Justice Department Reports Drug Seizures Do Little to Stop Cartels

The influence of Mexico’s drug cartels (photo:

The government’s long-running war on drugs is having little impact, according to documents just released. The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) of the Justice Department reports demand for drugs is rising and the demand is being supplied by major transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) or cartels, which adapt to government “counterdrug efforts” modifying interrelationships, altering drug production levels and adjusting trafficking routes and methods.

A leaked US Customs Border and Protection memo paints a grimmer picture of the war on drugs. Addressing the key question of whether arrests and deaths of key drug trafficking organization members impacts the flow of drugs, the memo answers, “The removal of key personnel does not have discernible impact on drug flows as determined by seizure rates.” And, while arrests or deaths of drug trafficking organization (DTO) leaders may have long-term implications, “there is no indication it will impact overall drug flows into the United States.”

Additionally, the NDIC’s report shows the costs of “illicit drug use to society” in 2007 was $193 billion. Just over $61 billion of the cost was the result of “crime.” The cost to health was $11.4 billion and the cost to “productivity” was $120.3 billion.

Drug use increased among the young (which raises the question of whether so-called drug awareness programs in schools are working). After a gradual decline in use over the past decade, marijuana use went up among “adolescent students.” Illicit drug use among Americans 12 years or older went up. Prescription drug abuse ranked second to the “abuse of marijuana.” The report also finds federal and state pseudoephedrine sales restrictions have done nothing to stop “smurfing”—the act of going store to store to buy up enough pseudoephedrine for methamphetamine production.  [cont’d.]

During 2009 and 2010, cartels conducted operations in over a thousand US cities, the report notes. The US-Mexico border is the site of ferocious battles among rival cartels with the cartels fighting over key corridors known as “plazas.” The cartels “control distribution of most of the heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine available in the United States.” Production in Mexico is increasing. And, as far as drug violence goes, the NDIC is “unable to confidently assess the trends in overall drug-related crime in the US Southwest Border region.” That is primarily because home invasions and kidnappings go unreported “if the victims are involved in drug trafficking or fearful of deportation.”

BBC News reported in August 40,000 have died as a result of drug violence in Mexico over the past five years. Every year the four-decade war on drugs wears on, that number can be expected to increase.

On August 31, Democracy Now! reported on the once-secret program, Operation Fast and Furious, which involved federal agents encouraging US gun shop owners to sell to the Mexican drug cartels. The agents intended to track the weapons and hopefully gain access to senior-level figures in the cartels. However, as many as 2,500 guns were lost and, as Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) whistleblower Vincent Cefalu explained ATF was never able to “follow it to fruition” and “the only way to track” the guns was “to find them at the crime scenes” or with dead bodies.

This only exacerbates a conflict already fueled by corruption among Mexican military and law enforcement. US State Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks show in June 2009 seventy-four police officers, including some high-ranking, were detained by the Mexican military for ties to the cartels. In 2008, President Felipe Calderon carried out Operation Cleanup, an anti-corruption initiative that led to the arrest of the head of Interpol in Mexico along with a former Deputy Attorney General/anti-drug czar. The initiative focused on “information leaks by law enforcement officials to drug traffickers.” (For more, read John Gibler’s recently published book To Die in Mexico.)

Conclusions in the NDIC report lend more credence to a “high-profile panel” that called for a non-criminal approach to drugs a couple months ago. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include former UN chief Kofi Annan, former Secretary George Shultz, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, founder of the Virgin Group Richard Branson and past presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, recommended “the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others” come to an end. They urged government to experiment with “models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”

The US and Mexico swiftly rejected these recommendations. But, clearly, the strategy and programs these two countries are using are not working. It is incredibly horrid for innocents, who will die in the drug war, that the US and Mexico will not listen to outsiders who offer up innovative solutions to the drug war that don’t center on counterterror-type programs that are destined to fail. (Recall, the NDIC found “crime” costs $61 billion. How reduced would that cost be if drugs were legalized?)

Such ineptitude and unwillingness to shift strategy begs the question of whether the US and Mexico really want to end the drug war or if they are simply interested in containing and mitigating the effects? Gibler points out drug traffickers laundered money in 2009 through some of the US’s biggest banks: Wachovia Corp and Bank of America Corp. On average, the Mexican banking industry finds itself with an “extra” $10 billion in cash each year. And, “in 2008, drug money saved the major global banks from collapse.” Gibler concludes, “Drug money—truckloads of cash, actual physical money—would appear to be one of capitalism’s global savings accounts.”

Over $15 billion was spent on law enforcement measures in 2010, according to the Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). The NDIC report notes “bulk cash seizures totaled $798 million from January 2008 through August 2010.” What does one think happens to this money? Does the money in any way help America curb its current economic woes? Drug money seized by police is used to pad agencies’ budgets. Think of all the funding for law enforcement operations (possibly including homeland counterterror operations) that would be lost if drugs were legalized and drug money could no longer be seized.

Raw Story notes state and local governments kicked in over $25 billion more. FBI figures indicate a drug arrest takes place in the US about every 19 seconds, often for the nonviolent offense of possessing drugs. These arrests inordinately impact people of color. Michelle Alexander appropriately details in The New Jim Crow the reality that “people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.”

Whites are even more likely, according to frequent studies, to engage in drug crime than people of color. Yet, prisons in America overflow with black and brown people. Black men are “admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times than those of white men.” In major cities, Alexander writes, “80 percent of young African-American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”

This impact does not show up in government reports. Government focuses on the increase in drug use and the number of casualties and incidents of crime.The loss of liberties is too much to keep track of and insignificant to agencies.

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