Felipe Calderon is no longer the Mexican president. Despite his drug war, declared in 2006, criminal cartels seem to have been neither defeated nor weakened. The last week gave us a couple of significant examples.

Soldiers in Tijuana – The army goes back in the streets of Tijuana, border city in the northern state of Baja California. Along with local, state and federal agents, indeed, troops will patrol the streets, in particular in the eastern area. In this way, Mexican authorities hope to stave off quickly the new wave of violence, which killed more than a dozen people in the past few days.

Corrupt cops – About 2,000 kilometers away from Tijuana, in the cities of Lerdo and Gómez Palacio (state of Durango e Coahuila), 158 police have been convicted of being in collusion with drug traffickers and criminal cartels. According to the Spanish El País and the Mexican newspaper El Universal, the directors of Seguridad Publica in both cities, Andrés Balderas Pérez and Víctor Cordero Giorgana,  have been convicted too. The operation, preceded by a long investigation, was launched on Friday, January 18th, and involved the federal police and the Mexican army.

A balance after six years into the drug war

Drug cartels’ revenge: former mayor tortured and murdered

The global hub of drug trafficking

Mexico, an $8 billion drug market

Mexico's drug war visualized

From the drug blog Rehab International. The graphic is not up-to-date (data refer to mid-2011), yet it is emblematic.

Image  —  Posted: 07/01/2013 in Americas
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According to the 2010 World Drug Report, the estimated worth of the Mexican drug market is about $8 billion per year. Because of its features, it is impossible to quantify this traffic precisely, we can only estimate it. The report is one of the more authoritative and reliable sources, yet other researches suggest different amounts, from $2 billion up to $35 billion per year. Consequently, there are different numbers about the American drug market too. The Informe Jalisco, commissioned by the governor of the Mexican state of Jalisco, for instance, indicates that the American market is 28 times richer than the Mexican one.
Such a huge sum of money is the fulcrum of the Mexican drug traffickers’ power, and, together with the weakness of local and national institutions, explains the insecurity and the violence that affect several regions in the country.

Corruption, weapons and violence – This richness allowed drug cartels to arm themselves with loads of weapons, recruit new soldiers and corrupt public officials and politicians. As stated by the Informe Jalisco, «the drug is a parallel power, an economic power, a network of opportunities based on the risk, an illegal social network and a legendary province of the already legendary territory of Mexican violence». The violence in Mexico has increased over the years, and now affects 22 out of 33 Mexican states, and the number of criminal cartels competing in this market nearly doubled between 2006 and 2012, from 6 to 11. The rise is due to the fragmentation of existing cartels and the emergence of new criminal entities.

The miraculous journey – As I said in the previous post, the term drug trafficking refers to the production and the trade of heroin and other opiates, marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.

$205 Million drug money seized by the Mexican Police and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico city in 2007

$205 Million drug money seized by the Mexican Police and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico city, in 2007. Source: Wikimedia/DEA

Before they reach the retail market, narcotics undergo several phases of production, and they usually travel thousands of kilometers. From plantations to laboratories, from the wholesale trade to the retail, this trade produces enormous profits. The lifecycle of a kilo of cocaine, from South American plantations to the US retail market, is a good example to explain this traffic and its profits.
The price per kilo of raw material is about $950; after the transformation in basic cocaine it reaches nearly $1,500, increasing up to $2,500 when the base becomes refined cocaine. The price keeps growing during the journey through Mexico towards the US borders. In northern Mexico, our kilo costs $12,500, while, over the frontier, one needs $26,500 to buy it. When the drug reaches the retail market, the worth of a kilo of cocaine can hit $180,000. Something similar happens in the chain that takes drug to Europe.

High risks, high profits – This chain of value is rather similar to the ones that characterize other narcotics. The price per kilo of heroin rockets from $35,000 to $130,000; the wholesale price per kilo of marijuana in Mexico is $80, whereas it costs $2,000 in the streets of a great American city.
According to the 2010 World Drug Report, cocaine has the highest value in this business, between $650 million and $4,000 million, followed by marijuana, opiates and synthetic drugs.
The incredible rise of prices is due to the features of this business. Besides traditional business risks, drug traffickers must take into account police operations and the high rates of violence and death that characterize the competition in this sector. High risks, high prices and profits.

Drug cartels and traffickers can be weakened by hitting their economic heart, which is not easy at all. Between 2004 and 2010, for example, in Mexico just 54 criminals have been convicted of drug traffickers’ money laundering, while the seizure of drug cartels’ money in the past four years is just over $500 million. It is a significant amount, but nothing when we think of a turnover of $8 billion per year.

Pietro Lombardi

My first article analyzes, through numbers and data, results and consequences of six years into the drug war. To better understand the Mexican reality, we need to discuss two more aspects. What are the characteristics of this country’s drug market? What is the drug trafficking turnover?

Let’s start with the first issue, while the second one will be examined in the next article.

The local market: small and stable – “Internal” drug consumption is rather limited, thus meaning that the national market is relatively small and poor. About that, the Encuesta nacional de adicciones (National Addictions Survey), carried out by the Mexican department of Health, is one of the most reliable surveys. According to 2008 data, about 4 million people, 6% of the population, had tried an illicit drug at least once in their life; 2011 data confirm these numbers, thus showing a certain stability in this market. If we think that in the US this percentage substantially exceeds 40% of the population, it is clear that the export towards this country is the drug traffickers’ core business. The 2011 and 2012 World Drug Report editions confirm that, as Mexico occupies the bottom of almost all the ranks about drug consumption, always after the United States and many European countries.

A global market – «Nosotros ponemos los muertos y ellos ponen los consumidores» (We put the dead, and they put the consumers), Mexicans say when they talk about the roles of Mexico and the United States in the rich drug market. Indeed, whether the drug is produced in Mexico or comes from other producing countries, the final destination is the northern border, the drug traffickers’ golden gate to the US. Western European countries, instead, are the second richest drug market. Therefore, it is a global market, and Mexico is just a hub, although one of the most important in the world. It is a producer and transit country, but, until worldwide there will be a high demand for drugs, a military-led strategy against drug cartels is likely to be ineffective.

Drug routes and production – The term drug trafficking usually refers to the production and the trade of heroin and other opiates, marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. Mexico produces a large amount of marijuana and opiates, while the production of methamphetamine and synthetic drugs increases year by year. At the same time, it is a transit country for cocaine and heroin. These come from South America and Asia, enter the country from the South border and the bases on the coast and, through several routes, reach the northern border, directed towards the USA and Canada. Their trading networks are the most structured, spreading throughout the country.
Despite the war on drug declared by the former president Felipe Calderon, the municipalities in which there is a large production of marijuana and opiates (namely with at least 12 hectares dedicated to drug plantations) almost doubled between 2001 and 2010: the former from 46 to 89 and the latter from 29 to 57. Synthetic drugs production increased even more, by about 200% between 2008 and 2010. The drug economy affects particularly the states of Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Durango.

Here, you can find a map of Mexico’s drug routes and criminal cartels.

Pietro Lombardi

Data and numbers are usually clear and concise. Yet they are rather “cold”. The following is one of the many histories of violence and death linked with drug cartels in México. Under some aspects, it is emblematic of drug cartels’ cruelty and arrogance, against which many brave Mexicans fight every day, thus putting themselves on the line.

María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar’s body narrates two stories to whom know how, and want, to read it. The first one is her personal history, shattered abruptly when she was 36 years old and terminated along a roadside in Cuitzeo, a small town in the state of Michoacán, in southern México.

The bullet in her nape and the scars of torture that preceded her death overlap older wounds, legacy of two other attacks which she had miraculously survived. On October, 15th 2009, she was seriously injured, and her husband killed, by a group of men armed with assault rifles and grenades. On January, 22nd 2010, instead, an armed group ambushed her: once again María Santos survived, despite the three bullets that reached her. After recovering, she showed a photographer her wounds and the photo spread throughout México.

«I have a responsibility to my people, children, women, men and the elderly working every day to earn their livelihood – she said after the second attack –. If I want to be an example to my three children, I cannot hesitate».

The criminal cartels, which in that southern state are Familia Michoana and Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), sentenced to death the young woman because of what she did during her tenure as mayor of Tiquicheo, a small town in the state of Michoacán, between 2008 and 2011. María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, in fact, has dared to challenge them, deluding herself to be the real authority in the town.

Here, we come to the second story, the one on México in the first years of the third millennium. A country where there are two authorities, two powers, which sometimes fight each other, sometimes deal. On the one hand the public institutions’ formal government; on the other hand the criminal organizations’ actual one, which raises taxes and decides whether people can live or must die. The young ex-mayor is the 40th local politician killed by organized crime since Felipe Calderón, the former president of México, has launched his war against the drug cartels. It was 2007 and, in five years, about 60,000 Mexicans have been killed in this conflict.

Someone says that María Santos is also “guilty” of having left the PRI, Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which for seventy years has monopolized Mexican institutions, to join the leftist PRD, Partido de la Revolución Democrática. Indeed, there is a strange coincidence. The government of the state of Michoacán had withdrawn, or not confirmed, the escort to the woman. In February 2012, the PRI regained the power in this state, till then governed by the PRD.

Pietro Lombardi

On December, 1st 2012 Enrique Peña Nieto succeeded Felipe Calderón as President of Mexico and the PRI, Partido Revolucionario Institucional, regained the power. The outgoing president, member of the PAN, Partido de Acción Nacional, focused his presidency on the drug war, supported by the United States. According to The Washington Post, indeed, the U.S government contributed nearly $2 billion in security aid, delivering Black Hawk helicopters, night-vision goggles and computer equipment and helping train thousands of Mexican police.

Calderón’s military-led strategy has continued a policy of violent struggle against drug and organized crime launched in the ’70s by Operation Condor, aimed at the destruction, through defoliant, of drug plantations. As the local consumption is relatively small, this policy’s main goal is reducing the quantity of narcotics smuggled into the United States.

After nearly fifty years of fight against drugs, recent data show that the objective has not been achieved. Despite the excellent results obtained with the capture of several kingpins and regional drug cartel leaders, in fact, Mexico has plunged into a crisis of violence, insecurity and corruption with few equals in the world, with no reduction in the drug trafficking towards the United States.


Mexican Marines during a combat against a drug cartel in Xalapa, Veracruz

Achievements by numbers – Calderón is not the first Mexican president to send soldiers against drug cartels, but the deployment of more than 50,000, heavily armed troops became a hallmark of his security strategy. Mexican center-right government kept constantly updated the register of outstanding captures, thus trying to demonstrate its success. Since 2006, at least 19 drug lords, 28 regional leaders and a dozen financial intermediaries in collusion with drug cartels have been captured. The strategy partly changed in 2011, focusing on regional and mid-level leaders.
In the past six years, seizures of drugs, weapons, vehicles and illegal laboratories rocketed, while eradications of drug fields and investigations on white collar crime dropped. Between 1990 and 2012, prisoners for drug related crimes doubled: from 10,000 to 20,000. The government also claims to have regained control of once dangerous border cities, such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Yet the country has paid a heavy price.

Victims – Capturing or killing most-wanted drug cartel leaders usually determinates a wave of violence and crimes, while vacancies are likely to be filled quickly. In the past six years, more than 60,000 people died in drug violence. The number of people killed every year in this war quintupled between 2007 and 2010, increasing from 2,826 to 15,273. 2007 is also a turning point for the annual homicide rate. Indeed, it declined between 1990 and 2007 from 20 to 8 murders per 100,000 people. On the contrary, the drug war caused it to soar up to 24 murders per 100,000 people, even though Calderón administration says that homicides attributed to drug cartel activity fell in 2012.

Crimes related to drug trafficking – The cartel violence unleashed a wider breakdown in public security, as witnesses the increase in kidnappings, extortion and vehicle robbery, respectively soared by 171%, 88% and 32% between 2006 and 2010.

Corruption – Mexican drug cartels, such as many criminal organizations worldwide, have founded their relationship with public authorities on two strategies: corruption and violent threats. The first one allows them to create solid ties and networks with public institutions. That’s why violence and homicides are used just in extreme cases. Corruption is deeply rooted in Mexican institutions. In the ‘90s, for example, general Gutiérrez Rebollo, then director of Mexico’s antidrug operations as head of the Instituto Nacional para el Combate a las Drogas (INCD), was arrested because of his relationship with the Juárez Cartel. In 2008, similar events involved several high-level officials of the Subprocuraduría de Investigaciones Especializadas en Delincuencia Organizada. In 2010, in the state of Nuevo León, hundreds of police have been fired because of their relations with drug cartels and criminal organizations.

A plentiful flow of drugs – The repressive policies implemented by Calderón’s government failed to reduce the stream of Mexican drug flooding the United States. Because of its features, it is impossible to quantify this traffic precisely. According to the 2011 Drug Threat Assessment, the amount of illicit drugs available in the United States, but cocaine which has fallen by 36%, has grown between 2006 and 2010. In particular, heroin increased by 18%, marijuana by 40% and methamphetamine by 56%.

«History will be the judge» (of his term), Calderón said. So far, Mexican people judged him, in July’s presidential election: a crushing defeat for the PAN.

Incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto promised to continue the drug war and the partnership with the United States, even though he announced new strategies and priorities. Felipe Calderón will probably follow these changes from the US, since he repeatedly said he would have moved there at the end of his term, fearing for his life.

Pietro Lombardi

Data in the article are from: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report, 2012; Drug Threat Assessment 2011; governmental and academic Mexican sources.