MEXICO CITY — When the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) releases its annual status report on the narcotics trade later this month, it will almost certainly show a decrease in the volume of cocaine traveling through Mexico into the United States. Last year's report did too -- a 40 percent drop in seizures between 2006 and 2008. Worldwide, the cocaine market today is worth about half as much as it was just 15 years ago -- $88 billion compared with $165 billion in 1995.
This would be excellent news -- if it weren't for some alarming trends going in the other direction. As the cocaine trade through Mexico has fallen dramatically, the violence here has risen remarkably. Whereas 2006 saw just over 2,000 deaths attributed to drug violence, in 2010 there were an estimated 11,000 such killings, according to data from Stratfor and local press accounts. Ciudad Juárez, a border city of approximately 2 million at the center of the ongoing violence, has seen a particularly sharp spike. In 2001, there were just 16 murders for every 100,000 Ciudad Juárez residents. In 2010, that number reached 93 -- an increase of nearly sixfold -- according to the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.
In other words, the war on drugs may be taking its toll on the narcotics trade, but it hasn't done anything to end the violence -- a stubborn fact that runs counter to an emerging consensus about the drug war. Across Latin America, intellectuals, scholars, and even policymakers are increasingly arguing that there is just one thing that can bring an end to the narco-troubles: the decriminalization of the drug trade in the United States. Legalize and regulate use, proponents argue, and prices would drop and the illicit trade would disappear overnight. Cartels would be starved of their piece of the global illicit drug pie, which the UNODC has estimated at some $320 billion per year.
But would legalization really work? With each day that passes, it looks like it wouldn't be enough, for one overarching reason: The cartels are becoming less like traffickers and more like mafias. Their currency is no longer just cocaine, methamphetamines, or heroin, though they earn revenue from each of these products. As they have grown in size and ambition, like so many big multinational corporations, they have diversified. The cartels are now active in all types of illicit markets, not just drugs.
"Mexico is experiencing a change with the emergence of criminal organizations that, rather than being product-oriented -- drug trafficking -- are territorial based," says Antonio Mazzitelli, head of the UNODC office in Mexico City. They now specialize in running protection rackets of all kinds, he says, which might explain why the violence has gotten so bad: Mafias enforce their territorial control by force, killing anyone who resists or gets in the way.
"Before, we had organized crime, but operating strictly in narcotrafficking," adds Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, a consultant and former advisor to the Mexican presidency. "Now we have a type of mafia violence ... and they are extorting from the people at levels that are incredibly high -- from the rich, from businesses." For this reason, Mazzitelli says, legalization would have "little effect."
Cartels such as the Zetas and La Familia, long categorized as drug-trafficking organizations, have transformed themselves into territorial overlords. With distinctive zones of influence, complex organizations, and a wealth of manpower on which to draw, they act as shadow governments in the areas they control, collecting "taxes" on local establishments and taking a cut of the profits from illegal immigration to the United States. "This fight is not solely or primarily to stop drug trafficking," Mexican President Felipe Calderón told the U.S. Congress in May 2010. "The aim is to ensure the safety of Mexican families, who are under threat of abuse and wanton acts of criminals."
The cartels' expansion may have begun through their everyday narcotrafficking work -- namely through money laundering, one of the most discussed topics in Mexican politics today. Once upon a time, this was quite easy to do; cartels could wire the money in convoluted ways or open new accounts to which individuals would report earnings from businesses that existed only on paper.