Organized crime diversifies as War on Drugs flounders in Mexico

. Oct 28, 2020
mexico war on drugs Mexican troops raid poppy and marijuana fields confiscated in the state of Chihuahua. Photo: Octavio Hoyos/Shutterstock

The War on Drugs has been a defining aspect of public security policy in several Latin American countries for decades. However, as recent scandals across the region have shown, existing anti-drug operations are futile as organized crime becomes more and more powerful. Indeed, criminal groups are targeted mainly for their drug trafficking activities, but ongoing trends have shown that gangs and cartels are expanding into a wide array of endeavors, including extortion, illegal mining and logging, oil theft, and even avocado farming.

As The Brazilian Report has shown, organized crime groups from Mexico down to Brazil have used the state’s shortfalls in responding to the pandemic as an opportunity to improve their public image, expand their influence, and break into new markets.

</p> <p>The average criminal group in Latin America is no longer an all-powerful centralized cartel, but a fluid network willing to adapt to new environments and markets, with a shifting set of allies and enemies. These smaller decentralized groups find it easier to adapt to market conditions and are structured in a way to avoid the public spotlight — of course, it is easier to make money without a big target on your back.&nbsp;</p> <p>These groups range from paramilitaries in the jungle to corporate style middlemen and consultants who negotiate million-dollar drug deals. Despite multiple supposed victories in the <a href="">War on Drugs</a>, violence only seems to be increasing. The fall of notorious drug kingpins — from Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s to Joaquin &#8220;El Chapo&#8221; Guzmán in recent years — has done nothing to reduce the availability of drugs across the world.&nbsp;</p> <p>Furthermore, in the process of expanding into new markets, these groups are more than willing to spill blood. The result is endemic violent crime, with Latin America accounting for around one-third of all murders in the world: around 400 a day and 140,000 a year in 2019.</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Drug warriors working with cartels</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="" alt="drug cartels" class="wp-image-51930" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>&#8220;They were taken alive,&#8221; reads remembering victims of the War on Drugs. Photo: Guillermo G/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>Last month, General Salvador Cienfuegos — Mexico&#8217;s former Defense Minister — was arrested in the U.S. on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking. Gen. Cienfuegos is the latest in a line of senior Mexican &#8216;drug warriors&#8217; to be arrested for working with the very drug traffickers he was supposed to be fighting. Earlier this year, ex-Public Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna — the architect of the War on Drugs launched by former President Felipe Calderon — was arrested in Miami on similar charges along with two of his top lieutenants in the federal police. Mexican President <a href="">Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador</a>, also known as AMLO, said that the arrests are further evidence of the rampant corruption of past governments.</p> <p>Gen. Cienfuegos stands accused of working with the &#8216;H2&#8217; cartel — a spin-off of the now-extinct Beltrán Leyva Cartel — to launder money and distribute drugs in the U.S. between 2015 and 2017. His term as Defense Minister was defined by one of the most infamous massacres in recent Mexican history in the state of Guerrero, where 43 Mexican students were killed with the alleged assistance of the police and military. He played a key role in the subsequent state cover-up of the massacre, blocking investigators from interviewing soldiers suspected of playing a role in the slaughter.</p> <p>The news of Gen. Cienfuegos&#8217; detention comes as Mexican authorities are issuing arrest warrants for soldiers allegedly involved in the massacre. AMLO promised the victims&#8217; family members that there would be no impunity for those responsible for the crime.&nbsp;</p> <p>Indeed, the irony of Washington arresting the Mexican drug warriors they trained and funded has been lost on the U.S. society, generating next to no debate on drug policy.&nbsp;</p> <p>There is nothing unprecedented or surprising about revelations of leading drug warriors becoming involved in the drug trade. Mexico’s first anti-drug tsar General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was arrested in the 1990s for protecting Amado Carrillo Fuentes, Mexico’s most notorious <a href="">drug lord</a> of the time. Accusations of anti-drug officials working alongside cartels have been rife in the country for some time.</p> <p>Around 300,000 deaths and between 60,000 and 80,000 <a href="">forced disappearances</a> later, there is no victory in sight in Mexico’s Drug War. Violence in Mexico has never been higher; where once there were a handful of drug cartels, there are now almost one hundred, and the reach of organized crime has extended into almost every facet of the Mexican economy, from avocado farming to mining. 

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Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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