Today, the world’s most successful drug trafficking organizations are found in Mexico. Unlike Colombian drug gangs in the 1980s, who relied almost entirely on cocaine, Mexican drug gangs are a one-stop shop for four big-time illicit drugs: marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin. Mexico is the world’s second biggest producer of marijuana (the U.S. is No. 1), the major supplier of methamphetamines to the U.S., the key transit point for U.S.-bound cocaine from South America and the hemisphere’s biggest producer of heroin.
This diversification helps them absorb shocks from the business. Sales of cocaine in the U.S., for instance, slipped slightly from 2006 to 2008. But that decline was more than made up for by growing sales of methamphetamines.
In many ways, illegal drugs are the most successful Mexican multinational enterprise, employing some 450,000 Mexicans and generating about $20 billion in sales, second only behind the country’s oil industry and automotive industry exports. This year, Forbes magazine put Mexican drug lord Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman as No. 401 on the world’s list of billionaires.
Unlike their rough-hewn parents and uncles, today’s young traffickers wear Armani suits, carry BlackBerrys and hit the gym for exercise. One drug lord’s accountant who was arrested in 2006 had a mid-level job at Mexico’s central bank for 15 years.
Recently, Mexico’s deputy agriculture minister, Jeffrey Jones, told some of the country’s leading farmers that they could learn a thing or two from Mexican drug traffickers. “It’s a sector that has learned to identify markets and create the logistics to reach them,” he said. Days later, Mr. Jones was forced to resign. “He may be right,” one top Mexican official confided, “but you can’t say things like that publicly.”
Mr. Jones says he stands by his comments.
Because governments make drugs illegal, the risk associated with transporting them translates to high rewards for those willing to take that risk. The wholesale price of a single kilo of cocaine, for instance, costs $1,200 in Colombia, $2,300 in Panama, $8,300 in Mexico, and between $15,000 and $25,000 in the U.S., depending on how close you are to the Mexican border. At a retail level on the streets of New York, it can run close to $80,000. With markups like that, the business is bound to keep attracting new entrants, no matter what governments do to stop it.
Governments also have a hard time stopping the drugs trade because, like any good business, trafficking organizations innovate and adapt. Mexican customs has stumbled upon a long list of ingenious methods to transport cocaine, including one shipment of liquefied cocaine smuggled in red wine bottles. Another recent bust yielded 800 kilos of cocaine—worth an estimated $40 million—stuffed inside a batch of frozen sharks.
After Mexico restricted the importation of pseudoephedrine to slow the manufacture of methamphetamines, drug gangs found another way to make the drug using different, unrestricted chemicals widely used in the perfume industry. “I’ve always thought these guys had a good research and development arm,” says one exasperated Mexican official.
Advocates for drug legalization say making marijuana legal would cut the economic clout of Mexican cartels by half. Marijuana accounts for anywhere between 50% to 65% of Mexican cartel revenues, say Mexican and U.S. officials. While cocaine has higher profit margins, marijuana is a steady source of income that allows cartels to meet payroll and fund other activities.
Marijuana is also less risky to a drug gang’s balance sheet. If a cocaine shipment is seized, the Mexican gang has to write off the expected profits from the shipment and the cost of paying Colombian suppliers, meaning they lose twice. But because gangs here grow their own marijuana, it’s easier to absorb the losses from a seizure. Cartels also own the land where the marijuana is grown, meaning they can cheaply grow more supply rather than have to fork over more money to the Colombians for the next shipment of cocaine.
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