Posted on November 19, 2019

Containing the Drug Cartels

Jake Kiernan, The American Affairs Journal, November 2018

Mexico War Zone

Mexican soldiers pass by the remains of burnt vehicles used as roadblocks by members of the La Familia drug cartel on the highway between Morelia and Apatzingan in Mexico.
(Credit Image: © Xinhua via ZUMA Wire)

The U.S.-Mexico border is a brutal, two-thousand-mile stretch, forbidding in its arid climate and its varied but austere landscape. It demarcates two disparate economies and ways of life, and it is the site of immense trade and exchange between them. Following Donald Trump’s call for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, intense controversies have flared over issues surrounding immigration. But another border issue has received comparatively less attention — the drug trade. The U.S.-Mexico border is also a gateway through which drugs, weapons, cartel operatives, and a variety of desperate people pass — one of the most pivotal drug trafficking points in the world.

Hundreds of would-be border-crossers perish each year, many from extreme heat or cold, drowning, or other physical causes, while some are homicides related to drug smuggling. Far from the border, thousands of Mexicans die each year in cartel-related violence. The drug trade is a vast and elaborate enterprise that has increasingly penetrated every corner of the country. Mexican drug cartels maintain about one hundred thousand foot soldiers — almost as many as the entire Mexican army.

Mexico recently boasted a 3.2 percent unemployment rate, yet gaping economic disparities persist, and the border is a conduit through which both cartels and itinerant laborers from the lower end of the economic ladder can gain access to American wealth. Mexico’s GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) is $19,500 for 2017, well into the upper half of all countries in the world. Yet Mexico’s murder rate also ranks in the top 10 percent of countries in the world.

Nor have the farthest reaches of the United States escaped the ravages of the drug trade. More than half a million Americans have died of drug overdoses since 2000. And this number is compounded by a far larger population whose lives have been impacted by drug abuse, directly or indirectly. In 2016, 948,000 Americans reported heroin usage. Drug overdose deaths are well above fatalities from both car accidents and shootings, and have more than tripled since 2000 (with heroin deaths more than tripling in the past five years alone). Abuse of prescription drugs (and relaxation of restrictions on opioid prescriptions) has demonstrably driven a key component of this growth, both in overdoses of the prescription drugs themselves and in overdoses of the street drugs to which opioid abusers often turn as an alternative. But the sheer volume of lethal street drugs is worth contemplating in light of these trends — with the number of deadly drug overdoses in 2016 heavily dominated by fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and meth.

These deaths are ultimately facilitated by a squalid and violent network that stretches back across the southern border: 80–95 percent of U.S. street drugs are coming through Mexico. The State Department has recently tabulated that 90–94 percent of the heroin in the United States comes from Mexico, even if originally sourced from other countries. A recent DEA Report similarly indicates that the vast majority of the skyrocketing supply has been coming in over the land border. Nor is most of the methamphetamine synthesized by high school chemistry teachers in the United States, as Breaking Bad depicted. Rather, 80 percent of crystal meth is from Mexico. For cocaine, 90 percent comes from Mexico.

The growth in U.S. demand has been far outstripped by the growth in easy supply. The respective prices of cocaine and heroin have dropped precipitously in recent decades, as the cartels have an unprecedented level of control, efficiency, and geographic spread. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that supply and price dynamics have heavily driven the heroin explosion: “The increased availability of heroin, its relatively low price (compared to prescription opioids), and high purity appear to be major drivers of the upward trend in heroin use, overdoses, and deaths.” The CDC report underscores a broader, crucial point and reinforces other research on the topic: accessibility, in terms of both physical proximity and affordable pricing, is an essential component of the expanding drug epidemic.


Can a Wall Be Effective?

Given the weakness of present alternatives, the moment seems ripe to consider new approaches. One option, now attracting more attention because of debates over immigration, is a border wall to reduce points of entry for illicit supply. Would an estimated $21.6 billion wall be an effective, as well as cost-effective, way to mitigate the widespread damage wrought by the drug trade?

To answer this question, it is instructive to look at the current border enforcement apparatus. The border force has stated that over half of the southern border is not under U.S. operational control, and this gap constitutes an open invitation for exploitation. Of the roughly two-thousand-mile border, only 873 miles are deemed to be under U.S. operational control (defined as areas in which the Border Control has the ability to “detect, respond, and interdict illegal activity at the border or after entry”) by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. According to the same government source, only 129 of those miles are sufficiently “controlled” to stop people at the border itself, while the other 744 miles would require “multitiered enforcement operations” to track transgressors down and stop them after entry. It should surprise no one that the remaining twelve hundred miles can be even more easily exploited for their acknowledged weakness and that the current border protection force is not able to deploy the requisite “multitiered enforcement operations” in pursuit of every potential drug transporter broaching the aforementioned 744 miles. Some of these areas are naturally in such forbidding territory that a wall is unnecessary and entry is already effectively blocked. Even generous estimates of the extent of the preexisting natural barriers, however, would come nowhere close to two thousand miles. Would a cartel rather take its chances at a heavily monitored seaport or over a vast stretch of land that the U.S. government has officially admitted is vulnerable? The recent shift of supply routes toward Mexico reflects a recognition among drug traffickers that these passageways are the most easily exploitable and the most cost-effective in terms of risk and potential profit.

In terms of whether a wall can actually succeed in blocking the transmission of people and narcotics across areas that are otherwise pregnable, recent experiments in Europe and especially in Israel indicate a resounding yes. Israel boasts of the decisive impact of its 420-mile multistage deterrent against the West Bank, including fencing, ditches, and a proper wall. Hungary also found unequivocal success with its more straightforward razor-wire fencing, established in 2015 as a defiant response to the European migrant crisis and the EU’s failure to address it meaningfully. Over five hundred kilometers of fencing achieved a drastic reduction in illegal entry, with Viktor Orban’s chief security advisor citing 391,000 attempts in 2015 and only 1,184 in the first nine months of 2017, a 99.6 percent decrease. The accuracy of these numbers is difficult to verify, but the general trend is clear. While clichés are often bandied about in popular discourse regarding the futility of wall construction — e.g., “show me a fifty-foot wall and I’ll show you a fifty-one-foot ladder” — in reality, few aspiring border-crossers have the resources to actually scale and surmount a well-built wall.

Hungary Border Fence

Building the barrier on the Hungarian-Serbian border (near Mórahalom).

A July 2017 piece in the Harvard International Review, passive-aggressively entitled “Walls of Separation: An Analysis of Three ‘Successful’ Border Walls,” concedes that the construction of major national walls in Israel, Egypt, and Spain coincided with the unambiguous achievement of the policy aims behind the projects.


Moreover, the article draws attention to a vital aspect of wall construction that is relevant to the Mexican drug trade — underground passageways. The Egyptian barrier “extends an astounding 20 meters underground” and has thwarted hundreds of tunnels. A U.S. wall dedicated to preventing drug transfer would have to address the considerable potential for tunnel construction as well. In fact, Israel is currently in the process of further addressing tunnel incursions, particularly from Gaza, with its own forty-mile underground barrier, while leveraging new advanced technology for tunnel detection. Part of the barrier’s potency lies in the air of mystery that Israeli officials intentionally maintain around the specifics of the depth, the exact location, and the nuances of the technology integrated with it — it’s “deep enough,” as one official remarked. Here, as in many border-related matters, signaling is a powerful force: sending a message of impermeability and vigilant enforcement can go a long way toward preventing potential infiltrators from even considering to attempt an increasingly unpredictable and perilous endeavor.

The U.S. government appropriated $40 million in 2016 for creating “capabilities to detect, map, and neutralize underground tunnels that threaten the US or Israel,” while preserving rights to “receive prototypes, access to test sites, and the rights to any intellectual property,” according to Defense Department spokesman Christopher Sherwood. While little is known about the seismic sensors used to detect underground vibrations related to digging and building, or any other secret innovations funded as part of this project, $40 million in annual appropriations seems a thrifty price for developing a key component of the world’s most advanced border protection capabilities. No tunnel detection technologies will be infallible, as past efforts in the United States have run up against the challenges of varying terrain and signal noise, but the Israeli experiment is a promising chapter in a concerted effort undertaken by two of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.

The border security challenges facing Israel and the United States are not identical, however. Mexican cartels have a markedly different motivation than terrorists, as the cartels will ultimately submit to some economic calculation of risk and potential profit, while the terrorists are propelled by the logic of war and the dream of martyrdom. These different circumstances point to different policy objectives. For Israel, one undetected tunnel could result in sudden and catastrophic violence. On the Mexican border, however, the United States could simply aim to make the cartels’ enterprise so risky and cost-prohibitive that the traffickers would be discouraged from attempting to breach the barrier in the first place. That said, motivation on the cartel side has been demonstrably high, and their tunneling has proven elaborate: of approximately two hundred tunnels discovered by the U.S. Border Patrol in the past three decades, about sixty of these were deemed “sophisticated,” some featuring electric lighting, water pumps, and even minor railways.


A More Effective Use of Resources

The U.S. government has devoted significant and growing resources to the complicated and increasingly difficult task of slaying the hydra of drug dealing and abuse within the interior of the country, often with little to show for it. Reallocating resources in order to focus on more effective regulation of who and what are entering the country in the first place may be a better strategy. In addition, more assiduous regulation of the border functionally overlaps with other vital mandates of the federal government. The proper oversight of people or objects entering through the southwest border is a matter of significant consequence for labor, trade, security, health, and even agriculture and the environment.

DEA agents often report that arresting local kingpins and users does little to neutralize higher-level cartel figures. A well-fortified border, however, could curtail the supply and impede the infrastructure closer to the major sources of drug traffic. As the 2016 DEA National Drug Threat Assessment summary notes, “In most cases, individuals hired to transport drug shipments within the United States are independent, third-party contractors who may be working for multiple Mexican TCOs [transnational criminal organizations]. . . . Retail-level distribution of illicit drugs in the United States is mainly handled by smaller local drug trafficking groups and gangs not directly affiliated with Mexican TCOs.” In other words, there is a robust and replaceable population of willing pawns to put the drugs directly into the hands of users, and blasting money and law enforcement resources at arresting them will have little effect on the overarching distribution apparatus that is now in place. A wall, however, may disrupt more centralized pathways for the drugs and provide better monitoring against the cartel figures who have been infiltrating the United States.


Debates surrounding immigration or the legal and medical responses to drug abuse in the United States should not obscure the reality that supply matters in the drug epidemic. And the government has some powerful levers available to disrupt cartels’ business models and address these problems at the border. Putting hard drugs further out of reach of vulnerable populations here in the United States and keeping the cartels in check are both humanitarian aims. Legislators should ask themselves if they prefer to leave hundreds of miles along one of the world’s major drug-trafficking passageways so open to exploitation. And they should ask whether it might be more cost-effective to stop criminals at the border rather than trying to address the damage done in the interior of the country.