The North American Drug War
Most forever wars are abroad, but this one’s at home
· Cartel violence, driven by drug smuggling, has escalated significantly in Mexico over the last decade
· Fentanyl overdoses are surging in America
· The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) supercharged drug smuggling through Mexico
· The global drug trade is worth $300 billion annually
· Mexican cartels are transnational criminal organizations that have diversified away from drug smuggling, but drug smuggling is still their main business
· Fentanyl overdoses kill one American every five minutes and the drug originates with the Mexican cartels
· To reduce the supply of illegal drugs from Mexico the US should leverage lessons from the Global War on Terror and 1) nation-build in Mexico, 2) harden the southern border, and 3) jointly deploy military assets with Mexico against cartel networks
· The southern border is a bigger geopolitical threat to America than Russia, China, or anything else
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Deep in South Texas on the US-Mexico border lies Laredo, Texas, a dusty city of 300,000. Across a bridge over the Rio Grande is Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, integrated by road and rail into the Greater Laredo metropolitan area. Goods manufactured in maquiladoras – foreign-owned factories on the Mexico side of the border – travel up I-35 and out across the American interstate road network. Maquiladoras are booming as rising geopolitical tensions and high labor costs reroute supply chains from China to Mexico. Businesses are taking advantage of low labor costs in Mexico to manufacture goods cheaply – in 2021 per capita income was $9,380[i] in Mexico versus $64,000[ii] in the US.
Such a stark gradient in wealth drives other business, including illegal drug smuggling. Ports of entry like Laredo-Nuevo Laredo are incredibly valuable to drug smugglers and battles for control often soak these border towns in blood. In December 2022, a cartel attacked a police station in Nuevo Laredo, killing 8.
The Laredo-Nuevo Laredo complex is not unique along the 2000-mile US-Mexico border running from San Diego to Brownsville, one of the longest land borders in the world. In the 2010s, warfare between rival cartels and Mexican authorities escalated to the point where the US State Department advises American tourists against travel to Mexico[iii]. Across the border in the US, overdoses from fentanyl bought on Snapchat have become the leading cause of death for 1-44 year-olds.
Figure 1: Fentanyl overdoses are killing our young
The North American Drug War is a crisis and it is the Mexican border, not Russia or China, that poses America’s greatest geopolitical threat in the 21st century. There are two ways to prosecute this conflict: attack sources of supply and attack sources of demand. Both must be addressed simultaneously to be effective but this article addresses supply. A future post will address demand. How this crisis is tackled will affect the US-Mexico trade relationship and thousands of families on both sides of the border for decades to come.
Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel of Columbia controlled the cocaine trade into the US in the 1980s. Cocaine was primarily smuggled over water through Miami and the Gulf coast. But the combination of authorities shutting down this route and globalized trade after the end of the Cold War shifted the smuggling route overland through Mexico. Specifically, the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ushered in booming US-Mexico trade that drug traffickers piggybacked. In 1989, the value of the US-Mexico drug trade was $49 billion; by 2000 it was $247 billion[iv].
Figure 2: US-Mexico trade boomed after NAFTA was signed…so did drug smuggling
In the 2000s, Mexican cartels began to fight one another for market share in a conflict that looked more like paramilitary warfare than gang violence. The Mexican state got involved but was hampered by corrupt local police and a federal military weaker than the cartels they were fighting. The Sinaloa Cartel generally came out on top and took the fight to street gangs in America who controlled drug distribution. The fall in the US crime rate from the early-2000s until recently was largely due to Sinaloa Cartel killing US gang members in major cities[v]. Today, the Sinaloa Cartel has a foothold distributing drugs in many big US cities, but is being challenged by the new and hyper-violent cartel Jalisco New Generation (CJNG).
Figure 3: Mexican cartel territory in the US
Today, the illegal drug trade is a $300 billion global industry. If the drug trade were a country economy, it would be the 40th largest in the world[vi]. The most profitable drug is cocaine, with a 30,000% markup from plant to street corner[vii], but like any good business cartels are diversified. As a rule, drugs are far more valuable at retail than in raw plant form where they originate.
Figure 4: Approximant breakdown of drug market, MJ=marijuana (due to the nature of the industry, reliable data are difficult to obtain)[viii]
Transnational Criminal Organizations
Cartels are in the business of making money any way they can and the drug trade isn’t their only source of profit, though it is the largest. Cartels are increasingly involved in human trafficking, murder-for-hire (an assassination will only cost you $85 in Ciudad Juarez[ix]), avocado smuggling, and even DVD piracy[x]. Their public relations campaigns rival anything New York advertising agencies can produce and the Sinaloa Cartel even sponsors old-age pensions in their home state. This outreach keeps a chunk of the public on their side in Mexico. They are transnational businesses engaging in every sort of illegal activity imaginable.
The Scourge of Fentanyl
In America, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49. Fentanyl is 50-100x more powerful than morphine and 25-50x more powerful than heroin[xi]. Its chemical precursors come from China and Mexican cartels produce it, before cutting it into the illegal street drugs they distribute.
Illicit fentanyl has displaced legally prescribed painkillers as the main cause of overdoses in the US. The skyrocketing death rate — equivalent to one American overdosing every five minutes — (is a) $1.5tn annual cost to the economy
Victims believe they are ordering heroin, cocaine or painkiller tablets from drug dealers on social media, not knowing the products are mixed with deadly fentanyl.
The potency of synthetic opioids enables criminal cartels to generate big profits from small amounts that can be easily concealed in people’s pockets or backpacks. By contrast…plant-based drugs like marijuana or cocaine used to be smuggled by the carload. In some instances, fentanyl can be…delivered by post.[xii]
Fentanyl overdoses have increased dramatically in the last decade, particularly in areas hit hard by deindustrialization like the rust belt.
Figure 5: US fentanyl death rates 2011-2021[xiii]
To stop this bloodbath, the Mexican cartels must be dismantled. To do so, Ad Astra proposes a three-step plan:
1. Nation-build in Mexico
2. Harden the southern border
3. Deploy military assets against the cartels
The core supply-side problem is that the Mexican government lacks the capacity to enforce law and order. If a cartel kills a Mexican policeman, nothing happens. If they kill an American law enforcement agent, there are mass arrests and cartel kingpins are extradited to America and imprisoned for life. As a result, the cartels don’t touch US agents. The same capacity needs to be built in Mexico. The US spent decades and trillions of dollars during the Global War on Terror (GWOT) learning to nation-build on the other side of the world. We should apply those lessons closer to home.
Border security has become politicized but 85% of Americans support increasing resources to secure the border[xiv]. Again, high-tech lessons from the GWOT are applicable. The federal government should increase the use of aerial drones and other surveillance technology along the southern border. Special attention should be paid to securing ports of entry like the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo metropolitan area, which the cartels use to gain access to American markets.
Finally, we should use our veteran special forces from the GWOT to target cartel networks like we target Al Qaeda or ISIS terrorists. Unilateral military strikes will anger civilians, weaken the Mexican government, and generally make the problem worse. Therefore, we should partner with Mexican government and jointly roll-up the cartels. To prevent any retribution against civilians in America, US leaders should be clear that any attacks on the northern side of the border will be met with overwhelming force.
The Borderlands: 2040
In 2015, the CJNG cartel shot down a Mexican Air Force helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, killing 9, to prevent their leader from being captured[xv]. This is the future of the North American Drug War and unlike other overseas conflicts, this one’s at home. The southern border is a bigger geopolitical threat than Russia, China, or anywhere else.
If nothing is done, the streets of San Diego, Phoenix, and El Paso will become as violent as Nuevo Laredo.
These steps fall under 4. Get healthy and 5. Be a resilient superpower in Ad Astra’s 5-point plan to reignite the American Dream.
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[iv] Grillo, Ioan. El Narco: The Bloody Rise of Mexican Drug Cartels. Bloomsbury, 2017.
[v] Rogan, Joe, and Peter Zeihan. Joe Rogan Experience, 2022.
[vi] Wainwright, Tom. Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel. PublicAffairs, 2017.
[vii] Wainwright, Tom. Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel. PublicAffairs, 2017.
[ix] Grillo, Ioan. El Narco: The Bloody Rise of Mexican Drug Cartels. Bloomsbury, 2017.
[x] Grillo, Ioan. El Narco: The Bloody Rise of Mexican Drug Cartels. Bloomsbury, 2017.