According to the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report of 2022, Mexico is the primary source of illegal drugs in the United States, including heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, and synthetic opioids. Some 97 percent of all heroin seized in the U.S. originates in Mexico. Mexico is also the main source of fentanyl, as well as fentanyl-laced drugs, counterfeit pills, and medicines in the U.S. There is a growing trend of fentanyl appearing in other drugs, such as marijuana or cocaine, but also in prescription medicines purchased on the black market from Mexico. Fentanyl in its various forms kills more than 90,000 Americans per year.
In addition to drugs, the cartels have expanded into human trafficking, an illegal business which earns them billions of dollars per year. As a result of the warring cartels, parts of Mexico are considered to be no-go zones. Americans are being murdered in Mexico in growing numbers. And the threat of cartel violence within the U.S. is increasing. Drug trafficking by Mexican cartels has been identified by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a threat to national security because of its links to corruption, violence, and terrorism. The State Department also refers to drug trafficking as a national security threat for the same reasons, plus the connection to transnational organized crime. The U.S. National Security Strategy of 2022 called the cartels transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) which pose a major challenge to national security.
The transnational nature of the cartels is extremely concerning. In addition to drugs cultivated and manufactured in Mexico, the cartels have arrangements with Colombian drug cartels, making Mexico a major transit point for cocaine from South America. Mexico is also the recipient of precursor chemicals from China, used to manufacture fentanyl. There is evidence that the cartels collaborate with street gangs in the United States, Russian criminal organizations, and the government of Venezuela. For these reasons, some U.S. lawmakers are calling for the cartels to be designated as terrorist organizations.
The U.S. government has attempted to work with the government of Mexico to rein in the cartels, but these efforts have proved problematic. Transparency International rated Mexico as the 126th most corrupt country (out of 180) on their Corruption Perception Index for 2022. Corruption has been identified by U.S. officials as one of the biggest obstacles in cooperating with the Mexican government to eradicate the cartels. Officially, the Mexican government opposes the manufacture, sale, and distribution of drugs, both inside of the United States and Mexico. And, officially, the government cooperates with U.S. officials to counter the power and spread of the cartels. However, corruption effects both Mexican government drug policy and how policies are enforced and enacted.
Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador not only supports many U.S. policies and programs targeted at cartels, but has also jailed lawmakers found to be on the cartel payrolls. However, these efforts have been largely symbolic. His policy of combating the cartels with “hugs not bullets” has failed miserably. The cartels continue to have tremendous control over everyone from low-level police and soldiers, up to generals and politicians. They achieve this control either through offering bribes and incentives or through threats of violence. U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials recognize that the existence of the cartels is threatening the rule of law in Mexico. In 2021, at least 88 politicians were killed by cartels. With politicians afraid to act against the cartels, the cartels are able to influence or even direct policy. This could potentially threaten the safety of the United States. It also creates instability, encouraging illegal immigration into the U.S., as people flee cartel violence.
Many of the cartels are affiliated with street gangs in the United States, who distribute drugs and work as enforcers, hitmen, and couriers. The gangs also operate prostitution and protection rings. In addition to being a lucrative source of revenue, human trafficking also serves to bring gang members and prostitutes into the country. One of the most powerful cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel, for example, has a network of affiliated gangs, including the Mexican Mafia, the Latin Kings, and the Barrio Azteca (BA) gang. Another major cartel, Jalisco New Generation Cartel has a presence in several U.S. cities and works with MS-13 and the Bloods. The Gulf Cartel is affiliated with Tango Blast and the Latin Kings. Knights Templar Cartel has been linked to the Sureños and the Crips. Furthermore, the DEA has found that the Gulf Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel all work with the Barrio Azteca (BA) prison gang.
It has been alleged that the Venezuelan government has provided support to MS-13 and other gangs in exchange for their assistance in drug trafficking. In 2017, Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami was deemed to be a “Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker” by the U.S. Department of Treasury. He was accused of facilitating drug shipments from Venezuela to the United States.
Another international connection for Mexican cartels is China. In 2019, former DEA Special Agent Derek Maltz testified before the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control that Chinese companies were supplying Mexican drug cartels with precursor chemicals, which the cartels were using to produce massive quantities of methamphetamine and fentanyl. The Chinese companies, according to Maltz, were generally operating under the guise of legitimate businesses. Given the extreme level of control that the Chinese government has over its citizens, there is some suspicion that Beijing knows about this situation, but turns a blind eye. The Congressional testimony of former DEA Chief of Operations Michael Braun confirmed that China was responsible for the precursor chemicals, and also that China was laundering money for the cartels. This laundering takes place through a variety of means, including trade-based money laundering, bulk cash smuggling, and virtual currencies. In 2020, Chinese national Gan Xianbing was found guilty of laundering more than $530,000 for Mexican drug cartels.
Russia is yet another international connection for Mexican cartels. There have also been incidents of Mexican cartels purchasing or attempting to purchase weapons from Russian gangs. Additionally, Russian banks have laundered money for Mexican cartels, while Russian criminal gangs have been linked to cryptocurrency and dark web schemes to launder cartel money. In addition to allegations of working with the cartels, it is suspected that there are significant numbers of Russian spies in Mexico, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the cartels, in order to spy on the U.S.
Mexican cartels are responsible for the drugs which are killing so many Americans each year. They are also perpetuating illegal immigration, either by driving people to flee Mexico, by paying mules, and by smuggling people in. They collaborate with international players to commit crimes which ultimately result in the deaths of Americans. Consequently, they can clearly be seen as transnational criminal organizations. Designating them as terrorists, however, is not quite as clear.
Terrorism can be defined as using violence or threats of violence to bring about change, usually political or religious. Cartel activity in Mexico matches this definition, as they intimidate, kill and influence politicians. In the U.S., however, this is not exactly the case. There have been some attempts by cartels to influence elections in border states on the Mexican side. But, so far, this has not happened on the U.S. side.
If cartels are identified as terrorist organizations, this will complicate the U.S relationship with Mexico as any person or entity supporting the cartels could be sanctioned or even arrested for supporting terrorism. Ostensibly, this could include generals, law enforcement officials, and even politicians.