The Clinton administration (1992-2000) made a great push against the Columbian drug cartels and this effort was continued by the Bush administration (2000-2008). American blocking of sea and air imports forced the Columbians to switch to overland shipments through Mexico. A Mexican gang—the Guadalajara cartel– then sank their talons into the flow of drugs. “If you want to move it through Mexico, then we’re the ones who are going to move it. Or else.” In 1989 the leader of the cartel got arrested. His former subordinates grabbed chunks of turf, creating the Sinaloa, Juarez, and Tijuana cartels. Then they started to fight with one another for larger shares of the flow.
Mexican drug gangs haul in an estimated $8 billion to $23 billion a year. This kind of money buys a lot in a poor country. It buys machine guns and rocket-launchers, policemen and judges, politicians and government officials, and lots and lots of gunmen. From 2006 to 2008 drug gangs killed 3,500 people; during 2008 they killed 6,000; and by April 2009 they killed a further 1,000. Often they did it in gruesome fashion. Possibly as many as 60,000 people have been killed. In a sense, every level of Mexican society has a stake in the trade. Almost half a million Mexicans are involved in the business in some way; songs celebrating the drug lords (”narcocorridos”) are wildly popular with poor Mexicans, and Raul Salinas, the brother of a former president, is sometimes alleged to be the ruler of the Mexican drug transportation business. (“The gang war that’s ravaging Mexico,” The Week, 21 March 2008, p. 11.)
Nevertheless Mexican president Felipe Calderone moved aggressively against the drug lords from early 2007 on. Why did he do so? The huge profits from the drug trade allowed the drug lords to begin buying chunks of the legitimate economy. In a sense they posed a grave threat to the ruling elite in Mexico by seizing both its economic and political power. War followed between the drug lords and the government. When the drug gangs savaged the police forces, Calderone called in the army. Forty-five thousand soldiers flooded into some of the most lawless towns of Mexico. Thousands of low level gun men and dealers have been arrested. However, it isn’t clear that the government is winning this fight. The army may prove just as vulnerable to corruption as have the police and the rest of the government. (“Mexico’s brutal drug war,” The Week, 10 April 2009, p. 11.)
What are the national security implications of this for the United States? The violence and corruption creates the danger that Mexico’s government will collapse or fall captive to the drug lords. This will put a narco-state on the porous border with the United States. If we can’t keep out the drugs or the illegal immigrants, how are we going to keep out the killers and corruptors? For a long time, we didn’t: they were just busy in Mexico. Now the Mexican drug gangs have invaded the United States. They operate in 230 American cities. (“Mexico’s brutal drug war,” The Week, 10 April 2009, p. 11.)
The Sinaloa cartel is the most powerful of these. It centers its American operations in Chicago because it is a major transportation hub in the center of America’s densest population distribution. Moreover, there is a suspicion that the Sinaloa cartel cooperates with the DEA to weed-out other cartels. Apparent victories in the “war on drugs” merely hide the growing power of the Sinaloa cartel. (“Mexico’s drug kings,” The Week, 31 January 2014, p. 9.)