From the looks of it, one of San Diego’s industrial-looking warehouses, sitting above ground, seem to echo business as usual—yet it masks a much harsher reality, penetrating deep into the border of Mexico. Inside of the warehouse, a deep tunnel zigzags nearly 600 yards its way into Tijuana, Mexico in what is dubbed ‘one of the most sophisticated underground drug smuggling passageways.’
The super tunnel, complete with light, ventilation and an electric rail system, was built by Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, the infamous and elusive kingpin, of the Sinaloa Cartel. According to the authorities, the tunnel was shut down before it was used for smuggling. Three people, however, were taken into custody after investigators seized eight tons of marijuana and 325 pounds of cocaine associated with the tunnel.
Along the 2000 mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, heightened border security with higher and longer fences has pressed drug cartels to reroute smuggling drugs via other means. Alternative smuggling routes include tunnels; maritime smuggling; and ultralight aircraft. This super tunnel discovered recently was the fifth large-scale drug smuggling tunnel in San Diego since 2010 and the eighth since 2006, coinciding with Sinaloa drug cartel’s control of smuggling in this part of the border. This is a recurring threat facing the U.S. as it combats illicit drugs. At the other end of the tunnel, those residing in Mexico have become engulfed in violence related to organized crime and drugs. Thereby, the drug tunnel, ironically, illuminates yet another problem—the fixation on the War on Drugs.
Sinaloa Drug Cartel: An Ever Expanding Empire?
Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel began its operations back in the 1980s, when it only controlled a single Pacific trafficking route into Arizona, but the empire has vastly expanded over time. Today, Sinaloa controls the majority of Mexico’s Pacific coast and parts of central Mexico with a market share between 40 and 60 percent. This organization’s annual revenues appear to be some $3 billion out of $6.6 billion that make up the gross revenue of Mexican cartels exporting drugs to the U.S. Over the years, Los Zetas and Gulf cartels, in addition to other Mexican drug cartels, have been fractured into smaller groups. Yet, despite facing crackdowns, Sinaloa appears to remain intact. Has Sinaloa won ‘the war on drugs,’ as some critics would censure the former Mexican President Felipe Calderon?
Sinaloa is among Mexican drug cartels that satisfy the demand of illicit U.S. narcotics market. In 2010, the U.S. contributed close to $1.3 billion in military and judicial aid to Mexico in order to continue its drug war. Sinaloa seems to dodge the bullets with its quasi-corporate efficiency as it is both diversified and vertically integrated producing and exporting marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine. Beyond this success based on its sole merit, its resilience can be attributed to its strategies that withstand crackdown: ‘bribe over bullet’ and ability to attain large quantities of drugs. The former strategy speaks to corruption, infiltrating various ranks within the Mexican government and, reportedly, their counterparts in the U.S. turning a blind eye. NPR created a database on every person the government arrested, prosecuted or sentenced in links with seven major drug cartels. Based on NPR’s analysis, 44 percent of the cartel defendants are part of Zetas and Gulf cartels whilst only 12 percents are with the Sinaloa cartel. The Mexican government contradicts these figures, but the thriving Sinaloa cartel and increasing overall drug availability in the U.S., according to the most recent National Drug Threat Assessment of the Justice Department, uncover a more murky reality. Sinaloa drug cartel is effective as a business but what are the human costs?
Inside Mexico’s Drug War: A More Human Face
Drugs, as a security issue, can deteriorate human security. The supply and demand of drugs has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths from preventable drug-related disease and violence; millions of users arrested and imprisoned, even if non-violent; and communities becoming engulfed in organized crime related to drugs. José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the OAS, highlighted the link between drugs and violence while explaining the impact of drugs on the countries of the hemisphere: “the relationship between drugs and violence is one of the main causes of fear amongst our citizens and has contributed to making security one of the most worrying issues for the citizens of the entire hemisphere.” In addition to drug trafficking, other factors behind the epidemic of violence include low wages, lack of schooling and family breakdown. Nowhere does this grim reality unfold so violently, as it does with the 26,000 desapercidos that have gone missing into thin air.
In 2009, Fernando Ocegueda, a founder of an advocacy group in Tijuana for relatives of the disappeared, let out a sigh of relief when Santiago López Meza was arrested. ‘El Pozolero,’ a nickname for Meza that translates to “the stew-maker”, admitted to dissolving 300 bodies in barrels filled with lye in order to dispose the remains. Mr. Ocegueda thought he could finally learn the fate of his son, who had been abducted back in 2007 and became one of the desaparecidos. The lye, however, dissolved the bodies within 24 hours and corroded the bones to the point that no DNA was found, according to the authorities.
Fernando Oceguedo’s family is among thousands of other families that have been torn apart by the violence desperately waiting to get some closure on those that disappeared without a trace. The victims are not only brutally murdered, but also effaced from the face of the earth—both their physical remains and identity vanished forever. Turf wars between different drug cartels over control of territory could evolve into a violent confrontation. Ciudad Juárez, the world’s murder capital, became the battleground for control with more than 3,000 murdered. The killings have dropped more than 80 percent since 2010 but other cities could see yet another turf war and the upsurge in violence that threatens human security. Only stepping back will help connect the dots.
The War on Drugs
Devoting more resources and time to the war on drugs lends the question whether the approach towards tackling this global security issue is working. In the summer of 1971, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon initially declared war on drugs. Back then, drugs were a symbol of youthful rebellion and social upheaval. Over fifty years after the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and more than 40 years after launching the war of drugs, drug use and violence seems to be on the rise worldwide.
Both Kofi Annan and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso have called for a re-evaluation of measures to contain drugs. The UN estimates the drug market is worth close to $1.3 trillion and growing. In 2011, UN figures show 230 million people took illicit drugs with the number of drug-related deaths more than a quarter of a million. To put things into perspective, annual drug consumption between 1998 and 2008 has increased 34.5 percent for opiates; 27 percent for cocaine; and 8.5 percent for cannabis. In light of increasing drug consumption worldwide, Annan and Cardoso suggest a new approach: “We also appealed for countries to carefully test models of legal regulation as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking.” It is time to engage in constructive debate regarding the war on drugs and reflect on alternative solutions.
Time for A Reset: To Legalize or Not
Whilst it hard to predict the future of drug policy, the Organization of American States released a report that tries to gaze into the future and conjure up a list of potential scenarios. Under the Pathways scenario, drug prohibition is the problem but change appears to be underway. Portugal decriminalized drug use twelve years ago, equating the possession of small amount of drugs to illegal parking. In the U.S., the states of Colorado and Washington have legalized the recreational use of cannabis. Uruguay is considering whether growing and selling marijuana should be legalized. Those in favour of regulation portend that drugs could contribute billions in tax revenues; undermine organized crime; and reduce violence related to drug cartels. On the other end of the debate, legalization may mean an increase in use of soft drugs could eventually lead to abusing hard drugs. The former path comes with a caveat as the debate centers on legalizing certain drugs like cannabis, but there may be a more staunch opposition against cocaine, varying across different countries. This would foment further tension between countries that need to coordinate on this transnational security issue at times.
The road towards legalization is far from reality for the time being. As the OAS report contends, the failure of the war on drugs would result in many countries adopting a non-interventionist approach with drug trafficking as their police forces attempt to curb violence. Mexico is one such country that suffers from bloody turf wars among seven drug cartels. It could be said that government intervention in turf wars for control over more territory added to the violence in Mexico. Corruption is part of the reason drug cartels thrived and became intertwined with the Mexican economy- 78 percent of Mexican GDP has been infiltrated by organized crime. For drug cartels, the U.S. is the gateway to the largest consumer market. The United Nations General Assembly in 2016 will provide a forum for constructive debate on drug policy. A complex transnational problem like drug trafficking requires dialogue that looks for solution beyond the war on drugs and feeds it back into the international system. No pathway is without barriers, but reflecting on alternative solutions, tailored to different countries depending on the scope and nature of the problem. This in turn will catalyze the process for mitigating the intricate issue at hand. Let’s hope there is light at the end of the tunnel.
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