American Drug Users Fund Deadly Cartels

Over the past couple of weeks, thousands of Mexicans have taken to the streets to protestthe bloody drug war that has ravaged Latin America and left 35,000 people dead since 2006 in Mexico alone. Today, senior U.S. commanderstold the Senate Armed Services Committee that Mexico and Central America make up one of the most dangerous regions in the world — rivaling the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. Southern Command, indicated that the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras “is the deadliest zone in the world outside of active war zones.”

In 2009, State Department Secretary Hillary Clinton indicated that she felt “very strongly” that the U.S. and Mexico share co-responsibility in the drug war. “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” stated Clinton about the United States. It turns out U.S. demand for drugs is also funding an army of organized criminals who are profiting off of the nation’s addictions and follies:

American consumers of narcotics drive the drug trade, and US weapons arm narco-criminals, says Andres Martinez, a fellow with the New America Foundation think tank.

US drug users contribute roughly $40 billion a year to Latin American cartels, Admiral James Winnefeld, head of the US Northern Command, in charge of US homeland security, added in testimony. The amount of US money that goes to Mexican cartels is so considerable that “if you ranked it among the world’s militaries, it would come into the top ten.”

Admiral James Winnefeld, head of the U.S. Northern Command, shed some light on how drug cartels are spending their profits. Night-vision goggles, heavily armored vehicles, and submarines are among the items purchased by increasingly sophisticated narco-criminals. Meanwhile, U.S. taxpayers spend $52 billion to treat, prevent, interdict, and enforce existing drug laws.

Latin American leaders have often called on the U.S. to consider legalizing marijuana use and focusing more on treating drug addicts. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, wrote, “it’s high time to replace an ineffective strategy with more humane and efficient drug policies…The revision of U.S.-inspired drug policies is urgent in light of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics.” The strategy, after all, has worked in other countries. Yet, the legalization of marijuana across the country remains a political land mine.

There are still things the U.S. could do to stop exacerbating the problem. While U.S. drug users are essentially funding the drug cartels, the U.S. federal government is funneling over a billion dollars into the Merida Initiative, a counterdrug assistance program for Mexico and Andrea NillCentral America. Most of that money has been spent on the militarization of the drug war which has had the unintended effect of increasing the profitability of the illicit drug business. Hal Brand of the Strategic Studies Institute notes that the Merida Initiative is “not being partnered with any real efforts to ramp up prevention, treatment, or other demand-side programs in the United States. Rather, the money spent on the Merida Initiative seems to have come at the expense of such programs.” Brand also argues that the initiative has paid comparatively little attention to the structural problems that have fueled the drug trade and violence, including, corruption, human rights abuses, poverty, impunity, and the flow of guns from the U.S into Mexico.

Andrea Nill
The Wonk Room


  1. James says

    I noticed one glaring omission in this report. . .

    Nowhere was it mentioned that Prohibition is the keystone to the entire problem.
    Alcohol Prohibition allowed Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and others to flourish in the 1920s-1930s. . . and be reminded that Alcohol Prohibition required a Constitutional Amendment as the Government has no authority to ban drugs or alcohol. . .

    Here we are, nearly a century later – and the current Illegal, Immoral War on (Non-Corporate) Drugs has once again allowed gangs to flourish. . .
    Yes, the War on Drugs is nothing more than a series of Treasonous actions – there has never been a Constitutional Amendment granting the Government authority to prosecute this “War,” making it a textbook example of the Constitutional definition of Treason.

    Ending Prohibition is the First, Logical Step in dismantling the Mexican Cartels. . . in addition to removing the US from it’s preeminent position as the World Leader of Incarceration and ending the (thus far) $1,000,000,000,000,000 wasted on the War on Drugs in the last 40 years. . .

  2. says

    Ms Nill, A well written and an interesting article but it excludes or ignores some important thought. One, the US supplies weapons to both “sides” in the narco-war in Mexico, the Mexican government and their vigilante like official forces that wear masks while operating as the repressive force for the state and the narco-traficantes who use the weapons that the DEA and AFT have allowed, almost sent, across the border to be used against the government and the civilian population. It is an old story of the US supplying weapons to anyone if they think supplying them is in the interest of the US, and the hell with the indigenous. In this case paying Mexicans to kill Mexicans to the US can watch what happens. The US only gets upset when one or more of their DEA agents or a border patrol officer are killed or disappeared (We are astounded even though Mexicans are killed or disappeared all the time. In fact it has been alleged that the US has disappeared Mexicans and brought them to the US illegally.). To US policy makers a dead Mexican has the same value as a dead Iraqi, Afghani, Arab, Libyan, or other 3rd world citizen — what ever it takes to “protect” the empire and the homeland — collateral damage is expected and manageable.

    Two, and I am sure that Ms Nill is aware of this — the NAFTA “free trade agreement” destroyed much of the subsistence farming and small production farming in Mexico that provided sustenance for millions of Mexicans while free trade reaped big profits for the corporations and farmers of the north. When you destroy the economic basis, even if it is a meager subsistence, of substantial parts of the population you create an enormous class of dispossessed people on the verge of starvation and with deteriorating social service programs, (Often called “austerity budgeting” by governments under the sway of market capitalism.), who may look to new “economic development” for job opportunities, i.e. the drug industry [blood diamonds in other theatres] which doesn’t have to compete with a US drug industry of the same capacity. One thing about free trade that is accurate: if there is a market for illegal drugs someone will rise to fill it. One can’t sow free trade policies and then be astounded by the reap of the crop. hungry people will fight to survive in any way they can in the “free market” including joining activities that are illegal.

    Three, many if not most drug users are not addicts. I was trained in drug counseling and served on a drug policy council for a four county area in another state where we worked with local police departments, sheriffs departments and medical people to try to lower drug use and provide alternatives to prison, etc. One of the things that we learned in being trained by the Federal government is that most users are recreational users, not addicts, and use drugs as leisure pursuits, and so forth. And, contrary to much of the popular literature a good proportion of addicts, of those addicted, are from wealthier segments of society (Addiction is expensive.) but they are not arrested, beaten, imprisoned and pimped out as informants by law enforcement; no, they either don’t get caught because they do their thing where cops just don’t barge in or they have good lawyers who get them into rehabilitation programs.

    Yes, the problems in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama … are a function of the drug policies of North America and the large market here for drugs but it goes much farther into the function of neo-colonialist and neo-imperialist policies of the US which devastated Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama in the 1970s, 1980s up to the present day. It is important to take a wide look at these things, not believe US generals who are out to justify the policies of Mexicans killing Mexicans, and so forth or Mexican political leaders who are on the dole from the US government for pocket money, weapons, and the cost of military operations that Mexico can’t afford on its own. The drug trade is dependent upon the US market, yes, but the other side is the Mexican government that is dependent on the US for money, weapons, drone aircraft, surveillance, spying on Mexican citizens, and secret DEA agents operating in Mexico etc. New policies need to be implemented that end the war on drugs and set about the re-development of the Mexican economy so that a flourishing “fair trade” economy brings jobs and prosperity and the opportunity to have a choice in finding a job that supports a family, educates the people, and fosters a wide democracy in place of a government that represents the US interests more than it does its own people. 35,000 Mexicans have paid the price for we in the United States. If this were reversed it would probably be somewhere in the order of 120,000 Americans shot down based on our larger population, would we tolerate this if another country were paying for that kind of destruction of our fellow citizens? I think not.

    Most “illegal” drugs are easily produced and it they were legal the cost would not be of interest to those who want to make billions in the market place. Maybe it is time for a new drug policy that is human centered, not war centered.

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