EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The Mexican border has long been a springboard for drugs into the United States. But what happens when drug traffickers stockpile more drugs than they can cross?
They sell the excess product in Mexico and lots of people start dying or getting hooked on drugs in Juarez, Tijuana, Reynosa and other border towns, police and drug experts say.
“When we talk about drug trafficking, we’re primarily talking about exports. But now we have lots of drugs ‘parked’ on the border and that has resulted in the development of a local market,” said Diana Chavarri, regional director of FICOSEC, a citizen council that monitors Mexican law enforcement and provides outside funding.
The fight for control of that local market and drug routes has left more than 1,500 people dead in Juarez this year and given rise to distribution networks that include neighborhood stores, tattoo parlors, people’s homes and even vehicles that drive around neighborhoods. At least four people presumed to be involved in retail drug sales have been gunned down inside their homes just in the past month.
“Criminals need money. They need to make a profit, to recover the investment they made in acquiring their drugs. If they don’t cross them, they sell them here,” said Ricardo Realivazquez, chief of the Chihuahua State Police Commission in Juarez.
He said two drug cartels and four major street level gangs have set up distribution networks in local neighborhoods and are constantly at war with each other.
He identified the groups as the Sinaloa cartel, La Linea (or Juarez cartel), La Empresa, Barrio Azteca, Mexicles and AA (Artistas Asesinos, or Assassin Artists). The latter group allegedly was responsible for the recent murder of a Juarez television news anchor in what was reported as a case of mistaken identity.
“They fight over retail (outlets). One group finds out that another group is selling drugs somewhere, they set out to kill the dealers and take over the neighborhood. That’s where the violence originates,” Realivazquez said.
Police say 85% to 90% of the homicides committed in Juarez are drug related.
In addition, addicts with no money often resort to theft or robbery to finance their drug habit; that, too contributes to the violence, he said.
Drugs like the highly addictive and potentially fatal fentanyl were practically unknown in Juarez two years ago; now police seize thousands of pills each month from street dealers. Counseling centers used to mostly welcome parents trying to get their teen-aged children to quit smoking marijuana; now young people are starting to show up addicted to methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs.
Some government officials estimate that the number of drug addicts in Juarez, a city of 1.5 million people, has shot up to more than 100,000. The number of occasional users is unknown but thought to be much higher.
Poverty, a very young population and the lack of government services also play a role in drug addiction and allegiance to the drug trade, Chavarri said. The Chihuahua Social Development Agency estimates half a million people in Juarez live in poverty, including 62,822 who live in extreme poverty.
“Many young people are marginalized, without alternatives or resources. That’s not to say this is a problem of the young and the poor. There are many adults with good jobs and social stability that consume drugs,” she said.
“It’s a complex problem. First, we have a very large supply. It’s like a child living in a candy store. Whoever is looking for drugs in Juarez will find them. All kinds of drugs,” Chavarri said.
Chavarri said much more government investment is needed to provide healthy activities for young people, job training and establish drug-treatment centers.
Pandemic or not, drugs still flowing north
Fiscal Year 2020 closed out on Sept. 30 with notable increases in methamphetamine and fentanyl seizures, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.
The trend continued in October, with the Office of Field Operations reporting coming across 1,075 pounds of fentanyl and 21,203 pounds of meth at ports of entry and the U.S. Border Patrol nabbing an additional 137 pounds of fentanyl and 1,388 pounds of meth in between land ports.
“It’s definitely getting through. The people who were saying the COVID-19 shutdown was going to kill the Mexican drug trade are crazy. It’s not slowing down,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of TorchStone Global, a U.S.-based private security and threat assessment firm.
He said there’s an oversupply of synthetic drugs south of the border.
“Production’s up and it’s not just Sinaloa or CJNG (Jalisco New Generation Cartel). Basically, everyone’s producing it,” Stewart said. “We’ve seen fentanyl and meth labs seized in Mexico City and Monterrey. Every large group is producing it and almost every group across the board is trafficking it.”
In addition, if a group wants to smuggle drugs through a border city controlled by another organization, they must pay a fee. That “tax” is often paid in drugs, and those drugs often converted to cash by selling them on the local market, which adds to the violence and drug addiction rates.
The gangs themselves have been known to pay their pushers and hitmen in drugs as well, Realivazquez said.
He said police in Juarez are resorting to spot checks in problematic neighborhoods to seize drugs and put the dealers behind bars. The strategy has resulted in the seizure of 67 kilograms of crystal meth and thousands of dollars in cash.
“We have seized lots of drugs, weapons and cash. That’s important because it speaks to the honesty of the police officers and the weakening of criminal groups. If we take their money away, we debilitate them,” Realivazquez said.
James Bosworth, another U.S. security expert, said it’s important for Mexico to prosecute and convict murderers in order to bring the violence under control.
“Separate from the increased drug use, the biggest factor in rising violence remains the inability of the Mexican government to investigate and prosecute the homicides that occur. When criminal groups know they can get away with murder, they are more likely to be violent,” said Bosworth, founder of Hxagon LLC, which is part of the RANE risk network.