By Karl Reiner
The production and distribution of illegal drugs is big business. According to estimates compiled by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, American consumers spend about $65 billion per year on illegal drug products. If the illegal drug trade was ranked as an American business, it would be among the nation’s 30 largest enterprises. Its annual dollar volume would put it in 28th place, producing slightly less revenue than Boeing and just ahead of COSTCO.
The illegal drug business operates with low overhead costs, pays virtually nothing in taxes and employs a quick and brutal method of resolving disputes among vendors and customers. Even when the losses inflicted by law enforcement are factored in, the return on investment is high. Despite the risks, the drug trade will always attract people primarily interested in large monetary gains.
Although some Tucsonans may be unaware of the problem, the 350 mile Arizona-Mexico border has become a haven for some of the Mexican trafficking organizations servicing the illegal drug market in the United States. Located only 65 miles from the border, Tucson is considered by the Drug Enforcement Administration to be a transshipment hub for a portion of the cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine smuggled into Arizona.
The contraband moves across the border hidden in commercial trucks and private vehicles. As an alternative shipping method, it is transported through rough border terrain areas on pack animals and by human backpackers. Although local drug production is reported to be minimal, Tucson is a site where illegal drugs are warehoused prior to distribution to other stateside locations.
The slowing national economy is not having much of an effect on the drug trade. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports a 200 percent increase in the amount of heroin seized at Arizona’s ports of entry thus far in 2008. Due to the lucrative nature of the U.S. market, competition is ferocious in the drug underworld. In Mexico, rival gangs are battling each other for control of the transportation routes.
Prodded into action by the U.S. government after years of ignoring the problem, Mexican authorities are now attempting to suppress the traffickers. Army units have been deployed to support the police. More than 48,000 traffickers have been reported arrested in Mexico since late 2006.
The drug lords are hitting back, often killing at will. The chief of Sonora’s state police was ambushed and killed in Nogales, Sonora in early November. The highly respected officer was one of the latest casualties in the escalating fight between the powerful drug cartels and law enforcement.
Through November, the city has suffered 103 confirmed homicides, up from 52 for the entire year 2007. The new murder rate record is a cause for concern. As a consequence of the spreading violence, the State Department added Nogales, Senora to its travel alert list. The travel warning has hurt the city’s once vibrant tourist business because the number of visitors from Arizona has drastically dropped.
As the drug gangs fight with each other for control of the profitable routes into the United States and resist the government’s effort to crack down on organized crime, casualties soar. Across Mexico, over 4,000 people have been killed thus far this year. By way of comparison, the U.S. has suffered 4,207 military deaths in Iraq since 2003.
The drug mobs have amassed massive amounts of money and firepower, enabling them to often outgun the police. Mexican officials point out that many of the 24,000 illegal firearms they have seized originated in the United States.
Awash in ill-gotten cash, the mobs have the ability to corrupt officials at the highest level. In one of the latest scandals, senior officials in the Mexican attorney general’s office and an employee of the U.S. Embassy were arrested for cooperating with the mobs.
Mexican authorities have begun moving to clean up the country’s scandalously corrupt police forces. Mexican President Calderon has candidly agreed with estimates that about half of the members of the state and local police forces are untrustworthy and that the federal service is riddled with corrupt officers.
Earlier this month, the U.S. government released $197 million of a $400 million aid package to Mexico. Providing equipment sorely needed in the drug battle, it is an indication of a closer and more cooperative effort by the two governments as they attempt to deal with the problem.
Tucson police believe drug-related crime is responsible in part for Tucson’s soaring homicide rate. The residents of Tucson have reason to feel less secure. If the ongoing struggle along the border slides up the supply chain, we should be prepared to see an increase in violence in Tucson.