Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) continue to act as a serious problem of U.S. national security. However, the troubling crisis in the Middle East and the lingering threat of international Islamic terrorism has largely overshadowed the threats posed by the cartels. Nevertheless, though a general understanding exists about DTOs and their activities, the intricate role they now play into the society and systems of government for several countries in the Western Hemisphere has still largely gone unrecognized. Indeed, DTOs are far from vanquished or even controlled and have only continued as a growing threat to the security of not just the United States but the entire Western Hemisphere.
Illegal drug trafficking has become a global black market consisting of the farming, processing, distribution, and sale of illegal narcotics. Drug gangs and cartels specialize in the separate processes along the supply chain, sometimes involving multiple countries. The cartels vary in size, ethnic and racial membership, organizational structure, and country of origin. Supply chains range from low-level street dealers to mid-level street gangs and couriers, up to multinational drug empires (immigrationtounitedstates.org).
The financial resources generated by the narcotics industry have created a serious destabilizing force throughout the world but most heavily in various regions of South America. There it has served to fuel wide spread political violence, caused wars and funded military operations, and even provided the seed money for serious political parties and movements. It has also corrupted entire governments, caused the deaths of thousands and been the catalyst for international interventions. Overall, in the last few decades it has become a key component to both the political and cultural landscape of several countries within the Western Hemisphere (Kirk 2003).
The destabilizing threats generated by the illicit narcotic trade have likewise been a major focus of U.S. security and foreign policy.
Within a twenty-year period up to 2003 the United States alone has devoted $150 billion dollars towards combating this industry. In 2000 it gave over $1 billion, largely in military aid, to the government of Colombia to be used in counter-narcotic operations. In 2002 the Bush administration was granted authority by the U.S. Congress to use training and weapons formerly provided to Colombia’s military to specifically fight illegal narcotics. Such operations directly targeted guerrillas and paramilitaries who have since the end of the Cold War entered into the narcotics business. These operations are in addition to the existing criminal organizations who already use drug trafficking as a means to continue financing their undertakings.
Paramilitaries on all sides of the political spectrum have accumulated sizable fortunes. These fortunes are further invested in armaments and support activities. In the early 2000s the estimated street price for a kilo of cocaine in New York City was priced at roughly $110,000. That amount in Colombia paid a month’s salary for 250 fighters or bought 180 AK-47 semiautomatic rifles or 120 satellite telephones or enough camouflage uniforms to dress 1,000 combatants (Kirk, 2003). It is difficult to measure the exact annual revenue of the global narcotics market whose numbers vacillate between $150-$500 billion in sales (Ken, 2009).
In more recent years the problem has extended beyond the borders of Colombia making several other South American countries a cause of concern as well as Mexico. Starting out as a miscellaneous assortment of small independent farmers in the late sixties, these Mexican growers quickly morphed into large lucrative enterprises. This was done largely with the help of North American drug dealers who aided in developing networks that allowed for product to reach a far wider consumer base than the immediate border states. This led to eventually establishing connections with domestic U.S criminal syndicates (Grillo, 2015). Today they have become as large as corporate behemoths that are not confined to a single country.
Take for instance the Sinaloa Cartel, often described as the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere. The Cartel's tentacles stretch from New York City to Buenos Aires and almost every major city in between. The Cartel was founded in Mexico's Sinaloa state and now operates in 17 Mexican states, and -- by some estimates -- in as many as 50 countries (insightcrime.org). And their influence and global reach has been constantly expanding.
By the early 1990s the saturation of cocaine in the U.S. market had forced DTOs to diversify into other drug markets. It also forced expansion into other consumer markets beyond the Western Hemisphere. New areas of operation included Africa, the Middle-east, Asia and Europe. The ready access to cocaine became noticeable by its gradually increasing popularity among Liberian fighters.
Many governments tolerated the narcotics business within their borders under the belief that the business was far more advantageous than any detrimental effects (Kan, 2009). Many DTOs have built upon this idea to their greater advantage. Like Colombia's Cali Cartel, several other cartel organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel seems to have taken its cue by establishing strong connections to the political and economic elite in Mexico.
Drug trafficking operations have successfully penetrated government and security forces wherever they operate. They often opt for the bribe over the bullet and alliances over fighting.
The cartel's most powerful contacts are in the National Action Party (PAN), which, according to some sources, help account for its growth in the last decade.
However, the PAN's Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon have launched numerous offensives against trafficking organizations and some major leaders have been captured, including Osiel Cardenas Guillen, head of the Gulf Cartel, and Benjamin Arellano Felix, head of the Tijuana Cartel. So strong is the perception that the PAN favors Sinaloa that Mexican justice officials issued a press release in 2010 denying it, while the Calderon government produced a video in 2011 with the same intention. But the perception persists, even after El Chapo's arrest in 2014, his escape from prison in 2015, and his recapture six months later (insightcrime,org).
Cartels have taken this pattern of corrupting public officials much further than mere political relations as it has found greater value in the use of local security forces in a more operational role. For several years cartels have reached further than merely trying to bribe security forces. They have come to realize the added potential of professionally trained police and soldiers offered for carrying out more complex operations and have begun recruiting them as hired guns.
The Juarez cartel was quick not only to take indirect control of both the municipal and state police, they created an enforcement arm within their organization comprised entirely of former and current city police officers called the La Linea (The Line). The head of this unit, Juan Antonio Acosta, had claimed that La Linea had organized some 1,500 killings in service to the Sinaloa Cartel.
When the Sinaloa Cartel tried to infiltrate into Juarez they took up a similar strategy by recruiting the services of the Mexican federal police (Federales). This led to a virtual war between federal and local police who would engage each other in frequent shootouts and arrests during their patrols through the city. The city police arrested two federal officers who had shot up a bar. Federal police arrested a kidnapping ring where they discovered one of the ring members to be a member of the municipal police. Such incidents continued between the two groups with incidents becoming violent enough that federal police actually shot and killed the bodyguard to the mayor of Juarez (Narconomics, 2015). The immersion of security forces into the cartels’ operational service has led to creating an even graver threat.
In 1999 the Gulf Cartel needed an elite unit of bodyguards, so they turned to Arturo Guzman Decenas to find such men. Guzman concluded The Mexican military would be his best source. Through careful contact and negotiation, Guzman convinced at least 31 men to leave military service and come under his command to protect the head of the Gulf Cartel. Some of these men had operated under the command of a Mexican Special Forces unit known as the Grupos Aeromoviles de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE); they had superior training, and some had even completed a “training the trainers” program. All of the new recruits were well equipped to build out a paramilitary narco-army to protect the boss and do his bidding.
The first phase of Los Zetas’ development, which lasted from 1997 to October 2004, was marked by two central roles: protect the principal and hunt enemies. This led to a series of secret missions into cities and towns across Tamaulipas to execute Gulf Cartel rivals and ensure that the Gulf Cartel became the most powerful drug trafficking organization in Tamaulipas as well as along Mexico’s Gulf coast. The presence of Los Zetas in the Mexican criminal system raised the bar on both professionalism and violence. Rival groups would need to improve their recruiting and training, and they would have to match Los Zetas in both brutality and violence.
Beginning in October 2004, Los Zetas began operating independently from the Gulf Cartel. They embarked on a movement into the cocaine business largely because they were sitting on top of one of the most valuable pieces of smuggling real estate in the Americas. Nuevo Laredo was a direct shot along I-35 to one of the hottest drug markets in the United States: Chicago. As early as 2005 they had steady shipments of cocaine and marijuana going through Laredo and Houston, pushing its network east along I-40 and I-10 and north along I-35, extending as far north as Chicago and east to Atlanta.
The nature of the trafficking business spurred the development of Los Zetas-connected wholesale points across the United States, amounting to as many as 37 cities in the Midwest, northeastern and southeastern regions of the United States by 2009. On November 16, 2011, Chicago police and the Drug Enforcement Administration disrupted a “Chicago-based cell”. Law enforcement seized more than $12 million in cash and some 250 kilograms of cocaine.
In a separate case, three alleged members of a Los Zetas hit-team attacked an undercover informant while he was delivering a truckload of marijuana outside of Houston. They also began the recruitment of elite Special Forces units from Guatemala, known as Kaibiles, to bolster the protection of its own high-level operatives and assist with training and recruitment (ctc.usma.edu). Through the Kaibiles, the Las Zetas have been able to procure grenades and small arms from Guatemala (nsarchive.gwu.edu).
The Las Zetas reached out to military contacts to establish clandestine recruitment channels, increased the number of training camps in Tamaulipas where new recruits learned the basics of small-unit tactics, firearms use, communications, and saw the development of a clandestine radio network. Los Zetas’ new commander expanded the organization’s revenue-generation operations beyond extortion and eventually to the control of waypoints along drug trafficking routes, known as plazas, where lesser organizations would have to pay a tax in exchange for safe passage (ctc.usma.edu).
In the areas they controlled, the Zetas began a propaganda campaign whereby they asserted control over much of the local media. By 2006, in what was perceived as a reaction to the government’s counter-narcotic/counter-cartel initiative, the Zetas went on a campaign of assassinations of several public figures. By 2007 they were showing a greater willingness to directly confront the military. Throughout December a series of retaliatory assassinations against personnel of the Mexican military were carried out by Zeta operatives.
They have since become even more brazen with such challenges. In 2009, in Monterrey, the Zetas engaged in a propaganda campaign designed to alert and warn the local population of their presence and as a means of recruitment. In one Mexican town the Zetas created a banner promising new Zeta recruits three square meals a day, rather than what was being offered by the Mexican military (nsarchive.gwu.edu).
The Las Zetas, being an organization comprised almost entirely of former military Special Forces and police, present a new degree of menace to the criminal world as they approach their operations and overall organization with detailed long range strategic planning and coordination. They also focus heavily on their human resources through careful recruitment and in-depth training (ctc.usma.edu).
The violence carried out by the modern day DTOs has been an example to more than just security forces.
Civilian casualties have been immense in recent years. Between April and June of 2011, operatives of the Las Zetas detained several buses along the towns of Reynosa and Matamoros. They abducted and killed a total of 193 people, supposedly by forcing the hostages to fight to the death in gladiator-like matches (Grayson, 2015).
In the Mexican state of Guerrero, a violent cartel known as Guerros Unidos (Warriors United) has operated uncontrollably. Several mass graves have been discovered with numerous civilian bodies attributed to this group. Many such murders have been known to have been carried out in the company of local police who are alleged to be under the control of the cartel. Such control is rumored to reach into the highest echelons of city government.
In September 2014, a joint force of local Iguala police and Guerros Unidos attacked a group of student teachers killing three and abducting forty-three more, none of whom have been found. Such massacres and abductions have become normal in many parts of Mexico. Between 2007- 2014, fighting between DTOs and Mexican security forces led to the deaths of nearly 83,000 people (Grillo, 2015). Such violence is in no way simply restricted to Mexico.
Gang violence in other parts of South America have become so pervasive as to threaten the stability of a country. Up until 2012, El Salvador was considered one of the world’s most violent places. Most of the carnage was attributed to the long running gang feud between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 (18th Street Gang). Both gangs were known for extreme savagery in the way they operated.
Carlos Mojica Lechuga, the leader of Barrio 18, is currently serving a life sentence for torturing and beheading two teenage girls who had dated members of a rival gang. When the two gangs finally agreed to a truce and ordered an end to the conflict, the murder rate in the country dropped by 2,000 deaths a year. In the 1990s alone, the gang war between the two resulted in over 50,000 deaths. The magnitude of the gang feud in El Salvador was such that the two gangs’ top leadership were encouraged to commence secret peace talks brokered by the Catholic Church and the government (Narconomics, 2016).
As the cartels advanced in training they have set themselves and their abilities more along military lines thus operating more like large scale corporations. It is no longer accurate to refer to cartels or other such criminal organizations as Drug Trafficking Organizations. Today almost all have diversified their operations by branching out into a wide variety of other illicit and highly lucrative enterprises. These other ventures now include human smuggling, dealing in contraband, money laundering, sale of body parts, gun running, and petroleum and gasoline theft from legitimate companies (estimated worth $427 million).
The Las Zetas in particular have ventured into the theft and extraction of coal from which they generate an annual profit of between $22-$25 million (Grayson, 2015). Likewise, their business models have developed over the years to be more resilient and responsive to government actions, particularly the U.S.
In the 1980s the U.S. placed emphasis on interdicting the drug route going through the Caribbean. Under a coordinated task force of law enforcement agencies led by then Vice President George H. W. Bush, this targeting operation succeeded in curtailing trafficking through the islands. As a result, the traffickers simply moved their operations into Mexico and proceeded through the land borders. As those borders have become the new target of emphasis for the U.S. government, traffickers have started to re-establish the old Caribbean routes. This was confirmed when in 2011 authorities in the Dominican Republic seized close to nine tons of narcotics, nearly twice the amount they had seen in the preceding years.
Such flexibility is not seen just in logistics, but also product innovation. For years U.S. strategy was calling for curtailing cocaine development through plant eradication programs. While some thought this would cause a reduction in supply, DTOs proved differently when, through tests in jungle laboratories, they developed methods by which they could increase volume of product using far fewer coca leaves (Narconomics, 2016). Like any free market business, these organizations think and react to changing times and situations quite rapidly.
The United States has taken a seriously aggressive stance towards DTOs and building on its border security. It has often found itself working against a complex operation with abilities to adapt quickly and respond to most counter-measures. It has been reported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agencies that drug traffickers have designed their UAVs to cross the U.S.-Mexican border illegally.
To minimize their cost, various standard drone modules need to be deleted including the one that ensures the security of the drone in the case of GPS spoofing, a small cyber-attack.
In GPS spoofing, attackers send GPS receivers fake GPS data. Every UAV contains a GPS receiver which communicates with off-orbit satellites and navigates around the border for spying upon illegal crossers. When drug traffickers identified this flaw or shortcoming of the UAVs used by law enforcement, they were quick to exploit it by sending wrong GPS coordinates which appeared to be generated by the authentic source. As a result, the drone leaves the usual patrol area and heads to the section where it senses illegal entrance due to the misguiding fake coordinates. As soon as this happens, the traffickers are able to safely cross the border. This scenario can be prevented only by using anti-GPS spoofing hardware while designing the drone (hackread.com).
The Mexican cartels (DTOs) have also capitalized on other weaknesses. In May 2016, the Tohono O’odham tribe created a barricade Border Patrol specifically to keep agents out of the reservation which is located in the south central Arizona Sonoran Desert, sharing about 75 miles of border with Mexico. The Indian reservation sits along the Mexican border and is prohibiting the Border Patrol from entering its land which is a notorious smuggling corridor determined by the U.S. government to be a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA).”
Homeland Security sources reported to Judicial Watch that the road in the southeast corner of the reservation has been cordoned off by a barbed wired gate to keep officers out. A hand-written cardboard sign reading “Closed, Do Not Open” has been posted on the fence. “This is the location used most for trafficking drugs into the country,” a Border Patrol source told JW. The reservation is about 2.8 million acres or roughly the size of Connecticut and has about 30,000 members.
A New York Times story published years ago explained that tightening of border security to the east and west after the 9/11 terrorist attacks funneled more drug traffic through the Tohono O’odham reservation. Hundreds of tribal members have been prosecuted in federal, state or tribal courts for smuggling drugs or humans and taking offers that reach $5,000 for storing marijuana or transporting it across the reservation. The drug smugglers are said to work mainly for the notorious Sinaloa Cartel.
As a further complication, federal officers have been told by Homeland Security supervisors that they can’t cut the new wire fence obstacle to access the reservation even though it sits in the Border Patrol’s busiest drug sector (judicialwatch.org).
Just as corruption has been a serious problem amongst law enforcement in several countries in South America it also has started to create serious problems within the U.S. borders. Much like the intelligence organizations of nation-states seek to infiltrate opponents’ intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies, cartels also have begun a strategy for infiltrating their own operatives into pertaining U.S. security services.
MARGARITA CRISPIN, a U.S. customs officer in El Paso, began working for the cartel. Almost immediately after completing her training and putting on her badge, she began to help traffickers "cross loads." As many as three vans stuffed with drugs would pass through her inspection lane several times a week. By the time she was arrested in July 2007, Crispin is thought to have let more than 2,200 pounds of marijuana into the United States. What makes Crispin's case different is that investigators from the Department of Homeland Security suspected she'd been recruited by a friend with ties to the Juárez cartel before she took the job (motherjones.com).
Border Patrol Agent Raquel Esquivel, 26, was sentenced in December 2009 to 15 years in prison followed by five years of supervised release after a federal jury in Del Rio, Texas found her guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. At the trial, evidence was presented that demonstrated that in 2007, during her first year of employment, Esquivel joined a drug trafficking conspiracy and provided its members with sensitive law enforcement information to facilitate the successful smuggling of marijuana into the United States. Prior to transporting shipments, the co-conspirators contacted Esquivel, who would provide them with specific information regarding ongoing law enforcement operations (bordercorruption.apps.cironline.org).
A more recent example is the case of Joel Luna, a six-year Border Patrol veteran working in Brownsville, Texas, who was charged in connection with an apparent cartel-related murder in the area. According to the Los Angeles Times, investigators in the case suspect Luna may have been tied to the Gulf Cartel through his brothers.
Investigating reporters have chronicled various instances of misbehaviour by agents at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including purchasing weapons for criminal groups, abusing confidential informants, and taking bribes to allow human smugglers and drug traffickers to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. As explained by an investigative reporter familiar with the situation, attempting to corrupt law enforcement agencies working on the border is “part of their business model.”
On an institutional level, border security is often poorly checked and investigated for corruption and misconduct. Close examination indicated that corruption at CBP frequently went unpunished. According to the article, the department in charge of overseeing CBP “became known for hoarding cases and then leaving them un-investigated,” and “the office often refused offers of help from the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and other law enforcement agencies that also keep watch over customs officers and Border Patrol agents” (insightcrime.org).
Accounts of corruption have multiplied: in Arizona, a Border Patrol agent was caught on police video loading a bale of marijuana into his patrol vehicle; another agent in Texas was caught waving loads of drugs through the international port of entry for a cartel; and in California, a Border Patrol agent smuggled immigrants across the border for money. But Homeland Security officials have no way to gauge how extensive the problem is within its ranks. “The true levels of corruption within CBP are not known,” concluded a Homeland Security advisory panel of law enforcement officials in a 2014 report (texaobserver.org). Cartels have not stopped with border security services.
In 2013 Kevin Corley, 30, a former U.S. Army officer was found guilty of being involved in a murder-for-hire plot and drug conspiracy. Corley became the leader in the overall conspiracy by getting the team together, selling armored vests, and purchasing assault rifles. He acted along with six other former U.S. Army personnel. The investigation began in January 2011, when they began negotiations with persons whom they thought were members of the Los Zetas Cartel. Actually they were undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, assigned to purchase marijuana in return for stolen weapons (archives.fbi.gov).
Drug trafficking organizations are an entirely different phenomenon from the traditional models of nation-states that might have geo-strategic and political concerns, or terror networks that are directed by agendas. Drug trafficking organizations are businesses that are purely profit driven. What makes them even more dangerous today is that they have branched out into a multitude of other ventures that pose an equally destabilizing threat to their operational region.
That they have ventured into the realm of human trafficking means that U.S. policy makers and proponents of combating illegal immigration need to realize the complexity of the issue is far greater than simply passing laws. Further, legalizing all narcotics, as many critics of drug prohibition argue, will not see the end of the criminal syndicates that have built up around them nor the violence that these organizations exert.
Today’s drug trafficking organizations for several reasons pose a serious security problem not only for the United States but also for the Western Hemisphere. They have over the last few decades developed into sophisticated logistics networks with the primary business of moving large quantities of illicit products into their key market, North America. That they have diversified into so many other lucrative markets to include human trafficking as well as trafficking in other substances such as oil, coal and raw materials moved on the black market, means that the complexity of the narcotics war will very likely expand. Proponents of border security need to understand drug cartels and the long complicated history the U.S. has had in trying to combat them. Drug trafficking mirrors the scenario beginning to play out in the realm of illegal immigration and other black marketing operations likely to cause economic instability.
Also as the threat of Islamic radicalism has captured media and public attention, the U.S. has seemingly become blind to the regional destabilization taking place in several parts of South America. At present it is difficult to estimate the degree of control some Latin American governments actually have within their own borders against these criminal organizations.
The most likely prediction for the future is that these groups will continue to grow and assert ever more influence in the poorer nation-states. They will also expand their operations overseas to emerging markets in Africa and Southeast Asia as well as Europe. This will eventually serve to reduce their dependence on the U.S. as their primary export market. This will make curbing them much harder as the U.S. will have to confront them as they acquire more avenues to move into while avoiding or responding to U.S. counter-measures.
Ken, Paul Rexton, Drugs and Contemporary Warfare, Potomac Books, Inc, Washington D.C, 2009.
Kirk, Robin, More Terrible than Death: Violence, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia, Public Affairs, New York, 2003.
Grayson, George, The Los Zetas Drug Cartel: Sadism as an Instrument of Cartel Warfare in Mexico and Central America, Didactic Press 2015.
Wainwright, Tom, Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, Public Affairs, New York, 2016. Grillo, Ioan, Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, Bloomsbury Press, 2016.