production chain out of the hands of criminals.”

        Amazing how anti-prohibition people get once they no longer have the power to do anything about it. Retired politicians, retired cops, . . .

        1. The pension gives them independence. End Joe Biden’s racist Drug War.

      2. I laughed at that line. That’s like, a light day at the range.

  9. i assume the cartels will just terrorize any potential legitimate operations into submission?

    “Hey nice legal MJ shop you just opened, please come checkout this oil drum of acid i have over here”

    1. In the end though that won’t make any difference.

      Either they will become the legitimate operations – in which case the violence goes away – or they get outcompeted (even if that means they have to move into other crimes).

      Same as happened at the end of Prohibition.

      1. +1 Kennedy family

    2. Yeah, this will work as well as ending prohibition did in weakening the mob.

      I’m all for legalization, but thinking that it will weaken the cartels is fantasy.

      1. I’m not so sure. Clearly, Prohibition did enable the explosion of LCN by providing a very lucrative adjunct to the traditional vice rackets. But ending Prohibition DID rob them of hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. You don’t hear about them bootlegging anymore, right? You buy legal booze from a liquor store, right? LCN and other crime families simply switched to Heroin and then cocaine, thanks to the Drug War. Legalize for adults, and the cartels would definitely feel the crippling loss of revenue. Other actions would be necessary, but one thing is certain: ending the Drug War is the best course of action.

        1. Prohibition was paid for by the Glucose Trust and Fleischmann’s Yeast, both of which cut out the brewers and distillers and sold malt, corn sugar and yeast to housewives–and entrepreneurs the media mystics dubbed mafias, organized crime and whatnot–mainly because they returned fire from Dry Killers. All were indicted, assets grabbed, and banks failed. All of this is in “Prohibition and The Crash” on Amazon.

    3. The Nixon-subsidized Dem-GOP Kleptocracy is the Cartel. Drugs were a way to raise secret cash for Cold War operations, but the habit clung after the Soviet Collapse. The Kleptocracy is the organizer and the Crime. Voting libertarian is what weakens their ability to shoot kids over plant leaves and rob homes and autos.

  10. The Cartels have moved on to running almost everything else in Mexico. They’ve moved on.

    1. The business can’t last forever. They are preparing.

      End Joe Biden’s racist Drug War.

    2. Spain’s and Portugal’s Godly old caudillo dictatorship models are popular in the banana republics. Pseudoscience follows mysticism and folks will believe anything they hear from teevee and pulpit. When was the last time America’s crooked network TV mentioned Jo Jorgensen’s campaign? Libertarian parties down south are banned at gunpoint everywhere but Mexico and Uruguay.

  11. The countries have not held back because of the US.

    A guy I knew from Columbia told me they tried to legalize some time ago. He said every judge got a phone call from a cartel guy saying “you vote yes and you had better say goodbye to your family tonight. We won’t kill you but you will never see them again”

    1. The commies kidnapped people in Colombia in the early 80s, and the cartels hunted them like rats. Only when the U.S. Kleptocracy began armed meddling did the communists begin to surge there again, as they did in America’s prohibition recessions in 1920-23 and 1929-34.

  12. Drugs, Fox added, are “bad for your health, and you shouldn’t take them. But, ultimately, this is the responsibility [of] citizens.”

    But not as bad, in general, as cartels or governments. But I repeat myself.

  13. Heroin is a very nasty drug. It interferes with digestion. Why would any one use it?

    Addiction is a symptom of PTSD. Says Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine Eric Kandel. Dr. Lonny Shavelson found that 70% of female heroin addicts were sexually abused in childhood.

    End Joe Biden’s racist Drug War.

    1. People use it because it makes them feel good or provides some other benefit…at least initially. Street Heroin (not pharmaceutical Heroin) is nasty – often due to adulteration – but in chemical terms, ubiquitous and socially accepted alcohol is a literal toxin that kills many more people and is generally FAR worse.

      In fact, in addition to killing pain, Heroin slows peristalsis in a dose-dependent manner, like most opioids. Throughout history, one of the main uses of opioids has been as anti-diarrheals. Now there are drugs that can help mitigate the constipative effect, and some chronic pain patients taking high-dose opioids take them.

      You want to talk about ‘interfering with digestion?’ Alcohol poisons the digestive tract and can cause acid reflux, ulcers, damage to the stomach lining and pyloric sphincter, esophageal varices, stomach and digestive cancers, and a host of other life-threatening problems. And that’s just the digestive tract. Read about what it does to the heart and brain for a real scare (e.g., Dilated Cardiomyopathy and Wernicke’s Encephalitis are just two.)

      In any case, yes, Biden and Harris are chief Drug War architects. People should own their bodies and assume the consequences. I’ve seen the consequences up close, as my sister died from an opioid/benzo OD a few years back. It’s well past time to end the Drug War and the unconstitutional Drug Courts (which merely exist to tax addicts and their families for their ‘bad behavior.’)

    2. Most people do not like the effect of heroin. See Drugs and The Mind by R.S. De Ropp

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  15. If the drug consumption is concentrated in the US, not Mexico of the rest of Latin America, then how in the hell is this supposed to weaken the cartels?

    1. The LP vote share is increasing at a slope of abt 1.2 or 80% a year. Both looter parties are pushing prohibition so whichever loses will blame our spoiler votes and repeal bad laws to minimize their effect next time. Ours is the only vote that says to legalize LSD, mescalin, shrooms, DMT and a host of things condemned by superstition and pseudoscience. Folks can choose between shooting kids and having freedom.

    2. Who cares? It weakens coercion, which is the important thing.

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  17. It’s not a War on Drugs, it is a War on People. It has done nothing in the last fifty years except bring death to our cities and power to the government. It has made almost all of us into criminals at some time in our lives. It has increased the dangers of using drugs by compromising the purity of the product. It’s been very successful as a tool of government, our rulers are more addicted to the power it gives them than anyone addicted to the drugs they condemn.

  18. If it passes it will stop the U.S. Kleptocracy from jailing people for life under the foreign conviction clause of the Reagan-Bush-Biden law that caused the 1987 Crash:
    PUBLIC LAW 99-570—OCT. 27, 1986
    If any person commits such a violation after one or more prior convictions for an offense punishable under this paragraph, or for a felony under any other provision of this title or title III or other law of a State, the United States, or a *foreign country* relating to narcotic drugs, marihuana, or depressant or stimulant substances, have become final, such person shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment which may not be less than 20 years and not more than life imprisonment … See? Foreign country!

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