There is no doubt that the drug trade is a strong and deep rooted problem in the United States and Mexico. Cartels and gangs were not always as powerful and far-reaching as they are today; to get to this point, the two countries first had to experience a perfect storm of circumstances. While President Reagan was waging a harsh War on Drugs, Mexico’s economy was taking a turn for the worse. Oil prices rose in the late seventies, benefiting Mexico, but the recession of the early 1980s caused a drop in oil exports and prices. In addition, President Echeverría (1970-76) had just attempted a fiscal expansion that resulted in an increase of public debts and the budget deficit as well as inflation. In 1982, Mexico defaulted on its debts, causing concern in the larger global market. The US, Mexico’s largest creditor, agreed to help Mexico (and any other country) only if the government fought its nation’s drug problem to a level the US deemed satisfactory. In order to prevent an international financial disaster, the International Monetary Fund loaned the Mexican government $3.8bn. This loan, as well as other support from the global community, came with conditions; Mexico was to undergo a mandatory “structural adjustment” that was intended to rebuild the Mexican economy. It did not. Services were privatized, foreign investment was widely encouraged, and the agricultural sector was forced to concentrate on exports. This was a financial dream for aspiring tycoons, but for the rest of the country it was a nightmare. Work conditions plummeted when public jobs were privatized, subsidies for basic necessities were removed, and wages dropped. The plan to fix Mexico’s economy failed spectacularly.
When a government fails to help the people it is designed to support, it is only a matter of time before someone else takes control. In the case of Mexico, it was the drug cartels that stepped in to provide support and stability. When Mexico’s economy failed and farmers were losing their jobs, the Guadalajara Cartel, run by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, offered work and protection. In 1987, Félix Gallardo split his cartel kingdom into five territories which would operate independently from each other but answer to him. This system functioned relatively well until Félix Gallardo was arrested in 1989; though he tried to maintain control from prison, each faction of his empire vied for control with disastrous civilian consequences. The group in control of the Sonora region was completely destroyed, while three of the other factions were severely crippled. The remaining group, however, came out of the aftermath of Félix Gallardo’s arrest stronger than it went in, and has only gained power since; it is known as the Sinaloa Cartel.
The shades of orange in the map above, accurate for FY15, indicate areas where the Sinaloa Cartel has predominant influence, with darker orange showing more significant control. You may notice that most of the map is orange, including Hawaii and Alaska, and about half of it is dark orange. It is important to note that the small pie charts on the map represent the percent of cases each DEA office oversees that is attributed to each cartel.
So how did the Sinaloa Cartel come to have such far reaching power? As anyone who works in sales will tell you, networking is key. The modern drug trade finds its roots in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, where a small group of families started dealing and trafficking opioids. The state saw an influx of Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s who took advantage of the region’s climate and started cultivating poppies for opium. The business remained relatively small until World War II when Japan seized control of the Asian opium supply; the US needed morphine, and Sinaloa was happy to provide it. The main families involved in drug production and trade continued their practices even after the US stopped condoning them. In the early 1980s, the Sinaloan families had a large enough network that they shifted their base of operations to Guadalajara, where they were led by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo. Around 1987, Félix Gallardo decided it was in his best interest to split his vast empire into five regional groups, Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Sonora, Tamaulipas, and Pacific Coast. Operations ran smoothly, with each region operating independently of the others, until Félix Gallardo was arrested in 1989. Félix Gallardo tried to run the Guadalajara Cartel from inside prison, but as war broke out between regions he quickly realized it was a lost cause. Today, the cartels operating in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez are relatively minor players, Tamaulipas is the base for the Gulf Cartel, and the Sonora region has been engulfed by the Sinaloa Cartel, which always controlled the Pacific Coast.
Since 1989, the Sinaloa Cartel has arguably been the fiercest cartel operating in Mexico. The Cartel uses every resource to its advantage- its historic network, the poor farmers looking for work, the underpaid military, the corrupt politicians- to ensure its dominance and stability. The Cartel also uses tactics that would make Machiavelli proud; they help the general population in a quasi-governmental manner, but are not afraid to use extreme force to stay in power. The people that live in the state of Sinaloa have an intense respect and reverence for the Cartel, something not seen in other areas of the country. The Cartel provides services that the government does not; it is understood that the Cartel is a dangerous force people should not oppose, but the general population sees no reason to oppose it.
The Sinaloa Cartel is a transnational, institutionalized gang that could not have gained the power it has without the help of the War on Drugs. The War had good intentions, but executed plans with a narrow focus on minor problems rather than understanding the effects they would have on the drug trade as a whole. The drug problem of these two nations is worse than ever, and if there is any hope of improvement we must learn from the past.