Over the past decade, the United States has fluctuated in policies dealing with the drug war between a strong active stance to a more passive preventative stance. The war on drugs can only be fought successfully by ensuring our borders do not provide a convenient route for the traffickers. Additionally, being proactive in assisting Mexico with capturing the drug cartel ‘lords’ to disrupt their operations is also a good strategy but dependent on Mexico’s cooperation. A strong drug enforcement policy with preventative measures that will decrease drug usage and thus lead to less drug trafficking is a good parallel strategy but a long-term one; unless our borders are secured so the cartels lose their ability to traffic thus effectively shutting them down, we will not succeed in this “war”.

Since the movement of drug cartels northward, from Colombia to Mexico in the 1990’s, the United States has had an even more vested interest in trying to cut drug trafficking into the United States. The National Drug Intelligence Center now considers Mexican drug cartels as dominating the U.S. illicit drug market. According to the Center, Mexican cartels “use their well-established overland transportation networks to transport cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin – Mexican and increasingly South American  – to drug markets throughout the country.” With nearly 2000 miles of common border between the two countries, the United States government has had to take a much more active role in curbing the resulting problems that came with that northward shift; increased violence and increased drug use in the US. What would effectively solve both of these problems is if, as a short term strategy, the United States took a much stronger stance on; securing the border, and playing a more active role in busting cartels, and as a longer term strategy instituting a strong drug enforcement policy which includes prevention. However securing our borders is the the single most effective strategy of curbing this drug trafficking. “In the United States, wholesale illicit drug sale earnings estimates range from $13.6 to $48.4 billion annually.” This lucrative business has caused turf wars amongst the different cartel in Mexico leading to increased violence.

In the past decade, Mexican drug cartels and the ensuing violence between them to gain control of the business, have influenced two major areas of United States policies; the control of its borders, and the US policies on substance abuse. Only recently has the problem of drug trafficking from Mexico been a concern for the United States. According to James Creechan in a paper he presented at an annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology,  An overview of drug cartels in Mexico, about 70% of all narcotics comes into the US from Mexico. Because the most influential drug cartels are now from Mexico and the wars between the cartels to take control of the lucrative drug trafficking has spilled into the US borders, the US government has had to reevaluate policies to ensure that we are is effectively curtailing the cartel activities and thereby curtailing violence.

Background on the northward shift in the location of drug cartels:

The fall of the two biggest drug cartels in Colombia, Cali and Medellin, led to the Mexican drug cartels taking over as the main supplier of drugs to the United States in the 1990s. As law enforcement began to crack down on certain cartel leaders, cartels began fighting for the best drug route to the United States and violence increased greatly. During the 1980’s and 1990’s when Colombia dominated the drug trafficking system, the route of the flow of drugs to the United States was through the Caribbean to Florida. When heightened security effectively closed the Florida route, Colombian cartels looked to Mexico for alliance because of its border with the Unites States. The Colombian cartels and the Mexican Cartels set up a system over time which allowed for the Mexican drug traffickers to not only transport the drugs into the US but also physically carry cash back to Mexico via land transportation. This allowed them to evade monitoring of any electronic cash transfers.

The increase in incoming narcotics raised serious concern for the United States government. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) created by President Nixon in 1969 to fight drug wars, worked closely with the Mexican government to control the situation. “Those fears are not unfounded, but U.S. policy makers have a serious problem brewing much closer to home. The prominence of the drug trade in Mexico has mushroomed in recent years. Some press reports contended that, by 1997, Mexican drug organizations were rivaling or even surpassing the strength of the Colombian cartels” (Carpenter, 169).

Background on joint effort between the U.S. and Mexico under President Bush:

The drug cartels use illegal immigrants and illicit business transportation to cart the drugs across the border into the US.  With seventy percent of Mexican drug market in the United States, drug traffickers are crossing the border daily in order to cater to their clients. “Most of the foreign-produced Marijuana available in the United States is smuggled into the country from Mexico via the U.S.-Mexico border by Mexican DTOs and criminal groups.” The violence that has ensued due to the Mexican drug cartels has caused great concern for the United States. In 2007, 7500 have died in drug related violence by the cartel including 200 Americans. Because of Mexico’s proximity, the violence amongst drug cartels has infiltrated the borders and has come into bordering United States cities. The Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) within The Department of Homeland Security, created in 2003 by President Bush after 9/11 has the jurisdiction to facilitate trade between the US and South America while securing the border to enforce drug and immigration laws.

Additionally, the Secure Border Initiative was created within CBP in 2005 “to gain effective control of our Nation’s borders through substantial investments in technology, infrastructure, and enforcement personnel.” According to the official CBP website, in fiscal year 2007, CBP increased Border Patrol agent staffing by 21 percent, from 12,349 in fiscal year 2006 to 14,923 at the end of fiscal year 2007, the largest yearly increase in the history of the Border Patrol in response to escalating violence because of the drug cartels. On all four bordering states, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the government increased security measures.

To further secure the border a decision was made to build barriers along the US Mexican border to prevent the flow of illegals and drug trafficking. The barriers were built as part of three separate operations; Operation Gatekeeper in California in 1994, Operation Hold-the-Line in Texas in 1993, and Operation Safeguard in  Arizona in 1995. According to CBP, as of January 2009, about 600 miles of the fence has been built. This measure has met with some success. “What we are seeing is a result of increased border enforcement’s deterrent effect on illegal border crossings along with the result of our increased ability to confront continued illegal drug smuggling attempts across our borders,” said CBP’s Acting Commissioner Jayson P. Ahern in a press release. “We will continue to increase the pressure on drug and human smugglers by confronting them at every turn, including their attempts to smuggle weapons and bulk cash south of the border.”

In 2002 president Vicente Fox requested increased cooperation from the US Government to help him in his war with the drug lords. Prior to this the two countries had often worked at cross purposes. Mexican anti drug agency and DEA increased cooperation and shared information. One joint effort “Operation Trifecta” in 2003 a 19-month-long international Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation into cocaine, Marijuana and methamphetamine trafficking leading to several arrests and confiscation of a huge cache of drugs, was immensely successful. “The success of Operation Trifecta is based on unprecedented cooperation between Mexican law enforcement and US counterparts over an 18-month period. Information sharing reached new levels and is the foundation for a new and more effective working relationship.” said DEA’s Acting Administrator William Simpkins in a press release. According to a Drug Enforcement Agency report “900,000 fewer teenagers are using illicit drugs in 2008 than in 2000. This is a 25% decline.” The DEA works closely with the Mexican government in order to capture the cartel leaders hoping to dismantle the cartel and disrupt the flow of drugs into the US.

The Merida Initiative by President Bush and President Calderon, has reinforced cooperation through support and training to fight the cartels.“On February 3, 2006, Mexican drug kingpin Oscar Arturo Arriola-Marquez, head of an international drug distribution network whose operations extended from Mexico across the U.S. border and throughout the United States, was arrested in Mexico as a result of a joint operation between DEA and the Mexican authorities. The Arriola-Marquez cartel was a violent criminal organization responsible for trafficking thousands of kilos of cocaine and Marijuana into the United States and laundering the resulting illegal proceeds.”

Because the Mexican drug cartels smuggle drugs into the United States, it is in the best interests of the United States government to take a hands-on approach to ending this ‘drug war’. The United States has taken it into its own hands to control the recent increase in illegal narcotics use. Since the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1970, they have made their biggest impact in the past decade during the Bush administration. The government increased its funding allowing them to expand operations. “On January 19, 2007, Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, head of Mexico’s Gulf Cartel that controlled large-scale Marijuana and cocaine trafficking from Mexico to the United States, was extradited to the United States, along with 14 other of the world’s most violent and ruthless criminals. Cardenas-Guillen was captured on March 14, 2003, by law enforcement in Mexico, with the assistance of DEA, the FBI, and U.S. Customs.”

According to the DEA, besides the “supply reduction activities,” policies “including evidence-based prevention and early intervention programs, have resulted in fewer first time illicit drug users, significant reductions in youth drug use, and an increased perception of the health and social consequences associated with drug use.” The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) developed the Drug Free Communities (DFC) program along with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and funded the program to the tune of $450MM. The idea is that if drug use is reduced then the market for illegal drugs would decrease and thus reduce trafficking and violence. Secondly, the government provides significant funding to the States to carry out prevention and treatment programs. Access to Recovery (ATR) was started in 2003 for treatment and recovery services. Finally, the policy on lengthy incarcerations for drug traffickers is instituted to act as a deterrent. The prison terms are usually between five and twenty years depending on the type of drugs, the quantity and the number of offenses.

Background on joint effort between the U.S. and Mexico under President Obama:

On “March 24, 2009, came an announcement from the Obama administration of a $700 million border security strategy. The new initiative will focus U.S. law enforcement efforts on working with their Mexican counterparts at the border to reduce illegal flows of weapons and money pouring into Mexico and drugs coming into the United States.” Despite this grand announcement, enforcement has not been diligent. “The General Accountability Office (GAO), the chief watchdog agency for Congress, has found less than half of our border to be under operational control.” The State Department has recently issued an assessment of the situation on the border claiming that in the past couple of years, violence on the border has “dramatically increased.” Also, in the past few years, there has been around 30,000 narcotic related murders. The States Department has clearly seen a slip in United States policies related to the drug war under the Obama administration.

States like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California are facing the brunt of this situation; in terms of economics as well as human capital. Texas Attorney General, Greg Abbott, has written to Obama about the worsening situation saying, “Luck and good fortune are not effective border enforcement policies. The shocking reality of cross border gunfire proves the cold reality: American lives are at risk. As the attached news article notes: “More than 1,300 people have been murdered in Juárez this year as a war continues relentlessly between the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels.” Americans must be protected as this deadly war bulges at our border.”

A lot of the policies Obama has created and built upon are preventative measures and does not take proactively bust drug cartels. “The U.S. strategy in simplest terms is to follow Mexico’s lead. In a research paper by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the authors argue that  “in contrast to Plan Colombia, which the U.S. government shaped in important ways, the Mérida Initiative was intentionally designed to respond to Mexico’s requests. The Obama administration has adjusted the Mérida Initiative to include more attention to community development and at least two pilot projects along the U.S.-Mexico border.” What President Obama has done is move U.S. policy from a proactive plan to a more passive plan. With the recent data on how many people have been murdered as a direct cause of the drug trafficking, focusing on preventative measures like “community development” is obviously not helping ease the situation.

Some argue that the Obama administration is trying harder than any previous administration to curtail the drug war problems by spending more on the efforts. In 2010 Obama requested that the Mérida Initiative be funded another $100 million. Throwing additional money at the problem does not alleviate the situation. His administration is so worried about “human rights violations” that the initiative has been rendered ineffective.

Another strategy the Obama administration tried to pursue was preventative measures here in the United States; trying to reduce drug use which would reduce the need to traffic drugs. “In May 2010, the Obama administration announced that its domestic strategy for combating illicit drug consumption would place renewed focusing on prevention and treatment. Specifically, the administration unveiled a target of reducing illicit drug consumption among teens by 15% over the next five years, and additional resources for programs to help those who struggle with abuse.” Again, I argue that preventative measures like these are good for the long run, but as an immediate solution completely blocking and fencing off the border will prove the most effective.

What the Obama administration has concluded is that Mexican drug cartels have started to not only smuggle cash back to the United States but also weapons and firearms back to Mexico. According the the Wilson Center, “under President Obama, the United States and Mexico have sought to step up efforts to disrupt south bound weapons trafficking and bulk cash smuggling. The widespread availability of firearms in the United States — particularly high-powered weapons (including high caliber pistols, machine guns, and even grenades) — creates a readily accessible market for illegal weapons trafficking into Mexico, where there are strict limitations on the possession of firearms. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE), of all weapons confiscated in Mexico and turned over to U.S. authorities for tracing, more than 90 percent came from the United States.” With this discovery, the Obama administration tried a new program called Operation Fast and Furious, that allowed the US to track guns deliberately sold into Mexico. The reasoning was that tracing the guns would lead them to the drug cartels. Unfortunately the ATF lost track of a number of guns which ended up as weapons used in killing Americans. This failed attempt “allegedly allowed thousands of weapons to cross the border and fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.”

Analyzing the statistics of the various programs and policies it appears that the strategy that has been most effective is securing our borders. According to CBP, increased funding for border patrol and fencing under the Bush administration directly led to a decrease in drug trafficking. When administrations changed, Obama took a more passive stance on the situation and that has led to increased violence along the borders. President Obama recently signed a $600MM border security bill which is a step in the right direction, his political intention of pandering to Hispanic votes notwithstanding. “The new $600 million will fund some 1,500 new border patrol agents, customs inspectors and other law enforcement officials along the border, as well as two more unmanned aerial “drones” to monitor border activities.”  Per a statement by the White House, this bill is “part of a multi layered effort to target illicit networks trafficking in people, drugs, illegal weapons and money,” the Texas Attorney General Abbott said it best when he stated that it is fine to hope and pray that US citizens will stop using illicit drugs and in turn stop drug trafficking but ground troops and securing the border has been the only strategy known to work.

Work Cited:
Carpenter, Ted Galen. Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Ronfeldt, David and Reuter, Peter. “Quest for Integrity: The Mexican – US Issue in the 1980s.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs.Vol. 34, No.3, Special Issue: Drug Trafficking Research Update (Autumn, 1992), pp. 89-153 Published by: Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami Stable.
Falco, Mathea. “U. S. Drug Policy: Addicted to Failure.” Foreign Policy, No. 102 (Spring, 1996), pp. 120-133 Published by: Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLC Stable. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1149263&gt;.
Van Wert, James M. “The US State Department’s Narcotics Control Policy in the Americas.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 30, No. 2/3, Special Issue: Assessing the Americas’ War on Drugs (Summer – Autumn, 1988), pp. 1-18 Published by: Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami Stable. http://www.jstor.org/stable/165977.
U.S.Drug Enforcement Agency. < http://www.justice.gov/dea/index.htm&gt;.
Creechan, James. “An overview of drug cartels in Mexico” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology (ASC), Los Angeles Convention Center, Los Angeles, CA, Nov 01, 2006
Miron, Jeffery A. “The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition.” <http://www.prohibitioncosts.org/mironreport.html&gt;.