Public Comment

The Mexican Drug Trade: Supply and Demand

By Ralph E. Stone
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 11:07:00 AM

My wife and I were observing the Mexico Independence Day celebration in Guanajuato, Mexico, on Sept. 16, when we learned that terrorists lobbed three grenades into a group of celebrants in Morelia, the capital of the nearby state of Michoacan. Eight people were killed and hundreds were wounded. This was a new tactic for the drug cartels—indiscriminate violence. Later, it was reported that nine bodies were found dumped in Tijuana, where in the past few months, almost 50 have been murdered related to the drug trade. The Mexican “war on drugs” has resulted in increased drug-related deaths and abductions of judges, police, witnesses, journalists, and now innocent citizens. More than 7,000 deaths have occurred in the last three years, about 4,000 in this year alone. There is a growing perception among Mexicans that the government is losing the war against these well-armed drug cartels. 

Why the increased violence? Because the Mexican drug cartels—the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel—have largely wrested control of the drug trade from the Colombian producers and have developed their own production of heroin and methamphetamine (speed). The cartels have actually expanded production into northern California federal and state parklands. The United Nations estimates that these Mexican cartels control about $14.2 billion a year in cocaine, heroin, marijuana, speed, and other illicit drugs. Mexico is the transit point for 70 to 90 percent of cocaine entering the United States.  

And it is estimated that 90 percent of the weapons used in the Mexican drug war are bought or supplied from the United States. The illicit drugs flow north and the weapons flow south. 

Until recently, the United States assistance to Mexico’s “war on drugs’ paled in comparison to the funding for the failed Plan Colombia counter-drug program. We gave Colombia some $380 million in 2007. However, in June 2008, the Mérida Initiative was passed into law, providing $465 worth of assistance for Central America and Mexico. About $400 million of this U.S. aid is scheduled to go to Mexico in the form of surveillance aircraft, border-security equipment, and advanced technology for communications, eavesdropping and other forms of surveillance to support Mexico’s crackdown on narcotics trafficking and organized crime. The aid includes a strong human rights component. These human rights conditions require the Secretary of State to report to Congress Mexico’s progress in addressing human rights issues, including the use of torture by law enforcement officials and prosecution for personnel implicated in violations. However, there has been a delay in releasing the aid package to Mexico. 

Unfortunately, like the failed Plan Colombia, the Mérida Initiative focuses exclusively on security forces and supply-side interdiction without going to the root causes of the bilateral drug trade. Faced with a growing demand, the aid package includes no aid to promote crop conversion, contains no performance goals, and nothing for anti-gun-running or money laundering programs. 

The high demand for illicit drugs in the United States—60 percent of the world’s total—fuels the Mexican drug trade. About 20 million Americans over the age of 12 reported use of drugs in 2005, and an estimated 22.2 million persons aged 12 or older were classified with substance dependence or abuse, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (2005). Twenty-one percent of 8th graders, 38 percent of 10th graders and 50 percent of 12th graders have tried an illicit drug in their lifetimes, according to the Monitoring the Future study in 2005. This means half of students have tried an illicit drug by the time they finish high school. Illicit drugs exact an enormous toll on society, taking 52,000 lives annually and draining the economy of $160 billion a year. Everyone pays the toll in the form of higher healthcare costs, dangerous neighborhoods, and an overcrowded criminal justice system.  

The Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment (SAPT) Block Grant is the cornerstone of the states’ substance abuse prevention and treatment systems; it accounts for approximately 40 percent of all public funds spent by state substance abuse agencies for substance abuse prevention activities and treatment services. The program is administered by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. To reduce the presence of illicit drugs, drug-related organized crime, and the adverse effects of drug and alcohol abuse in society requires a comprehensive strategy involving federal, state, and local governments. This approach would include international cooperation, diplomatic initiatives, drug law enforcement, and sanctions, treatment, prevention, education, and recovery support services as well as research to identify and promote the strategies to reduce demand and supply. 

Unfortunately, President Bush’s fiscal year 2009 budget plan slashed $198 million from the SAMHSA and calls for elimination of the Recovery Community Support Programs and the STOP Underage Drinking program. The budget also calls for spending $10 million less on the Drug Free Communities program, a major funding source for many community anti-drug coalitions. The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment’s budget would fall by $63 million, while the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention would have $36 million less to spend next year if Bush’s plan is approved. The Center for Mental Health Services would be slashed by $126 million. 

The Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) national programs budget would increase from $137.7 million in 2008 to $282 million in FY09 under the plan, including $10 million for research-based drug prevention or school safety programs, $77.8 million for grants to school districts for comprehensive, community-wide “Safe Schools/Healthy Students” drug and violence prevention projects, and $11.8 million for school-based drug testing for students. However, the SDFSC state grants program was once again targeted for reduction, with Bush calling for cutting the school-based prevention program from $295 million in 2008 to $100 million in 2009.  

After reviewing the U.S.’s funding policy, our committment to drug prevention is heavily weighted on the supply side, while funds for addressing U.S. drug demand is largely underfunded. This seems a short-sighted view. As long as there is a demand for illicit drugs, there will be a supply, Given the current financial debacle this country faces, I would not expect any major increases in the fiscal year 2009 budget for substance abuse and treatment. Meanwhile, the Mexican government continues its uphill battle against the drug cartels. The Mexican drug trade is yet another challenge facing the Barack Obama presidency. 


Ralph E. Stone is a retired Bay Area attorney.