EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Drug cartels have become Mexico’s fifth largest employer, with more than 175,000 people on their payroll, recently published research in Science shows.
That represents an increase of 66% over a decade ago, as the numbers have kept growing despite losing an average of 200 members to murder and arrest per week, Science reported.
“Mexican cartels lose many members as a result of conflict with other cartels and incarcerations. Yet, despite their losses, cartels manage to increase violence,” the study published Sept. 21 states. “Recruiting between 350 and 370 people per week is essential to avoid their collapse because of aggregate losses.”
The researchers say three major drug cartels – Sinaloa, Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and Familia Michoacana, three transnational criminal organizations – and their regional proxies often fight against each other, creating much of the violence. Mexico reported more than 34,000 murders in 2021. The researchers suggest Mexico reduce the violence by preventing cartels from recruiting thousands of new members a year just to replace losses.
Last July, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator Anne Milgram told a House Subcommittee on Crime and Federal Government Surveillance that the Sinaloa cartel and CJNG are the two main peddlers of fentanyl in the United States and employ a combined 44,800 people worldwide.
The president of Mexico dismissed the DEA’s estimates as exaggerated. “No, they don’t have good information,” he told reporters in Mexico City.
Cartels doing banner business thanks to synthetic opioids
Scott Stewart, vice president for intelligence for TorchStone Global security group, attributes the explosive growth of Mexican drug cartels to their success in trafficking synthetic drugs such as fentanyl to the United States.
“One of things driving the dynamics is the increase of synthetic drugs,” Stewart said.
He said profits from illicit drugs such as fentanyl have transformed criminal organizations in the same way that cocaine displaced marijuana in the 1980s.
“When everybody was growing marijuana, they did OK but it wasn’t that profitable. Then came cocaine and it was a game changer. If you could work with Cali or the Medellin cartel, you could make a lot of money,” he said. “With methamphetamines and now fentanyl, anybody can make it anywhere – a house, an apartment, a barn. Everybody is making this stuff and they’re making a lot of money.”
The DEA’s Milgram agrees that fentanyl “has transformed the criminal landscape. Fentanyl is cheap to make, easy to disguise and deadly for those who take it. It’s the leading cause of death of Americans 18 to 45,” she told the House subcommittee.
She said the drug cartels responsible for bringing fentanyl to America are “transnational and extremely violent enterprises” that rely on a global supply chain and international financial and distribution networks.
Stewart said the cartels do operate on both sides of the border but behave very differently depending on what side they are on. He attributed that to the corruption and impunity in the Mexican justice system.
“If Mexico could get the corruption down, that would help them get the violence under control,” he said. “When they’re here (the United States), they behave differently because they’re worried about being caught; they can’t rely on corrupt officials to protect them.”
Stewart said the U.S. has had instances of corruption in law enforcement, but it is not widespread, and it is addressed in the judicial system when discovered.
“The Mexican government’s approach has been haphazard. (President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador) talked about cracking down on corruption when he came in, but we haven’t seen a real difference” in the drug trade, he said.
The U.S. international security expert said Mexican cartels cannot be compared to large business corporations nowadays because they are fractured. They are more like ad hoc alliances of larger organizations and local groups or family clans.
“When we talk about Sinaloa, which Sinaloa cartel are we talking about? Are we talking about Los Chapitos (the sons of jailed drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman)? Or are we talking about Mayo Zambada?” Stewart said. “CJNG certainly grew very rapidly, but they absorbed a bunch of gangs and clans. They don’t always work together and sometimes we see them falling out and going to war.”
Stewart also attributed some of the cartel growth to the internal demand and sales in Mexico. Drugs in the past were thought of as an export product for the norteamericanos, but now they’re also being peddled and sold to Mexicans, leading to an expansion in drug use, addiction and violence.