Drug Trafficking Part II: Cocaine and Cannabis Herb in North America

Here is the second part of my study of drug trafficking in my freshman year.  It focuses on the North American corridor, and for this reason focuses only on cocaine and marijuana (not heroine, since it isn’t produced and trafficked in substantial quantities in North America).


How does one fight a war on drugs?  Wars need an enemy, but does one fight the drug dealer or the purchaser of the drug?  Wars also have casualties, but in the drug war each side faces very different kinds of costs.  When opponents aren’t hurt the same way, the motives to fight are drastically different.  While each side instinctively wants to react to its immediate costs, the focus needs to be on the enemy’s casualties.  Discipline then, is the key to victory.  Only by understanding why one’s opponent fights can one progress in and win the war on drugs.

Why is drug trafficking a socio-economic development issue?  For one, illicit drug production, manufacturing, and exportation invariably occur in a developing country (UNDCP, 2000).  This is not a random phenomenon: in order to conduct illegal activities, drug lords and cartels prey on the weak rule of law in third world nations.  Once entrenched, the industry of illicit drugs actively works to hinder its host nation’s development.  Drug cartels exploit the poor economic conditions of their host nation.  Third world countries are poor; drug cartels have money.  In 2003, the value of the trade of illicit drugs across the world was an estimated $322 billion (UNDCP, 2005).  Police and border officials are coerced to aid or at least stay out of the way of drug cartels.  If police and other officials can’t be bribed, they are threatened with torture, even death.  This economic exploitation is applied effectively to average citizens as well.  The average yearly income in a third world country pales in comparison to the payroll of drug cartels.  One smuggling trip could easily be the equivalent of several months of work.  This not only incentivizes those with poor paying jobs to turn to drug cartels, but it all together disincentivizes those unemployed citizens from looking for work in the first place.

But the third world countries aren’t the only ones under threat by the illicit drug market.  Yes, they are responsible for the supply of illicit drugs worldwide, but no supply exists without demand.  The demand for illicit drugs resides in the rich first world.  Drug abuse proves very costly for any country.  In 1992, Canada spent 2.7% of its GDP on therapy for drug abusers (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  Germany spent $120 per capita fighting its drug problem in 1995 (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  Drug abuse in 1998 alone cost the United States $143.4 billion (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  These drug budgets only increase each year (The White House, 2009).


The purpose of writing this paper is to analyze a specific corridor in global drug trafficking.  Mexico, America, and Canada share a solid economic bond (see Charts 1 – 6), but an easy flow of goods and services is a double edged sword.  With the good comes the bad; namely, illicit drugs.  These deep economic ties complicate the war on drugs, as no country wants to sacrifice prosperity.

Each country’s drug situation will be analyzed individually.  The author will then discuss his final thoughts on the holistic North American drug problem.  At the end of the paper, solutions will be proposed to cure all three countries of the drug problem.


Prior to writing this paper, the author examined drug trafficking on a global scale.  The author first checked out several books from Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania.  The 2000 World Drug Report, by the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime Prevention (UNDCP), was the first comprehensive assessment of worldwide drug trafficking ever published, and proved to be especially helpful for research.  As a direct result of findings in the global paper, this case study of North America narrows its analysis to cocaine and cannabis herb.

To write this paper, the author relied more on the internet than in the global study because more country-specific information was necessary.  Government websites of America, and Canada were consulted, as well as the most recent World Drug Report by the UNDCP.  That said, Payan’s The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars (2006) provided an excellent insight into Mexico’s share of North American drug trafficking.  In addition, four tables were constructed to compare Mexico, America, and Canada side-by-side.  The tables outline (1) general information, (2) drug-related statistics, (3) country specific anti-drug efforts, and (4) the results of those efforts.

Case Studies


General Information

Mexico is bordered on the east by the Gulf of Mexico, on the west by the Pacific Ocean, on the south by Guatemala and Belize, and on the north by America (CIA World Factbook, 2009).   Modeled after that of the United States, Mexico’s government is a federal republic: there is a federal government (executive, legislative, and judicial branches) which oversees 31 states (CIA World Factbook, 2009).  Mexico’s free market economy is growing, but average income is relatively low (CIA World Factbook, 2009).  Most of the Mexican population is between the ages of 15 and 65, and Mexico has a 4% unemployment rate (CIA World Factbook, 2009).  Given all of this, Mexico is considered a developing country.  For more details, see Table 1.

The Drug Cartels

In 1989, Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, the most powerful drug lord in Mexico, was arrested (Payan, 2006).  As a result, his conglomerate split up to create the four main Mexican drug cartels of the present day: the Gulf Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, and the Sinaloa-Sonora Cartel (Payan, 2006).  These organizations are responsible for virtually all of the illicit drug activity in Mexico: imports, cultivation, manufacturing, export, etc.  These four cartels are also responsible for 70% of the illicit drugs that find their way into America (Payan, 2006).  To see where they operate within Mexico, and to where they ship drugs, see Map 1.

Part II Map

Cartels are highly centralized, and operate with a work force that is not only disciplined, but at the beck and call of the drug lord day and night (Payan, 2006).  Granted, this discipline is derived out of fear, but that doesn’t change the fact that drug cartels have a leg up on slow bureaucracies.  Further, the Mexican government has to take into consideration factors such as ethics and laws when making decisions.  Drug cartels take advantage of both their speed and flexibility to exploit the rules government is forced to follow (Payan, 2006).

Drug cartels sometimes fight both among and within themselves (Payan, 2006).  Fights over territory may occur for not only Mexican soil on which to operate, but also American markets on which to sell drugs (Payan, 2006).  Fights within a particular cartel usually occur when a high ranking member is killed or arrested, creating a power vacuum (Payan, 2006).  While costly, these vicious wars ultimately help drug cartels by keeping the citizenry (and even the government) in fear and thus submissive to the drug cartel’s illicit activities.

Mexico’s Susceptibility

As a developing country, Mexico’s economy caters to drug cartels.  Every year, on average, Mexico’s million new workers compete for only five hundred thousand new jobs (Payan, 2006).  This leads to unemployment in Mexico (See Table 1).  The choice of working for a drug cartel (feeding one’s family) or not working (going hungry) is no choice at all.  In addition, drug trafficking requires little skill – training for a legal (and possibly better paying) job takes more time than it does to join the ranks of a drug cartel (Payan, 2006).  Even those who do work (or could otherwise) are easily lured into drug trafficking.  Minimum wage in Mexico pays $4-5 per day, while a single smuggling trip across the border can pay in the hundreds or even thousands (Payan, 2006).

But a large labor pool isn’t enough to sustain drug trafficking.  Corruption is necessary to sneak around law enforcement (Arnold, 2005; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  Each drug cartel has one or more Public Relations Officer responsible for finding accountants, businessmen, doctors, and lawyers to corrupt and help buffer the cartel from the government (Payan, 2006).  Retired police officers are bribed to help with weapons training and because they are trusted within the police-force and as such, are less likely to be questioned whilst carrying out cartel orders (Payan, 2006).  Drug lords also higher spotters: Mexicans who watch the border and inform the vehicles waiting to cross to America when any given U.S. Official is slacking on the job.  Corruption of U.S. Officials will be discussed in the case study of America.


Mexico’s northern border is divided into two categories: points of entry (POEs) and the land between POEs (Payan, 2006).  Generally speaking, trying to smuggle drugs between POEs is much riskier than through POEs (Payan, 2006).  Mostly the small time smugglers (none of the four major drug cartels) try to sneak across the border between POEs, and even then they primarily smuggle marijuana because it is a relatively cheap loss if intercepted, which is likely (Payan, 2006).  POEs are how most drugs are smuggled from Mexico.  In addition, cars, vans, and pickup trucks are favored over pedestrians as methods of smuggling (Payan, 2006).  However, semi-trucks are the dominant form of smuggling for the four major cartels (Payan, 2006).  To summarize, there are two standards with which to categorize drug smuggling.  Pedestrians and areas between POEs are indicative of a less powerful drug smuggling operation.

A vehicle that is modified to hide drugs is called a ‘clavo,’ Spanish for ‘nail’ (Payan, 2006).  To get across the border, Mexican drug cartels sometimes rely on chance (Payan, 2006).  As stated earlier, spotters attempt to single out POEs with lazy inspectors.  Regardless of spotting, overall risk depends on the “presence of dogs, nervousness of the driver, and thoroughness of the inspection” (Payan, 2006).  One tactic is to send several clavos simultaneously to different POEs, with one clavo purposefully obvious to find (Payan, 2006).  The hope is that in the frenzy over finding one clavo, the others will slip through undetected (Payan, 2006).  Risk is most mitigated, of course, by corrupting border officials.  Again, corruption on the border will be discussed in the America case study.

Mexico – Cocaine and Cannabis

Mexico plays a vital role in the international trafficking of cocaine (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  While nearly all of the world’s cocaine production occurs in three South American countries (Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru), Mexico acts as a funnel for Andean drugs, destined for America and Canada (Arnold, 2005; Payan, 2006; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; Stratford Global Intelligence, 2008; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  Colombia used to be able to traffick its cocaine directly to the U.S. (via the Caribbean Sea), but successful anti-smuggling efforts in the 1980s forced Colombia to resort to using Mexico as a point of transit on land (Arnold, 2005; Payan, 2006; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  48, 168 kilograms of cocaine were seized in Mexico in 2007 (UNDCP, 2009).  This number decreased by 60% in 2008 (UNDCP, 2009).

Mexico also plays a vital role in not only the international trafficking of, but also the cultivation of cocaine (UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  Mexico has a climate that is considered excellent for the outdoor cultivation of cannabis (UNDCP, 2009).  15,800,000 kilograms of cannabis herb were produced in Mexico in 2008 (UNDCP, 2009).  Mexico is not, however, considered a global leader in cannabis herb production (UNDCP, 2009).  That said, 39% of global cannabis herb seizures occurred in Mexico (UNDCP, 2009).  This is an increase compared to the previous year.  This very clearly underscores Mexico’s importance as a trafficker of cannabis herb.  For more details, see Table 2.


General Information

America is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by the Pacific Ocean, on the south by Mexico, and on the north by Canada (CIA World Factbook, 2009).   America’s government is a federal republic: there is a federal government (executive, legislative, and judicial branches) which oversees 50 states (CIA World Factbook, 2009).  America’s free market is enormous with one of the highest GDP’s per capita in the world, but it’s GDP is shrinking (CIA World Factbook, 2009).  Most of the American population is between the ages of 15 and 65, and America has a 5.8% unemployment rate (CIA World Factbook, 2009).  America is a developed country.  For more details, see Table 1.

America’s Corruption

American corruption is the single most harmful factor in the war on drugs (Payan, 2006).  Granted, border officials have a lot on their plates.  According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics; 4.23 million trucks; 7,774 trains; 88 million personal vehicles; 319, 087 buses; and 3.74 million pedestrians crossed the U.S. southern border in 2003 (Payan, 2006).  A single corrupt official can let tons of drugs into America with the wave of this hand.  Similar to the economic situation in Mexico, American border officials are incentivized: the average yearly salary is $40,000 a year while a corrupt official is paid, on average, $15,000 per clavo allowed through the border (Payan, 2006).  As America steps up efforts to crack down on corruption, a single corrupt official becomes more valuable for any given cartel (Payan, 2006).  With increased value comes increased price paid per waived clavo and thus, increased incentive to be corrupt.

Another sector of American corruption is money laundering.  The aforementioned Public Relations Officers often recruit rich Americans to help launder the money for the illicit drugs back into Mexico (Payan, 2006).

American Anti-Drug Efforts

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Custom & Trade Partners against Terrorism (C-TPAT) was created (Payan, 2006).  C-TPAT is an attempt to combat smuggling by creating a vast network of information between U.S. officials, importers, exporters, and truck drivers.  Trucking companies register with C-TPAT and place seals on the trucks after loading them to indicate a lack of tampering (Payan, 2006).  But C-TPAT has some serious flaws.  Truck drivers are easily bribed to sneak drugs, the seals are easily forged, and corrupt Mexican police can escort a tampered truck (Payan, 2006).

America also invests heavily in treatment for drug abuse.  In fiscal year 2008, the U.S. Federal Government spent $3.2 billion on treatment (The White House, 2009).  Treatment appropriations increased to $3.5 billion in the fiscal year 2010 (The White House, 2009).  In total, the fiscal year 2010 budget appropriates over $15 billion for drug-related costs (The White House, 2009).  Other purposes of the money include substance abuse prevention, law enforcement, interdiction, and international funding (The White House, 2009).

America – Cocaine and Cannabis

In 1999, an estimated 1.5 million Americans used cocaine (Arnold, 2005).  In 2007, 17% of 15 to 65 year olds reported using cocaine at least once in their lives (UNDCP, 2009).  America is in fact the world’s largest market for cocaine (UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  The east coast in particular has the most demand for cocaine of any region in America (UNDCP, 2000).  147,804 kilograms of cocaine were seized in America in 2007 (UNDCP, 2009).

In 1998 alone, an estimated 2.3 million Americans tried cannabis herb for the first time (Arnold, 2005).  Nine years later, 10.1% of Americans aged 12 and above reported using cannabis herb at least once in the year prior to the survey.  5.2 million kilograms of cannabis herb were produced in America, while 1.4 million kilograms were seized (UNDCP, 2009).

In 2007, 234,772 Americans were admitted for cocaine abuse treatment (U.S. Department of Health, 2007).  In that same year, 287,933 Americans sought cannabis treatment (U.S. Department of Health, 2007).  In total, cocaine and cannabis account for a combined 27% of all persons seeking addiction treatment in America.  For more details, see Table 2.


General Information

Canada is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by the Pacific Ocean, on the south by America, and on the north by the Arctic Ocean (CIA World Factbook, 2009).   Canada’s government is a federal republic: there is a federal government (executive, legislative, and judicial branches) which oversees ten provinces and three territories (CIA World Factbook, 2009).  Canada has a free market economy and a GDP per capita of $39,200 (CIA World Factbook, 2009).  Canada’s rate of growth equals that of America: 0.4% (CIA World Factbook, 2009).  Most of the Canadian population is between the ages of 15 and 65, and Canada has a 6.2% unemployment rate (CIA World Factbook, 2009).  Canada is a developed country.  For more details, see Table 1.

Canadian Anti-Drug Efforts

In 1998, Canada’s drug treatment policy “defie[d] simple characterization” (Ogborn, Smart, and Rush, 1998).  Treatment varied widely across provinces and territories (Ogborn, Smart, and Rush, 1998).  By October of 2007, Canada centralized its National Anti-Drug Strategy to attack on illicit drugs nationally (DeBeck, Wood, Montaner, & Kerr, 2009; Health Canada, 2008; U.S. Department of State, 2008).  The program in its entirety cost $64 million, two thirds of which was directed at “drug prevention and treatment initiatives” (DeBeck, Wood, Montaner, & Kerr, 2009).  As part of the Drug Treatment Funding Program (DTFP), a program within the National Anti-Drug Strategy, $111 million are allocated through 2012 to the provincial and territorial governments (Health Canada, 2008).  These funds too are meant for primarily treatment.

Canada – Cocaine and Cannabis

Cocaine first became an issue for Canada around 1980 (Ogborne, Smart, Rush, 1998).  By 2007, 2,666 kilograms of cocaine were seized in Canada (UNDCP, 2009).  In 2004, 10.6% of Canadians 15 years old and above reported having used cocaine at least once in their life (UNDCP, 2009).  2.4 million kilograms of cannabis herb were produced in 2008, while 49,919 kilograms were seized the year before (UNDCP, 2009).  14.1% of Canadians 15 years old and above reported having used cannabis herb at least once in 2003 (UNDCP, 2009).

Canada’s cannabis herb problem is by far the more serious of the two drugs.  Canada is unique when it comes to cannabis herb trafficking, in that it plays more equally the roles of supplier and market.  Traditionally, cannabis herb has not been met with much punishment, and thus there exists a thriving underground market of domestic cannabis herb (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; U.S. Department of State, 2008).  For more details, see Table 2.

Final Thoughts

Drug trafficking of cocaine and cannabis herb impacts Mexico, America, and Canada.  The way each country is affected varies, but the effect is certainly negative.  Thus, drug trafficking can be seen as a continental-wide problem.  Appropriately, there have been several transnational efforts to fight the drug problem.  The Merida Initiative for America and Mexico provides equipment, training, and funding for Mexico’s battles against the drug cartels, while supporting American efforts to lower demand (U.S. Department of State, 2009).  Canada and America have two major bilateral forums for cooperation in the drug war (U.S. Department of State, 2008).  These programs are aimed at “information sharing and joint training opportunities for federal law enforcement officials,” as well as for state and provincial authorities (U.S. Department of State, 2008).  However, Table 4 points out that while America and Canada have strictly domestic initiatives, Mexico does not have a single one.

Part II Table 3 and 4

Yes, Mexican President Felipé Caldéron’s use of federal troops to combat the cartels is commendable and proving effective, but it would not be possible without American funding (Moore, 2009; U.S. Department of State, 2009).  Still, signs of bilateral success point towards trilateral cooperation.  The author’s proposed solutions (below) all seek to comprehensively use the combined powers of all three North American countries.


Drug trafficking is a continental-wide problem.  As such, it requires a comprehensive continental-wide solution.  Just as the North American Free Trade Agreement boosted economic ties, a North American Fight against Drugs is the best way to take on the drug cartels.  First though, it is vital to understand exactly what should be fought.  The roots of the drug problem are greed and hedonism.  Drug cartels see demand for drugs and an opportunity to monopolize that sector, thereby making huge profits.  People seek the greatest pleasure possible, at the lowest cost, but drug abusers are chemically altered to ignore the costs and feel great pleasure.  These two roots of the drug problem are human instincts and cannot be defeated any more than we can change the color of the sky.  Thus, the solutions must work with greed and hedonism.

1. Legalize Cannabis Herb throughout North America: Cannabis Herb is the number one source of profit for each of the top four Mexican drug cartels (Moore, 2009).  This is simple economics – increasing the supply with a stable demand lowers prices.  Cartels will lose their main source of funding, reducing not only their ability to traffick drugs, but also their ability to buy weapons that maintain their martial grip on Mexican society.  Every war has collateral damage, and legalizing cannabis herb is a small price to pay for taking away the number one source of profit for drug cartels.  Further, the effects will be felt quickly: the marijuana infrastructure in North America already exists – it will simply change from illicit to licit.  At that point, competition will reduce prices, rendering cannabis herb from cartels more expensive than local cannabis herb.  Canada is proof that a national market can thrive.

2. Send a Joint Military Force into Mexico: The drug situation in Mexico and along the US/Mexico border will get worse before it gets better.  Lost profits will cause drug cartels to compete viciously for more territory.  In an ideal world, the cartels would fight strictly amongst themselves, but civilian casualties are certain.  But reduced funds will also reduce their military capabilities.  The joint might of a North American military and its respective funding will surely outgun and outspend the cartels into submission, in addition to protecting civilians.  The key to success is a surge of troops to prevent a long and drawn out guerilla war.

As stated in the Mexico case study, Mexican drug cartels are the primary methods for South American drugs’ (i.e. cocaine) getting into North America.  By destroying the Mexican drug cartels, the trafficking of cocaine into North America also takes a serious (if not lethal) hit.

3. Tax Cannabis Herb: With the drug cartels out of the way and a profitable cannabis herb market in each country, the governments can start to reduce demand by taxing cannabis herb, much like tobacco.  Funds from the tax will go directly to the fourth and final solution.

4. Increase Focus on Treatment: There are other illicit drugs out there.  Heroine and methadone are just two drugs with even more negative health effects than cocaine and cannabis.  As demonstrated by America and Canada, the focus of drug budgets is shifting to treatment.  Greater techniques for curing drug addicts, rehabilitating them to help them contribute to society, and preventing relapses will all promote the continued development of all countries.

5. Trilateral Drug Council: To oversee all of the above solutions, a body composed of drug administrators from Mexico, America, and Canada would greatly facilitate the various operations.  How permanent this body is will depend greatly on how it coordinates the defeat of the Mexican drug cartels.  Perhaps after the cartels are gone, the tax revenue from solution number three could be collected continentally and spent on drug treatment as a proportion of each country’s need.


The illicit trafficking of drugs (i.e. cocaine and cannabis herb) is a continental-wide problem for Mexico, America, and Canada.  It is only appropriate to apply a continental-wide solution.  As outlined in the General Information sections for each country, the existing structures of each country are very similar – this makes cooperation all the more possible.

More important to cooperation, however, will be discipline.  The Mexican drug cartels are the enemy: they must be wiped out.  To do so, their costs must be the focus.  Currently, they outspend and outgun everything that has been thrown at them.  Stealing their main cash crop (i.e. cannabis herb) and combining military might will purge North America of this blight.  The social stigma towards cannabis herb must be lifted momentarily in pursuit of the long-term goal of a strong and cohesive North America with a trilateral drug policy.