The issue of drugs and migrants are inextricably linked on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“They are separate things, even though they comingle in a way because the cartel will use both of them,” explained Santa Cruz, Ariz., County Sheriff Tony Estrada.
Migrants cannot cross into the U.S. without a guide, or coyote, which is directly run through the cartels. Criminal networks profit from both the cost migrants pay for aid to cross and the coercion they can face to carry drugs across the border as a form of a “passport” exchange with the cartels. Estrada explained that this means drugs “are coming through consistently and constantly.”
For residents in the Tucson sector, and especially in Nogales, Arizona, one of the busiest ports of entries for drugs along the border—where Estrada’s jurisdiction rests—the issues stemming solely and directly from the cartel networks south of the fence constitute the term “border security.” With the swift expansion of extensive and violent gangs in Mexico and throughout Central America over the past several decades, the problem of transnational criminal organizations has grown past the size that can be readily fought down.
“The United States took [its] eye off Mexico for too long,” Estrada explained. “We’re looking overseas, thousands and thousands of miles away at our enemies, and our enemy was in our backyard. That monster of drugs was in our backyard.”
According to a U.S. Customs and Immigration report, an estimated $19 billion to $21 billion travel annually from the U.S. into Mexico to fund transnational crime. Mexico is America’s leading supplier of marijuana and is one of the main suppliers of both cocaine and methamphetamine. Since the U.S. government tightened its laws against the import of cocaine from Colombia in the 1980s, Mexico’s status as the leading transport provider of the drug has greatly risen. In 1991, 50 percent of U.S. bound cocaine traveled through Mexico. By 2004, that percentage had nearly doubled to 90 percent.
These shipments are largely coming through Central America as well. As more countries south of the U.S. border tighten their drug trafficking laws and monitoring, drugs have increasingly had to be transported across land rather than by sea or air, especially in the past 10 years. Thus, Mexican drug cartels are reliant on the traffickers in Central America to transport the cocaine up to Mexico to then be moved across the border and into the U.S. Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, reported estimates by the Colombian government marking as much as a 90 percent decrease since 2003 in aerial trafficking of cocaine.
The drugs label is not tied to its literal subject definition—the trafficking of persons falls in line with the cartel market, even outside the context of human smuggling as an exchange simply for the movement of drugs.
The unaccompanied minors situation at the start of the summer serves as a prime example. Transnational criminal organizations had the opportunity to capitalize on a strong motivation for children migrating north—for reunification with family and escape from violence from the cartels themselves, among other reasons.
“They have no real regard for human life,” explained Tucson Sector Border Patrol Agent Scott Stewart, speaking on the cartel workers bundling their trafficking incomes. “To them, those people are just dollar signs. It’s a product.”
The crisis of the unaccompanied minors coming in the tens of thousands catapulted attention back to the border, after a largely quiet year politically following the stall of the Senate immigration reform bill during the summer of 2013.
“We are conscious that these little persons are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable people,” said Consul Ricardo Pineda Albarran of the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, Ariz. “Imagine kids traveling by themselves. We are more than concerned.”
Pineda also spoke to the status of the border as an economy of its own, one connecting more than 14 million people, which he called a “border of cooperation.”
As “the border is not only about migrants, [and] not only about challenges in the field of criminal matters,” the imperative of Mexico to actively work to diminish the cartel stronghold is clear.
The Mexican government has worked over the past few years to begin a large-scale crackdown on the burgeoning cartel business. In 2013, Mexico’s security-related functions budget was $9.4 billion, having increased 3.7 percent from 2012. These funds go to combatting organized crime, implementing justice reform, consolidating police forces and expanding crime prevention programs and methodology, per the U.S. State Department report.
Specific targets on the heads of leaders behind the network have also been placed—sometimes with the strategic assistance of U.S. law enforcement. The leader of the Mexico’s all-powerful Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was arrested in Mexico in February of this year. Mexican authorities detained Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, leader of the Los Zetas cartel, last July.
Despite such efforts, the cartel networks continue to thrive, expand and gain power, being largely responsible for the propaganda—and, equally directly —the extreme violence in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that sends the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors seeking refuge and a future in America.
What complicates the statement by many Washington politicians to “secure the border” is the sense of lawlessness afflicting the countries on the other side of the wall. Breakdown of rule of law and the absence of effective governance – replaced by deeply embedded corruption in many instances – breeds fertile ground for cartels to solidify their authority and capacities. Even as Mexico attempts to zero in on cartel activity, the fact that the problem is overgrown negates a large portion of such efforts.
Eddy, 24, is an undocumented day laborer who first came to the U.S. at age 14. He has been deported—and has re-entered—10 times. His last crossing he estimates to have been in 2012, when much of the criminal network activity was strong and growing.
“The mafia…has got the power there,” Eddy explained, speaking to his experience—one of the common migrant journeys from Mexico into the U.S. “There’s a small place called Altar. You get there and then you get in a van or a small truck, and they take you straight to the mafia. And if you [cross them], they cut you and they might kill you. It’s better just to pay the money.
“They tell you where to walk, where you can go, which side you can go.”
When asked where the Mexican police are at the border, Eddy’s answer is simple.
“They’re apart,” he said, speaking to the separation he experienced of Mexican law enforcement from the border region. “I’m not sure what they did, but that’s how they work.”
The issue of the cartel networks and trafficking has been growing long enough that it is a problem law enforcement is accustomed to, according to Stewart.
“The smuggling organizations I think we’ve always seen, and they’ve always had a big involvement,” Stewart explained. “It’s a business for them, so whether that’s smuggling drugs across the border or smuggling humans, they’re going to make their money.”
As the cartels have expanded, their methods of transporting goods and people across the border have diversified.
“We’ve seen catapults, we’ve seen vehicle clones—where they’ll clone a vehicle to look like a Border Patrol truck—that they can attempt to try and drive through a vehicle loaded with drugs,” Stewart said. “We’ve seen more primitive things such as…where they have drugs in buckets of chicken and a vehicle trying to drive into the U.S. with drugs hidden that way.”
Estrada, having worked in law enforcement in Nogales for over four decades, emphasized the techniques by cartels that extend directly to the people—which inadvertently cause the direct connection and blurring of the line between the illicit drugs and human beings.
“They come through the ports—body carriers—in a vehicle, they come through the commercial ports in trucks. They come through the tunnels. They come through the gaps in the fence. They’ll come over the fence and around the fence,” Estrada explained. “It just does not stop.”
As law enforcement struggles to address both migrants seeking economic opportunity or refuge from violence and the intensive flow of drugs that physically causes ties between the two, many see the prospect of truly securing the border increasingly unattainable until the source and supply within the United States is cut off, and the rampant criminal expansion in the neighboring countries halted.