The Role of Mexico’s Drug Cartels in the U.S. Fentanyl Crisis

 

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

05/13/19- (written by Aitanna Ferrez) The surge of opioid overdoses in the United States has killed tens of thousands of people in recent years and, according to the New York Times, has become the leading cause of death for U.S. citizens under the age of 55.  In particular, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and has been a major contributor to the crisis. Fentanyl is often used by drug traffickers and dealers as an additive to enhance the effect of other drugs, including heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and even counterfeit prescription drugs. In recent years, numerous opioid deaths have been attributed to the proliferation of fentanyl, because even small variations in quantity can lead to overdoses.

 

Historically, fentanyl has been predominantly manufactured in China and often directly shipped to the United States. Mexican drug cartels have predominantly functioned as intermediaries in the distribution of fentanyl. Following an April 1st decision by the Chinese National Narcotics Control Commission to regulate fentanyl and all chemically similar variants as a class of controlled substances, it is possible that Mexican cartels will now become more important suppliers of illicit fentanyl. According to an InSight Crime report focused on the severity of Mexico’s contribution to the deadly rise of fentanyl, Mexico has become not only a major transit country, but also a key production point for fentanyl and its chemical variants. Furthermore, Insight Crime’s investigation shows that Mexican traffickers appear to be playing a role in the distribution of fentanyl within the United States, with Mexico’s two largest criminal organizations—the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG)—being the two most prominent purveyors of the drug. According to the report, these and other Mexican criminal organizations continue to transport and distribute fentanyl using the same routes employed for other illicit drugs.

 

According to the Insight Crime report, the Mexican government “does not see fentanyl as an important issue yet and has not devoted significant resources towards finding the principal drivers of the trade inside its borders.” This is a serious concern given the degree to which fentanyl is dramatically reshaping the illicit drug trade. Simultaneously, this is having disastrous effects in Mexican drug producing regions, according to a report produced by the Wilson Center, NORIA, and Justice in Mexico. This report emphasizes that with “the upsurge in fentanyl use, the demand for Mexican heroin has sharply fallen,” causing village economies to “dry up” and “out migration” on the upward trend. Altogether, the report highlights the how a modernization of Mexico’s drug policies would solve problems to a wealth of unanswered questions and help bring marginalized regions into the country for good.

 

The new paradigm, created by the rise of fentanyl, may require Mexico and the United States to move away from past approaches dealing with drugs. As fentanyl begins to atomize the market, it will be more difficult to identify and arrest major traffickers like Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, a practice that has not been particularly effective in preventing drug use. According to Insight Crime founder Steven Dudley in a contribution to Foreign Affairs Magazine, “Dealing with illicit drugs requires a holistic approach dedicated to understanding the complexity of drug use and its ripple effects on everything from the rule of law to democracy.”

 

Sources:

Dudley, Steven, et al. “Mexico’s Role in the Deadly Rise of Fentanyl – Investigation.” InSight Crime, Wilson Center: Mexico Institute, Feb. 2019

Dudley, Steven. “The End of the Big Cartels.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 4 Mar. 2019, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/mexico/2019-02-27/end-big-cartels

Hassan, Adeel. “Deaths From Drugs and Suicide Reach a Record in the U.S.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Mar. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/07/us/deaths-drugs-suicide-record.html

Le Cour Grandmaison, Romain, et al. “The U.S. Fentanyl Boom and the Mexican Opium Crisis: Finding Opportunities Amidst Violence?” Wilson Center, 12 Feb. 2019, www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/the-us-fentanyl-boom-and-the-mexican-opium-crisis-finding-opportunities-amidst-violence.

 

 

 

 

 

2019 Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico Report

 

Download the full report here  

 

04/30/19- Justice in Mexico, a research-based program at the University of San Diego, released its 2019 report on Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico, co-authored by Laura Calderón, Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk. This report analyzes the latest available data to broadly assess the current state of violence, organized crime, and human rights in Mexico. The tenth edition in a series is published under a new title to reflect the gradual shift that has occurred to the restructuring illicit drug trade and the rise of new organized crime groups.

In 2018, Mexico saw record violence with 28,816 homicide cases and 33,341 victims reported by the Mexican National Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP). This reflects the continued augmentation in violent crime in Mexico for more than a decade with a notable increase in the last few years. The homicide rate has dramatically escalated from 16.9 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 as reported to UNODC to 27.3 per 100,000 in 2018 based on SNSP figures. In this and past reports, the authors attribute much of the violence, between a third to a half, to the presence of organized crime groups, particularly drug trafficking organizations.

According to the report, violence has become more pervasive throughout the country but remains highly concentrated in a few specific areas, especially in the major drug trafficking zones located in the northwest and the Pacific Coast. The top ten most violent municipalities in Mexico accounted for 33.6% of all homicides in Mexico in 2018, with 24.7% concentrated in the top five: Tijuana (2,246), Ciudad Juárez (1,004), Acapulco (839), Cancún-Benito Juárez (537), Culiacán (500).

 

 

Tijuana’s rate of 115 homicide cases per 100,000 inhabitants ranks second to Acapulco’s rate of 127 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. According to Baja California State’s Secretary of Public Security (SSP) reporting, Tijuana saw a significant increase in 2018 of 41% victims up from 2017.

The authors have found that Mexican organized crime groups have become more fragmented, decentralized, and diversified in their activities. Notably, violence in the Mexican state of Guanajuato appears to have risen due to the increased presence of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel and an increase in the prevalence of petroleum theft (huichicol). At least nine municipalities in Guanajuato had a murder rate of more than 100 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

Record violence in Mexico has disproportionally affected certain populations (e.g. politicians, journalist, and men). In 2018, a major election year, there were 37 victims among mayors, mayoral candidates, and former-mayors. These numbers are up slightly from 35 cases in 2017 but demonstrate a significant increase from 14 victims in 2015 and 6 victims in 2016. A 2018 Justice in Mexico study found that in recent years Mexican journalists were at least three times more likely to be murdered than the general population, while mayors were at least nine times more likely. There were 16 journalists and media workers that were killed in 2018. Additionally, the report finds that men are 8.3 times more likely to be homicide victims than women, with 28,522 male homicide victims.

All told, the authors of the report estimate that over 150,000 people were murdered during the six years of the Peña Nieto administration, the most homicides during any presidential term in recent Mexican history. The current Lopez Obrador administration has proposed a new security agenda centered on citizen security, changes in federal law enforcement, and efforts to minimize tensions in U.S.-Mexican relations. Two of the most important measures that the new government has put forward are the creation of a autonomous federal prosecutor and a national guard.

 

 

Download the full report here

 

 

 

What the Trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Revealed About The Inner Workings of the Sinaloa Cartel

 

"El Chapo" at his trial, Courtroom sketch by Christine Cornell

Sketch by Christine Cornell

03/19/19- (written by Aitanna Ferrez) Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán was convicted in the Southern District of New York on Tuesday, February 12, 2019 on all counts brought against him for his role in directing the Sinaloa Cartel since roughly the 1980s. The trial revealed significant details about the Sinaloa Cartel, how it works, who is involved and where their business is conducted, providing a greater understanding of how this specific cartel has contributed to corruption and violence in Mexico. In the wake of his arrest and extradition to the United States, business of the cartel seems to be carrying on as usual, there is an ongoing epidemic of U.S. drug overdoses, and violence in Mexico has reached record levels. Understanding the impact of the Sinaloa Cartel and where it may be headed in Guzman’s absence requires a careful review of what we now know about the organization.

Background on the Sinaloa Cartel

According to InSight Crime, the Sinaloa Cartel began as a small group of farming families who switched to drug trafficking in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1980s, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán officially founded the Sinaloa Cartel. Up until his arrest in January 2016, Guzmán served with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia as what has been perceived as head of the drug trafficking organization.

The Sinaloa Cartel achieved success in part because of its relatively decentralized structure, with different geographic divisions of the network working together as “separate but cooperating organizations.” Indeed, though identified as the organization’s formal leaders in principal, InSight Crime reports that both Guzmán and Zambada Garcia historically maintained their own individual organizational structures within the Sinaloa Cartel. Meanwhile, many of the Sinaloa Cartel’s activities and operations in Mexico and internationally were “outsourced” to local suppliers, distributors, and other partners.

According to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, in an interview with ABC News, it was “El Chapo” Guzmán’s ability to “institutionalize power systems and relationships” that largely enabled the cartel to expand. According to Bret Hamilton, assistant special agent for Alabama’s sector of the DEA, the Sinaloa cartel is said to control about one-fourth of the drug traffic within the Mexican Region, with an even larger reach and hold on the United States.”

The effect of the reach of the Sinaloa Cartel and its network of contraband trade has had translates directly into its ability to, as InSight affirms, “successfully [penetrate] government and security forces wherever it operates.” As stated in a June 2018 CRS report, the Sinaloa Cartel has “successfully corrupted public officials from the local to the national level inside Mexico and abroad to operate in some 50 countries,” allowing it to become the top supplier of illicit psychotropic substances in the United States.

What We Learned from the Guzmán Trial

The trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was a lesson in and of itself on how the Sinaloa Cartel’s success has been contingent upon the high level of corruption within the Mexican police, military, and government. Witness testimony during the trial brought to the surface countless allegations against Guzmán and the Sinaloa Cartel, and corruption was arguably the prominent theme that emerged throughout.

As revealed in a VICE News podcast, the corruption of the Sinaloa Cartel is practically embedded in all aspects of life in Mexico. Two testimonies in particular – one delivered by a former government official Lucero Sanchez Lopez, who became a mistress of Guzmán and the other by Alex Cifuentes, a relative of one of Guzmán’s primary cocaine suppliers in Colombia – brought to light the degree of high-level corruption of the Mexican government by the Sinaloa Cartel. In addition, according to the New York Times following the final presentation of evidence, reports delivered the prosecution revealed possibly the most shocking claims against Mr. Guzmán, accusing the crime lord of “routinely rap[ing] girls as young as 13 years old.”

The first witness’ testimony illustrated the way that government officials fell under Guzmán’s sway even as they were sworn to enforce the law. Cifuentes, meanwhile, alleged that the cartel was able to bribe officials even at the highest levels of office, including then-president Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), who allegedly accepted a bribe of $100 million to protect the Sinaloa Cartel from authorities.

Looking Ahead

The Sinaloa Cartel, though constantly challenged within Mexico by other drug trafficking organizations, seems to prosper well due to its significant international network, even after the guilty verdict of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. In an interview with PBS Newshour, Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the DEA, comments that capturing and convicting Guzmán “was a great moral victory for the rule of law, [but] it did very little to have a negative impact on the Sinaloa Cartel.” With the drugs continuing to be shipped, the Mexican government no longer hunting down drug lords, and Guzmán’s fate of little importance, the Sinaloa Cartel seems to continue to persist with business as usual.

 

Sources:

 

Beittel, June. “Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations.” Congressional Research Service, 3 July 2018, pp. 1–28. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41576.pdf.

Feuer, Alan. “El Chapo Drugged and Raped 13-Year-Old Girls, Witness Claims.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Feb. 2019. www.nytimes.com/2019/02/02/nyregion/el-chapo-trial.html.

 

Keneally, Meghan. “How El Chapo’s Sinaloa Drug Cartel Spread Its Reach Across US.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 13 July 2015. www.abcnews.go.com/International/el-chapos-sinaloa-drug-cartel-spread-reach-us/story?id=32421054.

 

Robinson, Carol. “Mexico’s Sinaloa Drug Cartel Leaving Deadly Mark on Alabama.” AL.com, Advance Local Media LLC., 23 July 2018. www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2018/07/what_is_the_sinaloa_mexican_dr.html.

 

“Sinaloa Cartel.” InSight Crime, 30 Jan. 2018. www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/sinaloa-cartel-profile/.

 

“The Verdict.” Chapo: Kingpin on Trial. VICE News/Spotify. 19 February 2019. https://open.spotify.com/show/3iZGZfoQX9kfzdZtAYi2s2?si=wxEH63CcQD2B50avZt8XJg.

 

Verza, Maria, and Mark Stevenson. “After El Chapo Conviction, Sinaloa Drug Cartel Carries On.” PBS, KPBS, 12 Feb. 2019. www.pbs.org/newshour/world/after-el-chapo-conviction-sinaloa-drug-cartel-carries-on.

 

Verza, Maria, and Mark Stevenson. “Despite ‘El Chapo’ Arrest, Mexico’s Powerful Sinaloa Drug Cartel Still Raking in Cash around the World.” The Japan Times, 13 Feb. 2019. www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/02/13/world/crime-legal-world/despite-el-chapo-arrest-mexicos-powerful-sinaloa-drug-cartel-still-raking-cash-around-world/#.XGxRBc9KigQ.

 

 

 

 

New Justice in Mexico and Wilson Center Report: The U.S. Fentanyl Boom and the Mexican Opium Crisis: Finding Opportunities Amidst Violence?

 

02/11/19- Fentanyl overdoses in the United States have risen tenfold in just four years and are now related to 60% of total opioid deaths. According to a working paper by Romain LeCour Grandmaison, Nathaniel Morris and Benjamin T. Smith, the dramatic increase of fentanyl use in the United State is generating a parallel and rapid collapse in the price offered for raw opium in rural Mexico. In the working paper titled “The U.S. Fentanyl Boom and the Mexican Opium Crisis: Finding Opportunities Amidst Violence?” the authors utilize the case studies of two villages in Nayarit and Guerrero, Mexico, respectively, to analyze the socio-political effects of U.S. fentanyl use on the opium and heroin economy in Mexico. The findings of this study have important implications for public security in Mexico, as well as major ramifications for international counter-drug efforts.

The authors provide historical context to illustrate the trends in the Mexican opium markets. There were various increases and declines in the production of the drug within Mexico before the 1990s. A notable change to opium production came with the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, which gradually increased price competition until 2008, thereby negatively affecting Mexican rural communities. As a result, many farmers turned to the cultivation of narcotics. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the number of hectares of opium poppies in Mexico increased from 1,900 hectares in 2000 to 44,100 hectares in 2017.

 

The authors illustrate the effects of the shift from heroin to fentanyl through two case studies: Village A, located in Nayarit, and Village B, located in Guerrero. Both villages are poorer than the national average with 61.6% of the population of Village A and 33% of the population of Village B living in extreme poverty. Additionally, both villages are located in states that face high levels of violence.

The people of Village A have traditionally depended on agriculture for their livelihoods. Beginning the in mid-1980s, the inhabitants began depending on the cultivation of opium poppies and, to a lesser extent, marijuana to supplement their income with very little knowledge of the laws prohibiting these narcotics. However, with the fentanyl crisis, the last year has seen a more than 50% decline in the price of opium in Village A from 18,000 – 20,000 pesos ($950 – $1,050 dollars) per kilo in early 2017 to 8,000 pesos ($420 dollars) per kilo by mid-2018. As a result, some villagers have emigrated while other have become wage-laborers for drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) that they previously had little contact with.

According to the authors, 95% of males in Village B are involved in poppy production. While most people are involved in cultivation, a substantial number is also involved in the processing of opium paste into heroin. Local drug bosses sell the pure heroin to bigger organizations that are capable of selling and transporting the drug. Before the fentanyl crisis, a local farmer could make around 80,000 pesos ($4,230 dollars) a year through poppy cultivation. However, between October 2017 and the summer of 2018, prices dropped to 6,000 pesos ($315 dollars) a kilo. As with the case of Village A, locals are concerned that should the decline in prices continue, they would be forced to leave their village. The problems confronting the inhabitants of Village A and B signal larger trends, such as the value of opium to rural communities in Mexico and the radical decrease of value of opium over the past year.

 

 

The authors offer that the current opium crisis may provide an opportunity to shift from their dependency on illicit crops and away from drug trafficking. The high risk involved in the production of narcotics that was previously outweighed by large returns may no longer be worth it as a result of price declines. In their paper, the authors examine two alternatives widely touted by politicians as solutions to poverty and violence: drug legalization, which could convert the cultivation of opium into morphine production for Mexican hospitals, and crop substitution, or the replacement of the cultivation of illicit crops for food cultivation. The authors find neither of these solutions are “silver bullets.” Additionally, although there has been a reduction in heroin production, this will not likely lead to lasting peace, as DTOs are liable to move to other illicit activities. Despite these concerns, if legalization and crop substitution are properly implemented and combined with broader security policies, they could integrate rural areas into the country for good.

 

 

New Working Paper: Immigration and National Security: An Empirical Assessment of Central American Immigration and Violent Crime in the United States

 

January 25, 2019- In his first primetime Oval Office address, President Donald Trump called on Congress to address what he called a “growing humanitarian and security crisis” at the United States’ southern border, spawned in part by the recent arrival of a caravan of 6,500 migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle region.[1] In her paper, titled “Immigration and National Security: An Empirical Assessment of Central American Immigration and Violent Crime in the United States,” Daphne Blanchard examines the extent of the potential threat by gathering quantitative data of previous Central American migration flows and the impact they have had on violence in American communities. The author contends that as rhetoric from high-level politicians and news media makes connections between violent crime and immigration, political parties’ stances on immigration become more divergent — leading to the inability to agree on comprehensive immigration reform. Not only does this research add to the understanding of the potential threat of these particular migrants to U.S. communities, its findings can be generalized to the overall public debate of the nature of immigration and national security.

 

Foreign-born populations in the US

Data source: U.S. Census Bureau

Ms. Blanchard found that Central American migration has been hyperinflated in scope and potential for insecurity. Migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) region, formed by El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, have indeed surged over the past two decades–their numbers more than double the estimated 1.5 million people from that region in 2000–and the number of unaccompanied minors and families crossing the US-Mexico border has dramatically increased since 2008.[2] However, the author argues the importance of putting their numbers in perspective, noting that this subset of immigrants constitutes less than one percent of the share of the overall U.S. population.

 

The evidence compiled by Ms. Blanchard suggests that the surge in migration from the Northern Triangle to the United States has not been accompanied by increases in violent crime that would warrant sounding the national security threat alarm. Not only did overall U.S. violent crime rates descend as Central American migration share rose; but the influx of these foreigners in 27 metro areas showed no correlation when compared to the violent crime rate changes during 2012 to 2017. When compared to homicide rate changes, the weak correlation is even more evident; and in the vast majority of cases, homicide rates declined as immigration climbed significantly. It is interesting to note that the only metro area to experience a reduction in Northern Triangle concentration was Columbus, Ohio, which also experienced a 20 percent rise in homicide rates. Not one of the 27 metros with high concentration of immigrants from the NTCA region is within the top ten of the most violent metros in the United States.

 

Northern Triangle Immigration and Homicides

Data Source: US. Census, FBI Uniform Crime Report

 

The brutal gang of El Salvadoran origins, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), and claims of it infiltrating American communities, has received high level attention in social and news media. Ms. Blanchard compiled data to understand the scope and reach of this transnational gang to ascertain its potential ability to disrupt the stability and security of the nation. In her study, Ms. Blanchard found that according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), approximately ten thousand MS-13 members inhabit the United States, amounting to 0.3 percent of the overall U.S. population.[3] By comparison, there are approximately 1.4 million gang members living in the United States that make up more than 33,000 gangs.[4]  The Cato Institute reports that 0.1 percent of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol arrests at the border mid-year in 2018 were MS-13 gang members, similar to the statistics from prior years.[5] Of the 1.2 million violent crime offenses committed in the United States between 2012 and 2017, 345 were committed by members of the MS-13 gang.[6] Therefore, the author contends that although a legitimate concern for the communities which it inhabits, this criminal organization does not have the potential to disrupt the security of the United States as a whole. She suggests that the violence of this subgroup of a subgroup should be addressed at a local level and separated from the immigration dialogue. Ms. Blanchard contends that the conflating of all immigrants with the MS-13 gang, as has been done repeatedly through President Trump’s tweets and speeches, is unfounded and problematic.

The author offers several policy recommendations to address the surge in Central American migration, to reduce the burden on host countries, and to facilitate balanced immigration dialogue. First, the author suggests engaging media, community, and non-governmental organizations in an effort to balance the dialogue surrounding the migrants and inform the American public of the extent of the threat, thus encouraging fact-based immigration policy-making and aiding in the migrants’ assimilation. The author also urges these groups to highlight the positive results occurring in the Northern Triangle region to audiences in both in the NTCA and the United States. She contends that the hopelessness that drives migrants from their homes could be replaced with increased confidence in local governance and civic action to support the ongoing efforts towards stability and economic opportunities.

Ms. Blanchard calls on the United States government to offer sustained and increasing support to sending communities to reduce the push factors of migration. In addition, Ms. Blanchard urges the United States to support other host countries to create additional safe havens in the region through the offsetting of the onboarding costs and engaging in cooperative security initiatives. She points out that if Mexico is unable to shoulder the burden of absorbing the new arrivals or if the migrants are unable to find safe haven in Mexico, the United States is obligated by international law to hear their asylum claims on U.S. soil. Another recommendation the author offers is to give priority to bilateral workforce development initiatives that have the potential to reduce the need to migrate northward. Finally, Ms. Blanchard suggests that the United States reevaluates the traditional resettlement-based international refugee policy and consider a development-based one, which can transform refugees from a burden to a benefit for the host country.

 

 

Works Cited

[1] Times, The New York. 2019. “Full Transcripts: Trump’s Speech on Immigration and the Democratic Response.” The New York Times, January 9, 2019, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/08/us/politics/trump-speech-transcript.html.

[2] Lesser, G, and J Batalova. “Central American Immigrants in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute, April 5, 2017.

[3] Cara Labrador, R., and D. Renwick. “Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle.” Council on Foreign Relations, June 26, 2018, Backgrounder edition. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/central-americas-violent-northern-triangle.

[4] “2011 National Gang Threat Assessment.” U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/2011-national-gang-threat-assessment.

[5] Bier, David. 2018. “0.1% of Border Patrol Arrests Are MS-13.” https://www.cato.org/blog/01-border-patrol-arrests-are-ms-13.

[6] Vaughan. n.d. “MS-13 Resurgence: Immigration Enforcement Needed to Take Back Our Streets.” Center for Immigration Studies. Accessed October 26, 2018. https://cis.org/Report/MS13-Resurgence-Immigration-Enforcement-Needed-Take-Back-Our-Streets.