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Mexican Drug Cartels

Defining a Drug Cartel and Organized Crime
There is no widely accepted definition of what a drug cartel is or the characteristics that define a drug cartel. To further complicate matters, there is no widely accepted definition of what characteristics define an organized crime group.  Law enforcement agencies and academics all utilize their own definitions.  To simplify matters, definitions of organized crime were chosen for comparison and defining purposes.  Specifically, the definitions I am referring to are those offered by Carter (1994) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (1994).

In order to define a drug cartel, I have formed a definition of a drug cartel from pieces of other definitions.  These definitions are from the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trading (2006), Joseph Finckenauer (2005), and David Carter (1994).  The definition used for a cartel is from the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trading, which defines a cartel as “an agreement between businesses not to compete with each other” (2006). Finckenauer (2005) argues that organized crime can be defined by crime of choice or organization or behavior.  This means that certain crimes such as drug trafficking require an organized structure, compared to homicide which can be conducted by a single person. David Carter gives a summary of characteristics of organized crime, which are

  • Profit accumulation.
  • Longevity.
  • An organizational structure, which facilitates criminal activity.
  • The use of violence.
  • Efforts to corrupt government officials, police, and corporate officials (1994).

Employing Carter’s definition combined with the definition of a cartel and taking Finckenauer’s argument into consideration, a description of a drug cartel begins to form.  However, these definitions do not clearly differentiate how a drug cartel is different from any other organized crime group.  Therefore, for the purpose of this thesis I have formed a definition of a drug cartel  from the above definitions and the research conducted into drug trafficking organizations.  The definition used for this thesis of a drug cartel is a structured group, which exists for an extended period of time.  A drug cartel is large in number of members, covers a large amount of territory, and has extensive connections with foreign and native criminal groups.  The group uses violence and corruption to continue its criminal activity, and its main source of profit is from drug trafficking.
A drug cartel differs from a drug trafficking organization, because it is an amalgamation of independent organizations that agree to work together under the direction of specific leaders and a main boss.  A drug trafficking organization can be considered the single unit that when combined with other drug trafficking organizations form a drug cartel.  Not every Mexican drug trafficking organization is part of a cartel.

The Beginnings of Drug Trafficking in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez

El Paso, Texas is located at the farthest western point of Texas.  Northern and western routes lead into New Mexico.  Las Cruces, New Mexico is only a thirty to forty minute drive.  Juárez, Mexico is to the south, and can be accessed by any one of El Paso’s four international ports of entry.  El Paso and Juárez form the largest international metropolitan area in the world (Draper 1995).  Several major highways also pass through El Paso, which gives drug traffickers options for transportation and convenient access to the rest of the United States.  El Paso’s proximity to the border, major highways, and a major airport make it highly desirable to drug traffickers who need to move their goods quickly.

Drug smuggling in Mexico was a substantial business several decades before Colombian drug cartels began to gain power.  In the nineteenth century, the opium trade between Mexico and the United States was a growing business due to an influx of Chinese immigrants into the Southwest United States (Lupsha and Schlegal 1980).  During World War II, the United States’ supply of illegal narcotics and various goods, such as rope, medicines, and tires became scarce in the United States.  Mexican smugglers were able to utilize the porous 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border to bring anything from hemp to heroin to U.S. citizens (Lupsha and Schlegal 1980).  Mexican smugglers simply added drugs to the various goods they transported into the United States (Poppa 1998).  Finckenauer, Fuentes, and Ward (2001) describe these smuggling groups as “‘mom and pop’ distribution franchises.”  These smaller groups utilized family connections to store and transport goods throughout the United States.  Mexico became a frontrunner in poppy and marijuana production, and these “mom and pop” smuggling groups began to grow into major crime families and informal criminal organizations (Lupsha and Schlegal 1980).

During the 1970s, American law enforcement began to focus on the growing cocaine usage in the United States and specifically on Colombian drug cartels.  Slowly, American authorities learned that the Colombians were fond of using Caribbean routes to transport cocaine into the United States.  They used Florida heavily, especially Miami as a port of entry.  In the 1980s, American authorities began to tighten control over the drug flow through the Caribbean, and Colombian cartels had to find another route to get their product to the customers (Constantine Testimony 1995).  They began to utilize Mexican smugglers who had been penetrating the U.S.-Mexican borders for generations.  Chepesiuk (2003) argues that the Colombian use of the Mexican smuggling group was unavoidable.  The earliest reports of a Colombian presence in the El Paso/Juárez area are from 1983, when an operative arrived in Juárez to begin making contacts there.  The unknown operative belonged to the Medellin cartel from Colombia, a notoriously violent cocaine trafficking organization (Draper 1995).  He arranged for the Medellin cartel to use the El Paso/Juárez port of entry as a crossing point.  The cartel would fly the cocaine into the interior of Mexico, and utilize the various Mexican smuggling families to transport the cocaine to the border and across into the United States, where a Medellin employee would meet the load and take it to its designated city (Draper 1995).  From this business arrangement, the Juárez cartel began to grow and establish itself as a major drug trafficking organization.

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