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Guns, drugs, and La Barbie: Why America is responsible for Mexican drug cartels

Drug lords like La Barbie threaten Mexico's security with American-bought firearms, and finance their violent empires with American drug money.

By Jacob Bronsther / September 2, 2010

New York

After the arrest this week of one of Mexico’s most ruthless drug lords, “La Barbie,” media coverage has highlighted his American-born, football star origins. But the kingpin is the product of America in a more profound way: We are morally responsible for his career. Indeed, we are culpable for the rise of all the Mexican drug cartels, whose $39 billion criminal enterprise has led to more than 23,000 deaths since 2006, and brought a fledgling democracy to its knees.

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To attribute moral responsibility to one nation for another’s domestic problems is usually a fraught process, since there are so many causal forces in play. But in this case, the connection is crystal clear. Mexican drug lords exist to feed the US drug market. And they get their guns through the US weapons market. We give the bad guys their money by buying their drugs; we sell them the guns that enable their continued existence; and they threaten a nation of more than 100 million people at our border.

Like a game of Whac-a-Mole where the moles are on cocaine, speak Spanish, and wield rocket-propelled grenades, the Mexican cartels, in existence for decades, emerged as kingpins when they filled the supply-side gap that opened up when Colombia’s Cali and Medellín cartels dissolved in the 1990s, along with the cocaine trafficking route through Florida.

Mexican cartels supply American drug demands

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, Mexican cartels now dominate the wholesale illegal drug market in the US, both by producing drugs in Mexico and trafficking those grown elsewhere in Latin America. The State Department estimates that 90 percent of the cocaine entering the US transits through Mexico. The cartels are also the biggest foreign supplier of marijuana to the United States, and a major supplier of methamphetamine and heroin. They distribute wholesale to their outlets in more than 2,500 American cities, leaving retail sales to various American gangs.

Mexico’s cartels earn upward of $39 billion annually in illicit proceeds from the United States, the Justice Department estimates. To put that in context, it’s roughly equal to the global annual revenue of Google and Halliburton combined.