Here is a glimpse of what lies ahead if we fail to end our second attempt to control the personal habits of private citizens. Listen to Enrique Gomez Hurtado, a former high court judge from Colombia who still has shrapnel in his leg from a bomb sent to kill him by the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. In 1993, his country was a free-fire zone not unlike Mexico today, and Gomez issued this chilling -- and prescient -- warning to an international drug policy conference in Baltimore:
"The income of the drug barons is greater than the American defense budget. With this financial power they can suborn the institutions of the State, and if the State resists . . . they can purchase the firepower to outgun it. We are threatened with a return to the Dark Ages."
First of all, most estimates about the worth of the international drug trade are slightly less than the half a trillion-dollar Pentagon budget, and Gray shouldn't quote Gómez without making that clear. Second of all, drug commerce is spread around the far reaches of the planet, not concentrated in one group's hands. There quite obviously could not be a coordinated attack against the American government by the millions upon millions of people whose livelihood depends on the drug trade, so even if it were true, the fact that there is more money in drugs than in the Pentagon budget is in and of itself not a huge concern. After all, no one worries about the fact that all of the world's agricultural giants, if they pooled their earnings and built an army, would be able to outspend Washington, do they?
Another problem is in the imprecise use of the word "cartel" to describe Mexican drug gangs:
Profits from the Mexican drug trade are estimated at about $35 billion a year. And since the cartels spend half to two-thirds of their income on bribery, that would be around $20 billion going into the pockets of police officers, army generals, judges, prosecutors and politicians. Last fall, Mexico's attorney general announced that his former top drug enforcer, chief prosecutor Noe Ramirez Mandujano, was getting $450,000 a month under the table from the Sinaloa cartel. The cartel can of course afford to be generous -- Sinaloa chief Joaquin Guzmán recently made the Forbes List of Billionaires.First of all, anyone citing the Forbes ranking has an obligation to explain why it's a joke in the next breath. Second, the use of "Sinaloa cartel" here is extremely misleading. The people paying Noé Ramírez were the Beltrán Leyvas. Like Guzmán, the Beltrán Leyvas are from Sinaloa, but they have rather famously split with Chapo Guzmán. They form part of the same group the same way that Tony Romo and Terrell Owens play for the same football team, which is to say, they don't. It sounds like a trivial, academic complaint, but breaking everything down into cartels oversimplifies a complicated situation.
The depth of Guzmán's penetration into the United States was revealed a few weeks ago, when the DEA proudly announced hundreds of arrests all over the country in a major operation against the "dangerously powerful" Sinaloa cartel. One jarring detail was the admission that Mexican cartels are now operating in 230 cities inside the United States.
The second paragraph, in which Gray refers to the "depth of Guzmán's penetration" of the US, also has unfortunate elements. The fact that Mexican gangs operate in so many American cities is not a new piece of information, so it shouldn't have been particularly jarring to someone who's been following the situation. Furthermore, the use of the word cartel here is once again misleading. The DEA is not saying (to my knowledge) that Guzmán or his kingpin counterparts are directly overseeing the sale of dime bags on the streets of Seattle. The gangs operating there may be connected with the famous Mexican groups because they buy their supply from the Mexicans, but it's unclear how direct the operational relationship is between the American street gangs and the bosses hiding in the mountains of Sinaloa. I suspect that in most cities, the connection between the smugglers in Mexico and the dealers in the States is quite remote. Using the word "cartel" to refer to a pair of distant components on an intricate supply chain sparks undo alarm, and it makes about as much sense as it would have made to call Frank Lucas a member of a Vietnamese cartel forty years ago.