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.

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.

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.

What’s more, we help them launder their money. From 2003 to 2008, Wachovia Corp. alone laundered at least $110 million, according to the Justice Department. Wachovia admitted to “serious and systematic” violations of the Bank Secrecy Act and agreed to pay $160 million to resolve the criminal case against them. American Express Bank International and Western Union have also recently agreed to huge settlements with the government for laundering Mexican drug proceeds.

Buying guns in the US

While the cartels pay fewer taxes then their fellow Fortune 100 companies, their security overhead is more expensive. They cross the border for those purposes, too, where we welcome them with (open) arms. In Mexico, civilians need approval from the military to purchase firearms and cannot own high-powered pistols or large-caliber rifles. In the US, however, gun dealers can sell multiple military-style rifles to citizens without even reporting the sales.

The cartels hire people without criminal records to buy a handful of weapons at a time, from licensed dealers – there are 6,600 along the border alone – or private individuals at gun shows, and then drive them across the border. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and Explosives estimates that 90 percent of the traced firearms recovered in Mexico originated in the US.

Flush with American money and guns, the cartels have wreaked havoc in Mexico, especially in the northern states along the 2,000-mile border. Since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels and deployed more than 45,000 troops, at least 23,000 people have been killed in drug-related battles.

The cartels’ violence features, among other tactics, beheading police officers, branding victims, shooting up newspaper offices after they post articles on corruption, intimidating voters, and assassinating leading law enforcement officials, elected leaders, journalists, and political candidates. The fear is so great that in some towns political parties cannot find anyone to run for mayor.

Intimidation and corruption

The parade of horribles is long. The list of Mexican officials either charged with drug conspiracy or placed in the cartels’ crosshairs indicates the level of internal corruption and terror the cartels can generate.

Rondolfo Torre, the leading gubernatorial candidate in the border state of Tamaulipas, was gunned down about a month after Gregoria Sanchez, mayor of Cancun and candidate for Quintana Roo governor, was arrested for protecting the Beltran Levya and Zetas drug organizations. Meanwhile, former Quintana Roo Gov. Mario Villanueva was extradited earlier this summer to the US on charges of conspiring to import hundreds of tons of cocaine. Over in the western state of Sinaloa, agents of Mexico’s Federal Investigative Agency are believed to work as Sinaloa cartel enforcers. And the Attorney General’s Office reported in December 2005 that one-fifth of its officers were under investigation.

Through rampant kidnapping of employees, the cartels even shut down major northeastern operations of Pemex, the state oil company and largest source of national income. Their goal was not free oil – they’ve been stealing it for years – but rather, regional control.

Our responsibility

While it’s clear that certain members of our community are complicit to the situation south of the border, why does this morally implicate the entire nation and federal government? Surely, no US leader supports our illegal drug purchases and weapon sales. The response is that there are huge numbers of fellow citizens involved, and the government does little to combat the problem. A nation can be responsible for its inaction, too.

If we take our moral status seriously, both as a people that supports young democracies and as one that doesn’t inflict fatal damage on allies wantonly and glibly, then we need to prioritize this problem. From a more self-regarding perspective, consider that the chaos in parts of Mexico creates greater incentives for illegal immigration. And narco-states are not friendly neighbors.

As to the guns, there aren’t any magic policy bullets, but closing down the gun shops arrayed at the border, possibly though zoning laws, is a good start. The 2nd Amendment doesn’t cover Mexican drug lords, gladly. We should also increase the penalties for smuggling weapons.

As to the money, we need to think harder and faster about stemming the demand for drugs, and find the maturity to discuss the legalization and regulation of some recreational drugs, which would funnel the funds away from the cartels, even if we ultimately reject such arguments. A less dramatic start, however, would be a public advertising campaign that informs people where the money goes when they buy cocaine.

We must also fulfill our pledge under the Merida Initiative, signed by President Bush in 2006, to donate $1.3 billion worth of helicopters, police training, and other assistance for the war against the cartels.

Here’s the deal we’ve signed on to. In return for dangerous drugs and illegal immigrants, we give brutal drug lords billions of dollars and enough weapons to take on a major army, terrorize millions of civilians, and threaten a democracy. There’s no subtlety to our misdeeds. It’s moral philosophy for kindergartners.

Jacob Bronsther, a law student at New York University and former Fulbright Scholar, writes for

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