Transnational Criminal Drug Organizations

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Some of the World’s most horrifying and violent Transnational Drug Organizations are the Mexican Drug Cartels. Since 2006, it is estimated by many sources that almost 60,000 people have been killed in a series of clashes between the Drug Cartels and the Mexican Army and the Mexican Federal Police agencies. This full-scale assault on the six major Cartels has produced little or no effect on the flow of illegal drugs into the States. It has drastically reduced the price of some street drugs in the United States and has led to an outcry from several Latin American countries, calling for a reform of the United States’ drug laws. Several Latin American countries are calling for a radical shift towards drug legalization or decriminalization. While this low-level war has been going on, both Washington and Colorado have legalized the possession and sale of marijuana for adults. President Obama has given tacit approval for these States’ innovative new drug policies, and many experts think that this approach may well be more effective than the prior Law Enforcement and Military Approach. This paper will analyze the impact that complete marijuana legalization in all states and by the Federal government might have on the ability of the Mexican Cartels to survive.


Among the World’s most horrifying, skilled, rich and desperately-violent Transnational Drug Organizations are the Mexican Drug Cartels. There are six major Mexican Drug Cartels: Zetas, Sinaloa Cartel, Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Beltran Leyva, and the Knights Templar. These Mexican drug gangs are responsible for a substantial portion of Mexico’s GNP, contributing as much as $30 billion a year to Mexico’s cash-strapped economy and because of their lopsided effect on the economy are protected by the corruption of public officials. (Lee, "Mexico's Drug War", 2014). The size and scope of these violent criminal enterprises are breathtaking. Each of them operates as a large, multi-national corporation with its own armed forces. The efforts of the Mexican government at war with these Cartels will be explored next. Finally, the effect of marijuana legalization in the United States will be explored as a possible public policy alternative. Each of the major cartels will first be described in turn.

The Zetas are widely considered to be the most skillful and gruesomely violent of any of the Mexican cartels. (Ware, 2009). In a brazen demonstration of just how powerful and dangerous this cartel is; and how desperately corrupt the Mexican government is in battling them, in 1999 commandos from the Mexican Army’s elite commando force deserted and went to work for the Gulf Cartel. The Gulf Cartel evolved into the present-day Zeta Cartel. (Stastna, 2011) The Zetas now have an army of 10,000 soldiers and can frequently outgun and out battle units of the Mexican Army. (Kelley, 2012)

The Sinaloa Cartel is sometimes known as the Guzmán-Loera Organization or the Pacific Cartel. The United States has classified this Cartel as the most powerful drug organization in Mexico. (Unknown, "U.S. Intelligence Says Sinaloa Cartel Has Won Battle for Ciudad Juarez Drug Routes", 2010) This Cartel is responsible for half of the illegal drugs shipped to the United States each year. It is a powerful, vertically-integrated criminal organization that profits more from Cocaine than its weight in gold. It exports massive quantities of heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana. (KEEFE, 2012)

The Juarez cartel may not be the largest or most profitable Cartel, but it certainly vies for the most gruesomely violent, most famously for decapitating its rivals, mutilating the corpses and dumping them in public places. Its primary rival is the Sinaloa Cartel. (Unknown A., 2008) The Juarez Cartel is in decline since having its top “Boss” killed and losing its close ties to the top echelons of the Mexican government.

The Tijuana Cartel has been called “one of the biggest and most violent criminal groups in Mexico." (Steller, 1998) This cartel was comprised of the Arellano brothers and has corrupted both the Mexican law enforcement and the Mexican Judicial system. It is responsible for multi-ton shipments of heroin, cocaine and marijuana into the United States. (DEA, 1995) In 2013, the Cartel suffered a crippling blow when Felix Arellano was killed by a rival cartel. (Agence-France-Presse, 2013)

The Beltran Leyva cartel was started and ran by Hector Beltran Leyva since the death of his brother Arturo in December 2009. This cartel split from the Sinaloa cartel in 2008 and then divided into two smaller rival gangs as drug lords fought for control over the organization. It then allied itself to the Los Zetas cartel. It has declared open war on the Los Zetas gang. (Garza, 2008).

This Knights Templar gang was so vicious in a gruesome murder spree in one village that it ignited a citizen uprising. The leader of the Knights Templar was confirmed killed by the Mexican Navy in 2010, leaving its present leadership in doubt. Its militias have seized entire villages and towns and have replaced the Mexican government in many of its governmental functions. This cartel operates much like a bizarre religious cult and transports tons of methamphetamines into the United States each year. The members of this quasi-religious cult/drug cartel are a splinter group from the La Familia Cartel. Its members dress like Crusaders of the Middle Ages. They wear a white battle dress complete with red crosses and build religious shrines to its founders. Its founders' religious writings are published and distributed (Partlow, 2010).

In 2006, Mexican President Calderon made a major policy change where Mexico would treat these Cartels as full-scale enemy combatant organizations and would deploy all of the war-making assets of the Mexican government. This is one of the, if not the most aggressive cartel eradication efforts of any country in the world. Mexico’s murder rate had fallen by 50 percent before the war began but has more than tripled each year beginning in 2006. Both the Cartels and the Mexican Military have carried out horrific atrocities, as the war has gone very poorly, and has barely made a dent in the number of drugs coming into the United States:

Felipe Calderón dresses up in a military uniform and calls for no quarter on enemies who threaten the fatherland—then balks angrily at any notion Mexico is fighting an insurrection. The Obama administration is even more confused. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assures people that Mexico is simply suffering from inner city crime like the United States in the eighties. Then she later says Mexico has an insurgency akin to Colombia’s…. Is it a “narco state”? Or a “captured state”? Or just in a right bloody state? (Coll, 2011)

In the past 7 years, an estimated 60,000 people have been murdered in these wars in a massive series of clashes between the Drug Cartels and the Mexican Army and the Mexican Federal Police agencies. This full-scale assault on the six major Cartels has produced little or no effect on the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. But it has led to an almost unimaginable level of gruesome murders and civilian casualties nearly putting Mexico in the unwanted position of being a failed state as the Cartels build their own armed militias and carry out paramilitary attacks on government installations and massed civilians. Recitation of some of the most gruesome atrocities is necessary in order to paint an accurate picture of the desperation of both the government and the cartels as the war drastically escalated:

In 2011, the Los Zetas cartel headed off reinforcements from a rival gang by intercepting busloads of civilians, who were murdered when they refused to work for the cartel.

2012, a prison became the scene of a pitched battle as the Los Zetas gang was allowed by the prison authorities to battle members of the Gulf Cartel. When the battle was finished, 44 members of the Gulf Cartel had been murdered, and 37 members of the Las Zetas broke out of prison. 19 prison employees were brought up on charges for assisting the Los Zetas.

In 2008 on Mexico’s Independence Day, the La Familia Michoacana cartel was suspected of throwing a pair of grenades into a crowd of 30,000 in the city of Morella. 8 people were murdered in that attack and many more were injured.

In 2010 in Puebla, Mexico a massive oil pipeline blast set off by the Los Zetas gang murdered 29 people, including 13 children.

In 2011 near the town of Durango at least 340 bodies were discovered in vast graves. Among the dead was a mayor from a nearby town and other governmental officials.

In 2011, a massive fireball exploded in a casino in Monterey killed 52 women after Los Zetas gunmen killed most of the casino security guards will a paramilitary machine gun and grenade attack.

In 2012, 14 Los Zetas members chopped to pieces alive and found in a minivan. Police suspected the Jalisco New Generation cartel, part of the Sinaloa Cartel as the culprits. In a vicious retaliation, 23 bodies of members of the Sinaloa Cartel were discovered, with nine of them decoratively hung from a bridge, with the 14 beheaded with their heads contained in ice chests.

In 2008 in Tijuana, the Arellano Felix Tijuana cartel had a savage gun battle with rival gang members, killing 17. The Sinaloa Cartel took advantage of the mayhem to monopolize the city’s drug trade.

In 2011 the Sinoloa cartel conducted a spree of 15 beheadings against rival gangs in Acapulco. Later that year, 5 severed heads were found outside of an elementary school

In 2010 the shredded and mutilated corpse of a 26-year-old was found, apparently to send a message of retaliation to the Juarez Cartel. The face of the corpse was skinned and stitched to a soccer ball. (Devlin, 2013)

This savage and unrestrained warfare, with Mexico being financially supported by the United States, has actually had a paradoxical effect by drastically decreasing the street price of many drugs, with cocaine now a whopping 74 percent cheaper than in 2001. Marijuana is the only drug after all of this incredible bloodshed that has retained a stable price and continues to account for 20 percent of the annual income of the Cartels (Porter, 2012).


The gruesome violence in Mexico, the disruptions in the South American economies, and the devastating corruption of the Mexican government has created an outcry and backlash from several of the United States’ key allies in its War on Drugs. Several Latin American countries are calling for a radical shift towards drug legalization or decriminalization. (Reilly, 2013) While the low-level war in Mexico grinds on to an inconclusive draw and the civilian casualties and atrocities mount, several of the U.S’s key allies in the drug war are considering either decriminalizing or outright legalization of many different drugs. Uruguay has legalized marijuana in this sea change of government policy (Serrano, 2012).

In the United States, there have been 20 states that have enacted medical marijuana laws and two states, Washington and Colorado, have outright legalized marijuana for adult recreational consumption. This slow revolution in illegal drug enforcement was given a huge boost by some public statements of President Obama and the decision of the Federal government to allow state marijuana law reform to proceed without federal intervention. (FRIEDERSDORF, January 21, 2014). Five more states are likely to legalize recreational marijuana in the next five years. (Messamore, 2014) This paper will now examine the effect that full legalization across the United States might have on the ongoing war against the Mexican drug cartels.

From a strategic perspective, the Mexican Cartel’s present control the United States’ marijuana market may well be the “Achilles heel” of the entire Cartel system: In the lead-up to the 2012 referenda in Washington and Colorado, the Mexican Competitiveness Institute released a study estimating that Mexico’s cartels would lose yearly sales of $1.425 billion if the initiative passed in Colorado and $1.372 billion if Washington voted to legalize. The organizations’ drug trafficking revenues would fall 20 to 30 percent, and the Sinaloa cartel, which would be the most affected, would lose up to 50 percent of its yearly revenues. (Khazan, 2012) Mexican Drug Cartels make the majority of their profits from marijuana sales. (Campbell, 2012). Since the Mexican drug cartels like all illegal drug operations are opaque in their financial dealings, only a rough estimate is possible of the financial and legal bonanza that might accrue if every state were to legalize marijuana. The Office of National Drug Policy estimates that the Mexican cartels might suffer a devastating 60 percent drop in profits if marijuana were legalized across the United States. The Rand Corporation has a much more conservative estimate of 15 to 26 percent drop in Cartel profits. (Debusmann, 2014)

The dollar value on less violence in Mexico, if legalization indeed forced a reduction in cartel activity, would be incalculable. Cartels in parts of Mexico are virtually the only government in the area. One analyst has suggested that the aggressively violent Sinaloa Cartel could lose more than half of its profits if only Colorado, Oregon and Washington were to legalize marijuana. (Debusmann, 2014) Additionally, such a dramatic blow to the cartels would also damage the cartels’ ability to corrupt and control much of the government in the areas where they are predominant. The United States alone spends approximately $5 billion a year in aid and law enforcement outlays to assist Mexico in its drug war. Legalization could also inflict a devastating blow on the cartels, leaving cash-strapped Mexico to use its limited resources in a more productive manner. (Lee, 2014)


As Mexico’s drug war against its massive cartel enemy grinds to an inevitable stalemate or defeat, it is the right time to look at any possible non-military and non-law enforcement alternatives. President Obama has made it clear that he is going to allow the States to experiment with a wide variety of marijuana decriminalization and legalization strategies. Mexico’s military and law enforcement efforts at fighting the cartels have created massive collateral damages and a population that is deeply traumatized by the resulting horrific slaughter and brutality. The US’s Latin American allies have signaled that their days of giving unlimited support to the criminalization alternative are numbered. It is time for the United States to inflict a possibly mortal blow on the cartels by encouraging more states to legalize marijuana.


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