Three Drug Wars

In the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a new wave of violence has erupted since the January inauguration of new Governor Quirino Ordaz Coppel, who reportedly is contesting the Sinaloa Cartel‘s exclusive control of the police force.

Meanwhile, in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, martial law has been declared following armed clashes between the national army and Moro separatists allegedly fighting under the banner of Abu Sayyaf, an ISIS affiliate which funds its activities through the smuggling of guns, drugs, and slaves — much like the Sinaloa Cartel, albeit with a strikingly different ethos.

What do these two conflicts have in common?  Among other things, they’re both being largely paid for by the United States.  Both sides of both wars are using American dollars to kill each other.


Founded in 1989, the Sinaloa Cartel has grown from a relatively small but well-organized business to a criminal organization that controls fully half of the U.S.-Mexico border.  Cellular in structure, individual employees are trained and highly skilled specialists in their assigned roles, whether that be enforcement, humping marijuana or heroin over the border, or designing concealed compartments inside luggage and vehicles.

While this entity is reportedly ruthless in the struggle with its competitors and (since 2008) the Mexican military, a recent documentary reveals a startlingly peaceable workforce, an ethic of controlled and directed violence, and an institutional ban on such activities as extortion, kidnapping, and rape within its zone of control.  In a very real sense, the Sinaloa Cartel is highly organized and effective crime.

There are certainly killings done in its name, however.  After the 2008 intervention by the Mexican military, raids and even pitched battles began to take place in smuggling centers.  During the transitional period between the 2012 departure of President Calderón and a reported cease-fire negotiated by the newly-elected PRI-party President Enrique Peña Nieto (in which control of national police forces were allegedly handed over to the cartels), the violence peaked at over 13,000 combatants killed in a single year.

The deaths are not restricted to government versus criminal, however.  Fighting between the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, an enforcement group called Los Zetas that has since elevated itself to management, a splinter cartel known as the Knights Templar, and several other local yet powerful organizations regularly generates casualties in the hundreds.  Since the arrests of several of the older leaders, a younger and more aggressive group (known as the “narcojuniors”) has taken control, and the violence is again on the rise.

But this time around, it’s often civilians who are the targets.  In February, following a published newspaper interview with Damaso Lopez — currently battling the sons of dethroned “El Chapo” for control of Sinaloa — two Culiacan newspapers were threatened.  One shut down; a week ago, the founder of the other, Javier Valdez, was dragged out of his car and gunned down.  (Read this article by Maria Verza, AP, for more on this breaking story.)

Every year, the Sinaloa Cartel alone grosses over ten billion dollars in sales across the border; its American subsidiaries generate the same again and more.  Every year, the government of the United States grants Mexico just under seven hundred million dollars to help fund their drug war — which costs them about five billion per year to fight.

No wall ever built could stop the drug traffic, though preliminary reports show that increased immigration restrictions have forced smugglers to rely more heavily on bulk shipping, which is (theoretically) more readily interdictable.  Thus far, however, the street price of heroin has yet to budge.

The Philippines

According to several stories in The Guardian, and backed up by several other reputable sources, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte won his 2016 election in a landslide victory based on a campaign to “kill tens of thousands of criminals in a relentless war on crime”.

He’s keeping his promises.  Since his election, over sixty thousand drug-related arrests have been made.  Thousands have voluntarily surrendered, and over two thousand suspects have been killed by police (according to Rappler).  Due to the harsh and often extralegal methods employed, the international community has offered many objections.  Notable among Duterte’s detractors have been American President Barack Obama and the European Parliament.

Despite widespread opposition within the American government on both sides of the political aisle, the United States remains committed to provide $180 million in aid to assist the government of the Philippines in its law enforcement efforts.  Curiously, the commitment was affirmed by Secretary of State John Kerry while President Obama roundly condemned the extrajudicial killings condoned and even encouraged by the Duterte government.  President Trump, on the other hand, has praised Duterte’s strength and effectiveness.

(To be fair to Duterte — and I do hate to be — following the kidnapping and subsequent murder of businessman Jee Ick-Joo by members of the police, he summarily forbade the police to continue their part in the Drug War and rather ruthlessly purged their ranks.  On the other hand, they’re now back in operation, and the groups that Amnesty International has termed “Death Squads” are reportedly functioning again — albeit at a reduced level.)

Both Obama’s apparent hypocrisy and Trump’s rather scary embrace of a leader who shows every sign of being a ruthless strongman dictator make some sense, however.  As well, the nearly inconceivable alliance between the Moro revolutionary forces with the oppressive regime of Duterte in order to prosecute the Drug War seems almost reasonable when viewed in the proper light:  The ISIL-affiliated group Abu Sayyaf is gaining power in Mindanao, and has been using corrupt port officials to facilitate massive drug smuggling from the Orient to the west coast of Mexico — territory under control of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Two days ago, President Duterte, while on a diplomatic visit to Moscow, declared martial law across all of Mindanao due to a pitched battle between government forces and Maute Group Islamic militants in the city of Marawi.  While this is quite evidently a pretext under which he intends to exercise even more brutal military authority over an historically rebellious and lawless area, that Duterte is cutting short his visit to Russia indicates that he was surprised by the strength of the resistance in that city.

It’s worthy of mention that, despite Philippine government insistence that the Maute Group is allied with ISIS, they are a splinter organization that left the Moro Islamic Liberation Front upon that group’s truce with the government well before Duterte’s election.  Their creed is Wahhabism and Salafi jihadism, similar to that of ISIS, but they are distinct from Abu Sayyaf.  In some ways they are definitely rivals, though the Maute Group was reportedly armed through both Al Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf/ISIS sources.  Nevertheless, they are militant separatists and internationally condemned terrorists, which any government would naturally wish to suppress whether or not they happen to be involved in the drug trade.

If this seems chaotic, that’s because it is.  Nevertheless, two things germane to Americans are undeniable:  American tax dollars are helping fund the Philippine government’s Drug War, while American drug money is helping fund anti-government militants Abu Sayyaf and, indirectly, the Maute Group.

The United States

In June of 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report stating that “The War on Drugs has failed” — and few dispute its truth.

It’s difficult to nail down a precise number on these things, but official estimates of the retail sales of illicit drugs in the United States run between $100 billion and $300 billion per year — a substantial percentage of the GDP, all untaxed.  (Some unofficial estimates run near $1 trillion.)  Total interdiction and law enforcement impact on this total is negligible, averaging between 1-3% annually — and, every time there’s a big drug bust, dealers can use that news as an excuse to boost prices well beyond the value of the lost merchandise.

According to the CDC, over half a million American adolescents sell drugs in any given year, and nearly as many that are eighteen or older.  Of that million, one quarter are arrested annually — and four times as many are arrested for possession.  Given the large amounts of money to be made from the trade, however, and that it’s an anti-authoritarian practice that appeals to the disenfranchised, it’s evident that law enforcement efforts do little more than merely inconvenience the illicit drug trade.

At present, due to the splintering of the Mexican cartel structure and uncontrolled competition, the American market is being flooded with cheap heroin, more than can readily be sold.  Deaths among users are rising precipitously, in large part due to the relaxation of Cartel control of dealers; inferior quality and inexpert cutting is making the product particularly deadly.  Arguably, this is one major result of effective law enforcement in Mexico.

The Bottom Line

American citizens who obey the law are paying vast sums in taxes for the suppression of the illegal drug trade, and the results are negligible.

American drug users are funding the cartels, who are in turn funding international smuggling groups — including those associated with ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Several states — eight so far — have passed laws legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana use.  The Federal government is maintaining marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic and is enforcing laws against possession as harshly as at any point in the past.  Nothing is being done about heroin; common wisdom has it that nothing in fact can be done.  Cocaine use is down 50%, apparently due to the ready availability of cheap heroin.  (See “Drug War Facts” for more information.  So far, everything I’ve gotten from them and researched myself, I’ve verified.)

And hundreds of people die every day in these three countries and a dozen others, all due to the American appetites for drugs and for international law enforcement.

I deplore the excesses of the Duterte government in the Philippines, the (alleged) collaboration between the Mexican PRI government and the cartels, the ineffectual fuzzy-mindedness practiced by the Obama Administration (in the face of Congressional opposition from both parties), and the enthusiastic embrace of the failed War On Drugs by the Trump Administration.  None of it has done much good.

There are three paths open to us:

  • We can emulate the oppression of Duterte.
  • We can legalize and regulate drugs, focusing on treatment.
  • We can continue to take the middle path, which results in the imprisonment of 1% of the population of the United States plus untold deaths for no apparent gain.

Put that way, our best course is obvious.

(For more in background, CDC-sourced data, and compelling argument on the topic of the American War On Drugs, please refer to this article, posted in June of last year here on The Not Fake News and regularly updated as new data becomes available.)

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