Transnational crime has such a broad spectrum that policy-making, the economy and social trends are directly shaped by it in more than one nation. In the U.S., major mafias and drug cartels from countries like Mexico, Colombia or Italy operate extrensively to distribute drugs to a sweeping consumer American population. Here I will deal with drug-related matters that affect the U.S. on social and political grounds.

Ana Johnson
Key words: Organized Crime, Drug Trafficking Organizations, Transnational Crime, Drug Consumption, Law Enforcement, Public Policy, Drug War.

Universidad De Monterrey

October 14, 2010

A War With No Victory

The dismal findings of the 2009 National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) showed that drug use is higher than ever in the U.S., except for one illegal drug: cocaine. And why is that?

Cocaine, often referred to as the “caviar of drugs”, is a recreational drug that has been around for decades, and although according to the 2010 UN World Drug Report demand seems to be waning in its largest markets, it is increasingly becoming popular in a widening range of countries. Cocaine comes in two forms, powder cocaine and crack; the first associated with economic success in some circles, the second with prostitution and drug crime. Traditionally crack use was rare outside of U.S., but according to the report, Latin American and some parts of Africa have reported an increase in the use of the substance. As a matter of fact, the UN Drug Report relates that there is a clear divergence between Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries and developing countries: use is declining in the former, and increasing in the latter. It seems as though lesser amounts of cocaine are reaching its “mature” markets, such as North America (6.2 million users in 2008) and Europe (4 to 5 million users). In fact, increasing demand in other markets is attracting cocaine traffickers.

U.S. is number one in cocaine consumption, consuming 165 metric tons in 2008, followed by Europe (124 mt), Canada (14 mt), and surprisingly Mexico (17 mt). The emerging markets of South America and Mexico should pay close attention to its rising number of consumers because of all drugs, cocaine is the most problematic.

Despite global cocaine use increase, the NSDUH reported that in the U.S. the number of cocaine users is declining. In 2006, when President Calderon declared the war on drugs there were 2.4 million users. In 2008, the NSDUH reported 1.9 million users and in 2009 1.6 million. Could it be that the war on drugs is actually working? The cocaine business is less profitable as well. According to the UN Report, in 2008 the value of the market was worth $88 billion, when in 1995 it used to be worth almost double ($165 billion). (Prices are adjusted to inflation)

The biggest market for cocaine is North America, followed by Europe, and finally Oceania. Even though the number of users is not so high in Australia the retail price of cocaine is so high, that Oceania is the third most important market for cocaine cartels. In fact, the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by the “Chapo” Guzman (whose fortune is listed in Forbes), supplies half of the cocaine consumed in Australia’s east coast.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2009 cocaine availability, in correlation to consumption, is decreasing. The trend began in 2006. Indicators such as seizures, price, purity, work-place drug tests and ED (Emergency Department) data points to less availability. Federal cocaine seizures decreased 25% between 2006 and 2009. Since 2006, there was a price increase from $94.73 to $174.03 in 2009, and cocaine purity also declined from 68.1% to 46.2%. All this indicates less availability in the American market.

The most important question here is: Why is less available? The Department of Justice points to several potential causes for cocaine shortages such as increased law enforcement in Mexico and transit zones, lesser cocaine production in Colombia, cartel violence, and cocaine flow to non-U.S. markets. Peruvian and Bolivian production capability and trafficking networks cannot fill the vacuums in U.S. cocaine supply left by decreased Colombian production. Colombia has reported more cocaine seizures than any other country, and this coincided with fewer seizures in the Southwest Border since 2007.

Due to a combination of Colombian enforcement policy and U.S. (divine?) intervention with Plan Colombia, cocaine production patterns have changed. Before the cocaine boom in Colombia, most of the raw production originated in Peru and Bolivia. This output was refined into cocaine in Colombia in the 70s. However, in 1997 coca cultivation in Colombia surpassed the crops from Peru and Bolivia, becoming the biggest market supplier. Only a few years later (2000-2009), with the war against Colombian cartels, coca cultivation decreased by 58%. Simultaneously, cultivation rose by 38% in Peru and doubled in Bolivia (112%), both no longer depending on Colombia to refine the product. The results of the drug war were that in 2008 Colombia, Peru and Bolivia produced the lowest level of cocaine in five years and considerably less than 2007 (865 mt).

So drug wars affect availability, purity, increase prices and perhaps (perhaps!) have an influence in diminishing consumption. But how can governments ignore the Colombian blood bath that followed Plan Colombia, and the rising death toll in Mexico? It is worth the ultra high costs in lives, money and political stability?

Twenty-four years ago, in 1986, the U.S. Defense Department commissioned a two-year study by the RAND Corporation, which stated that militarization to interdict drugs that enter the U.S. would have little or no effect in the market and in addition, could elevate profits for cocaine cartels and manufacturers. Around ten years later, the Clinton administration ordered yet another study by RAND, which concluded that $3 billion should be switched from federal and local enforcement to treatment. Why? Because that is the cheapest way to deter drug use, and 23 times more effective than the war on drugs. (This is discussed in Noam Chomsky’s Rouge States).

No doubt, cocaine trafficking is a security threat because its high levels of profits have financed organized crime (like Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; FARC) and it thrives on corruption and breeds it at the same time. It results in tens of thousands of deaths annually, but unfortunately, it also accounts for the innocent deaths of tens of thousands in South America, and Mexico as well.

What seems most sad to me is that in the U.S., one fifth of people aged between 12 and 17 stated that it would be “easy” to get cocaine. In spite of the economic, political and human costs of the Colombian and the Mexican drug war, the decrease of cocaine use in the U.S. has been almost insignificant, and has increased in other countries. The UN Drug Report even accounts the decline in cocaine use in the US to prevention and treatment, not enforcement, and that the fight against drug cartels may be legitimate but it does not reduce the cocaine market. Quite the opposite, it breaks up big cocaine cartels allowing smaller groups and more competition, lowering prices, finally leading to a higher use. What appears to be most surprising is that despite all that has happened in Colombia and the reports stating that drug wars are not effective, both the U.S. and Mexican governments insist on pursuing a war that they are never going to win.


September 30, 2010

An Incomplete Narrative

What does drug consumption in the United States (U.S.) look like today? This is a question that needs to be addressed not only by the U.S. population and its health officials, but by its politicians as well in order to pursue adequate enforcement efforts and choose the best strategy to fight drug use and stop it from being such a lucrative business for organized crime.

While the U.S. helped militarize Mexico, both by illegally smuggling weapons down the border and by providing financial resources (Iniciativa Mérida) to the Mexican government and army, the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) survey reported that drug use is actually at its highest level among the U.S. population. Is militarization the best measure to fight drug cartels?

The NSDUH is an annual survey sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and unsurprisingly it came up with very grim numbers for 2009. According to the survey, in 2009 an estimated 21.8 million Americans aged 12 or older were current (past month) illicit drug users. Past month means that they consumed an illicit drug during the month before the interview. This represents 8.7 percent of the population aged 12 or older. The study considers as illicit drugs marijuana/hashish, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines, to name a few. The rate of past month drug users increased from 8.0 percent in 2008 to 8.7 for 2009.

Marijuana, which is produced and transported by Mexico, is the most commonly consumed drug. The number of its users has been steadily rising, not decreasing. In 2007, 14.4 million (5.8%), drug users increased to

 15.2 million (6.1%) in 2008. But it increased more in 2009 with 16.7 million (6.6%) users. The 2008-2009 marijuana use difference represents a 40 percent increase which is pretty alarming considering that marijuana legalization is underway at least in the state of California, opening the possibility for other states to follow following its footsteps, encouraging marihuana consumption. Especially if we consider that studies show that most people who are not marijuana consumers are discouraged only because it is illegal.

According to the CRS report, 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. transits Mexico. The NSDUH, in terms of cocaine use reports that there were 1.6 million cocaine users aged 12 years or older in 2009. The estimates are pretty similar to those of 2008, slightly higher, with 1.9 million consumers. For such a small difference, is it worth the trouble? Does that small cutback of cocaine users in any way come close to the cost of more than 28,000 drug-related deaths since president Calderon declared a war against cartels in 2006?

The number of past month users of methamphetamine also increased since 2008, from 314,000 users (0.1%) to 502,000 users (0.2%). This is a 60 percent increase between 2008 and 2009, and therefore a promising market for drug cartels involved in methamphetamine production and sales. By the way, according to the 2007 CRS Report for Congress, methamphetamine is produced mostly by Mexican cartels, just across the border. The report says that the National Drug Intelligence Center reported that American gangs such as the Latin Kings and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) buy methamphetamine from Mexican drug cartels and distribute the drug in southwestern U.S.

With the exception of cocaine, the use of drugs like marijuana, hallucinogens, psychotherapeutic drugs, and methamphetamines grew. Drug users aged between 12 and 17 years increased, as well as drug users aged between 18 and 25, especially concerning marijuana use (16.5 percent in 2008 to 18.1 percent in 2009.)

It is very alarming too, that according to the NSDUH, almost half of the population aged 12 to 17 declared in 2009 that it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” for them to obtain marijuana. Why isn’t the U.S. doing something to stop this easy access to drugs?  Also, in 2009, 77 percent of youths reported having seen or heard about drug or alcohol prevention messages outside of school, which is lower than in 2002 (83.2%). The number of school-enrolled youths reporting hearing this kind of prevention campaigns in school also declined during this period from 78.8% to 74.9%. It does not make sense that with a higher prevalence of drug use, prevention campaigns are declining rather than strengthening in order to fight the trend.

In all of this I wonder, why is the drug war narrative always cut in half, with Mexico as the leading figure of the drug war and the U.S. portrayed as a casual bystander or the victim or the judge or the necessary savior? Drug use is on the rise, prevention campaigns in and out of schools are declining, and the violence across the border is unbearable. More weapons, vehemence and militarization will perpetuate violence and vengeance, not defeat them. A strategy that demands drug prevention programs, campaigns, treatment and support is imperative in order to undermine drug cartel’s profits and win the war.



                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        September 07, 2010

Proposition 19

Recently we have been hearing a lot about California's Proposition 19. Also known as the "Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010", Proposition 19 intends to legalize various marijuana-related activities, allowing local governments to regulate, impose and collect marijuana-related fees and taxes.  

The proposition's fate will be decided on November 2, 2010 in a California statewide ballot. Why is Proposition 19 causing so much controversy? The reason is that its legalization measures go beyond any drug policy that has been adopted before.  Already in the US, residents in 14 states and Washington D.C. can appeal to doctor's prescriptions for medical marijuana. If Proposition 19 manages to pass in California, other states might follow the same steps. In the July 26 poll from Public Policy Polling 47% were in favor of Prop.19, 43% against and 10% do not know. 

In 2010, the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes reported that the highest levels of cannabis use remain in the markets of North America and Western Europe. In 2008, it was estimated that 15.2 million Americans were "past month" users. More than 102 million Americans have tried marijuana, and those who haven't are mostly discouraged because it is illegal. 

In August 2010, the LA Times published a commentary by directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. When asked about legalization, their answer was no. Their main argument is that legal marijuana sales would not generate much revenue since Proposition 19 does not impose a tax on homegrown marihuana for personal use, which is what many consumers do.  And the revenue that could be collected is simply not enough to cover the increasing costs of health care and justice. According to their report, for every dollar the government collects from taxes on alcohol, society spends 8 dollars more on social costs. Nothing guarantees that consumers will volunteer to pay taxes and that the underground market will diminish, it would just adapt. A report by Rand Corp. called "Altered State", could not predict an estimate of revenue from marijuana tax, and stated that consumption would increase as well as tax evasion and a "race to the bottom" within the US in terms of local tax rates.

The second strongest argument for legalization is that law enforcement officers could focus more on real crimes if marijuana becomes legal. However, Californian law enforcement does not put much effort in arresting adults whose only crime is possessing small amounts of marijuana. Proposition 19 would burden them with complicated enforcement duties. And take the Netherlands for instance.  For some time now, the Dutch have been reducing the number of coffee shops because of excessive drug tourism, drug-related crime and social disturbances. Law enforcement in Netherlands did not rest thanks to legalization, quite the opposite happened. 

An analysis by the Drug and Alcohol Review showed that a significant percentage of people that sustained injuries or died in a car accident in 2008 in the US were under the effects of marijuana. Legalizing implies more people driving under its influence, more accidents and therefore, more work for law enforcement officials and the health system. California should also note that during the time marijuana use was commercialized and expanded in the Netherlands, there was a tripling of lifetime use rates and a double increase of use among 18 to 20 year olds.

However, experts from the New York Times in Room for Debate tend to favor legalization and discuss the scenarios that would emerge with legalization. Wayne Hall, expert on public healthy policy, thinks that with legalization, the government could set a price to discourage use, regulate its content, restrict sales to minors and include health warnings. The point of legalization would ultimately be to eliminate the black market of marijuana, help rather than arrest users, and fight consumption with health education. In the best case scenario, the marijuana mafia would disappear and consumption would decrease. Legalization would also allow more studies about drug use, and would provide numbers that could give an idea of how many consumers there are and how much is needed to help them. Maybe, marijuana use would decrease with the years with public healthy education just like tobacco. This scenarios are hypothetical and the task of the experts becomes speculative since no modern country has done something like Proposition 19.

In all of this, I find a huge contradiction. If Proposition 19 and drug policy in the US incurred economic and social costs exclusively for the US government, maybe the debate would not be so pivotal. Unfortunately legalization could severely undermine Mexico's war against drugs, and Colombia's and Peru´s drug enforcement efforts. It is actually very ironic, or more like a slap in the face, that a country that pushed the Mexican government to prohibit marijuana in the 1930s in order to homologate both country's drug policies, is now gradually legalizing the product, especially in the middle of a drug war. It is devastatingly contradictory that the terrible death toll in Mexico continues to rise while the Army violently fights cartels and seizes tons of marijuana that are going to be legally consumed in the US. Is Mexico now supposed to adopt the US's drug policy as well? Right after word spread about Proposition 19, President Calderón opened a debate on something that had never been endorsed by him or his party. It was only because US marijuana legalization deeply affects Mexico's drug war.


Drug policy success, or failure, depends on education, income, health care access and law enforcement, to name a few. If the US and Mexico and Colombia have vastly different economies, wealth distribution and law enforcement, it is impossible to have homologous drug policies but at the same time, it is also impossible to have opposite drug policies. US drug policy decisions are not unilateral, not while it imports drugs and provides weapons for cartels from the other side of the border. The US is being naive and short-sighted in thinking that its drug policy decisions will not impact or inspire its neighbors to do something that their economies and law enforcement are not strong enough to take. Or maybe they are turning a blind eye. Do they think they are immune to the spillover effect of violence in its South border? Drugs, drug policy, and drug-related crime are transnational whether we like it or not. 

Since pro-legalization activists are so keen on speculation, I would like to speculate on the following: Proposition 19 might unchain a series of unfortunate events that would consummate with the US absorbing more crime, medical and economic costs; and meanwhile its neighbor (or failed state?) will be facing the same costs of legalization, still waging a losing war against cartels, crime and drug addiction.  Marijuana legalization will not eliminate the pervasive corruption on both sides of the border.

August 24, 2010

A New Word for Mexico’s Drug Lexicon: Narco-censorship

Mexico’s drug war has escalated to alarming heights during the course of 2010. In only two months, the violence in northeastern cities close to the US border went from bad to worse. The Washington Post, LA Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Economist, among many other US media sources, have been faithfully reporting on Mexico’s drug war. During July and August, an obvious trend emerged. It’s what the LA Times has dubbed the new word in Mexico’s extensive drug-war lexicon: narco-censorship. The news media has become one of the cartel’s most vital targets. Kidnapping, torturing, murdering and co-opting reporters from newspapers, radio stations, and television news sources is quite common, especially in cities most affected by drug-related crime such as Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Ciudad Juarez, and Monterrey, to name a few.

Why is censorship so important to organized crime in Mexico? The logic is simple. Drug cartels cannot afford to have local news source reporting on their criminal activities because this might draw attention from the federal government, which in turn could bolster military presence in vulnerable areas, curtailing their activities. So now cartels are sending a message, loud and clear. For instance, Televisa, one of the most powerful and influential television networks, has been recently attacked with grenades and gunfire in Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros.

Journalism is seriously undermined in Nuevo Laredo. Almost on an everyday basis, drug-related shootings and murders take place very close to the US border and rarely get reported. In fact, it’s more likely that US newspapers such as the LA Times and Washington Post publish the story, not because they get the scoop, but because Mexican news source are not allowed to speak. On July this year, Mexican soldiers engaged in battle during more than five hours against a drug cartel. With pointed guns, criminals hijacked vehicles, including a bus. Innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire. Although the city has three television news channels, four daily newspapers and at least five radio stations, one of the biggest stories of the year went unreported. Afterwards, the Interior Ministry in Mexico City declared that 12 people were killed in the gunfight. However, Washington Post reporters informed that local journalists say there were at least 20 or 30 casualties. The death rate rarely matches reality. In Nuevo Laredo digging too deep on a story can get you killed. The same goes to many cities and small towns who are constantly showered with narco violence.

But perhaps one of the incidents that might reflect best the journalistic crisis in Mexico is the kidnapping of four reporters who were covering a news report on a penitentiary in Durango. Their investigation included the massacre of 17 people at a party carried out by the inmates who abandoned the prison at night with permission from the warden. Milenio magazine admitted that one of its abducted reporters contacted the editor asking to broadcast videos posted on an anonymous Mexican website called Blog del Narco. The kidnappers, who belonged to the Sinaloa Cartel, were unhappy about Milenio’s news coverage about them. In an attempt to appear less like “the bad guys,” they wanted the magazine to broadcast three videos of another cartel committing serious crimes. The cartel demanded news coverage instead of ransom money.

Reporters from cities suffering from widespread drug-related crime receive word from colleagues and intermediaries, likely employed by cartels, about what is and isn’t safe to publish. Silence is preferable since attention from national news media, and that includes the US, “heats the plaza” and increases violence. Without news media reporting about the obvious spread of violence in northeastern cities, Mexicans now recur to social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook to find out the latest news about what is happening, and whether or not streets are safe.  Blog del Narco, powered by an anonymous twentysomething and heavily protected by cybersecurity is getting 3 millions hits a week. The gory information, videos and imaged posted in Blog del Narco seem to come from all sides of the drug war, cartels and authorities alike. It is a sad but useful substitute since popular newspapers no longer provide the information Mexicans need.

The absence of media has grave consequences for Mexico’s drug war. To begin with, lack of accurate information makes it impossible to grasp the drug war’s magnitude. How much help does Juarez need? How many soldiers should be sent to Monterrey? The truth is, the federal government might not have the least idea either. How can Mexican officials asses the situation if they don’t have proper information in the first place? Second, the absence of open criticism and accusation of drug cartels provides them with a bigger sense of impunity and freedom to act, since “nothing happens here”. Third, the international community remains unaware and therefore cannot recommend, help, or pressure the Mexican government into acting effectively.

And here’s some food for thought. What if drug cartels are not the only ones benefited by silence? What if the government finds it actually convenient if Mexico stays out of headlines, both on a national and international level? Bad news could discourage foreign direct investment, right? The question now is who will protect Mexico’s journalism if both government and organized crime would rather have it keep quiet? Since December 2006 an estimated 30 reporters have been killed or gone missing, making Mexico the deadliest country in the world for journalists. The silence from newspapers, radio stations and television is frustrating yet predictable. If we lose the fight against information, we are losing one of democracy’s core values: freedom of speech.