The romanticized image of organized crime has thoroughly permeated through popular culture. The fictional Tony Montana in Scarface. The greatest movie character of all time, Vito Corleone, in The Godfather trilogy. Denzel Washington playing Frank Lucas in American Gangster. Eliot Ness versus Al Capone in The Untouchables. Goodfella Henry Hill’s famous line: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” It seems we all want to be gangsters, too. Beyond the uncouth street-level violence commonly associated with underprivileged, underserved areas of the United States, for crime to be organized requires more than just premediation. To mainstream America, the pinnacle of life as a criminal means being a boss, a don, a capo, and whatever other terms convey the fact that you have absolute power over a disciplined group of lawbreakers.
Organized crime doesn’t really thrive down in Miami, on the streets of New York, in the back alleys of Chicago, or out in Sicily. At least, not as it once did. Mob hits are unheard of. Extortion is minimal. Human trafficking and illegal gambling still play a big part but have changed drastically. Slate says that mobsters have “adapted to the times.” While criminals know better than to blow up Josh Brolin’s 1966 Shelby GT 350, the drug trade is still alive and well. How do organized criminal enterprises operate? We know Pablo Escobar isn’t still running tons of cocaine direct from Colombia, just as Frank Lucas isn’t still flying it in from Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle. Where should we focus our inquiry?
Mexico. According to Ioan Grillo in his El Narco, in which he explores Mexico’s criminal insurgency from the front lines, Mexico is considered to have wholly dethroned the Colombians in its role in the international drug trade some time in the 1990s. Its production of “raw opium” (henceforth generally referred to as its derivative heroin) increased more than 600% in just four years between 2007 and 2011. At that point in time, it was the second-largest producer in the world, behind Afghanistan. Now, Afghanistan might still be ahead, but Mexico’s drug exports aren’t confined to heroin and its illegal activities aren’t confined to the drug trade. Mexico is the largest source of illegal drugs coming into the United States (over 70%). During the last decade, it also has had the highest rates of murder, extortion, and kidnapping in the developed world, with certain cities, such as Ciudad Juárez, having the highest rates of violent crimes in the entire world.
How did Mexico transform into “a bloodbath that has shocked the world?” How have so many working-class Mexicans, with a reputation for being family-oriented and pious, transitioned to a life of crime, killing, and torture so extreme that you have to see it to believe it? Gonzalo, a former hitman, offers some explanation: “When you belong to organized crime, you have to change. You could be the best person in the world, but the people you live with change you completely. You become somebody else.”
So, clearly, bad things are happening in Mexico. Let’s back up, not to give a history lesson on the history of the country, but rather to look at why organized crime exists. Organized crime exists to earn money by illegal means. Through close collaboration and trust, associates of a criminal enterprise can carry out a wide array of activities in a systematic way similar to a legitimate business. Except, the activities we’re talking about are entirely illegal and tend to be (ultimately, if not immediately) detrimental to society.
The need for a business structure can be conveyed in this example: Let’s say people in Los Angeles like cocaine. One man or even a small team could not possibly control, never mind gainfully profit from, every step from cultivating coca leaves in Colombia t0 controlling street-level sales in a Los Angeles neighborhood. This is why the complex web that is the criminal underworld is able to survive and thrive. There is great demand for illegal drugs and spoils can be reaped by those willing to step up to the challenge, risking death and prison time. Peoples’ wants and needs are getting satisfied and they simply don’t care where their dope is coming from.
Mexican drug cartels started to gain a foothold during a period of political turmoil during the end of the twentieth century. It’s an insurgency, by definition, but everyone involved shuns the word due to its revolutionary and terroristic undertones. Americans love drugs, that’s where the majority of them are going. However, there are other conditions that formed the absolute perfect storm by the year 2007. The border between Mexico and the US is gigantic- almost 2000 miles. Daily traffic volumes are staggering, and it would be impossible to thoroughly search any significant percentage of would-be drug smugglers. Those involved in the drug trade, including police officers and politicians, can make sums of money that are simply unheard of in poverty-stricken regions of Mexico. The land and climate of Mexico, specifically in its Golden Triangle, produce favorable growing conditions for both marijuana and heroin. It is estimated that half the country’s drug profits come from marijuana alone.
Then there is the fact that Mexico is the last stop for Colombian cocaine smuggling, seeing as all of the countries between the two suffer from poverty, lack of enforcement, corrupt politicians, or a combination of the three. It is much lesser known that Mexico is the main entry point for the the precursors for manufacturing methamphetamine from Asian, which is then smuggled into and sold in the United States.
All along these confusing and, increasingly creative, drug pipelines, there is someone taking a cut of the action. The farmer in Mexico who realizes how profitable it is to sell his opium tar compared to other goods, the small-time buyer who visits farmers in small towns before bundling and selling the pure product in bulk, the masterminds who conceive new ways to get it across the border, the “mule” who gets paid $1000 to take a shipment across country lines. All stand to benefit; yet all are pawns.
As cartels become more established and powerful, the poor farmer who became reliant on his narcotic production must start paying a tax to whatever gang claims control of the territory in which he lives. The young boys in his town are given AK-47s and paid 1,000 pesos ($57 USD) for each hit they carry out on those who don’t comply to gang demands. The policeman with military training knows he can make three times the salary if he accepts bribes or jumps ship to a cartel. The small-time buyer isn’t alone anymore, and can’t make money unless he kills his competition. The “masterminds” who conceived the original smuggling plans get replaced by entire corrupt engineering companies. The drug runner actually enjoys the most job security, though he might have to start tolerating drugs being surgically inserted inside his body or he might have to learn how to fly a small aircraft. The bosses have to start paying off high ranking police officers and politicians. They run out of places to store their cash.
Mexico’s drug cartels became so influential that their reign is referred to as “state capture,” under which the cartel controlls all aspects of government in a small region through widespread fear, absolute power, and bribery. There comes a point where police protection doesn’t work. In one town, almost the entire police department was fired due to widespread corruption- where do you think they sought employment next? In another, the mayor got assassinated days after promoting a sizable drug bust. What does a cartel member even look like? How do you identify one on the street?
Seemingly everywhere, witnesses are afraid to speak on the atrocities that are burned into their minds. The relatives of kidnapping victims are too scared to call police. The rate of solved murders, or murders in which a suspect is even named, are in the low single digits. Organized criminals, at their best, are feared, nearly invincible, and bring home mountains of cash.
So much cash that Mexico’s drug trade is estimated to be worth between $13.6 billion to $49.4 billion. So much cash flow that drug money is widely considered to be the sole resource keeping Mexico’s currency afloat during times of uncertainty. The death toll of the Mexican Drug war? Over 120,000, with more than 30,000 missing.
Though violence has calmed down in the last few years, the fact remains that the size, scale, and intelligence of Mexican drug cartels provides the most relevant modern glimpse into the world of organized crime. Through careful planning, execution, and methods of securing loyalty, these enterprises provide unique insights into core concepts that make businesses successful and tell us much about human nature. What people are willing to do when they see no true alternatives in life, the lengths they can go to, and the conception of unusual and demonic plots in order to secure their present and futures.