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American Narco State Capture
August 31, 2023
Ecuador is a peaceful and beautiful place, but on August 9 gunmen assassinated a Presidential candidate as he left a political rally surrounded by guards. Fernando Villaviciencio, a crusader and activist, promised to crack down on drug cartels that now threaten the country’s democracy and rule of law. His murder got scant attention in the American press, but his death marks the fact that another Latin American country is slipping behind a “narco Iron Curtain”, as have ten others where more than 300 million people live. A rash of assassinations by traficantes have occurred in Ecuador. A Mayor was murdered two weeks earlier, and the country is infested with competing drug gangs. Street crime and murder rates have increased as gangs fight to control the country’s burgeoning drug smuggling activities. After the assassination, police killed the assailants and identified them as “Colombian hitmen”. Upon hearing the news, the country’s former President Rafael Correa stated grimly: “They have assassinated Fernando Villavicencio. Ecuador has become a failed state.”
Tragically, Ecuador won’t be the last Latin American country to succumb to the narcos. It is simply their latest target because of its proximity to South America’s coca growing areas, its world-class ports on the Pacific Ocean, and its weak institutions. There are now 11 countries that are virtual narco-states and run by the world’s richest, most ruthless criminal organizations. And the takeover template hasn’t changed: They develop smuggling infrastructure; they use their wealth and muscle to corrupt the local institutions; they murder high profile people to silence and frighten away opposition, and bribe or co-opt politicians, judges, police, military, businesses, and populations. In these countries, investigative journalism is a death sentence.
Smuggling is one of the most profitable businesses in the world and the drug trade is dominated by two Mexican cartels. This began in the 1970s, driven by the massive demand for marijuana and cocaine in the United States and Europe. Colombia provided optimal growing conditions for coca and marijuana and by 1975 Pablo Escobar dominated and organized cocaine production and distribution. Drugs were flown from Colombia to Panama then the U.S. He begin with one plane and one helicopter and in a handful of years had a fleet of large planes and choppers to deliver cocaine by the ton.
Raw Coca is not indigenous to most tropical countries and Colombia’s drug traffickers exploited this competitive advantage easily because the country’s jungles protected operations from government detection. Within six years – between 1993 to 1999 -- Colombia became the world’s biggest producer of raw coca and of refined cocaine. It currently has 61 percent of the global cocaine market, and Mexican cartels also control cocaine-growing “subsidiaries” in Bolivia and Peru.
Escobar was challenged by the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico to distribute his drugs by land to the U.S. In 1992, he was jailed in Colombia and his cartel crumbled. Sinaloa took over then expanded into smuggling heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, cannabis, and MDMA as well as cocaine. Another more violent cartel formed, called Jalisco Nueva Generacion, and has fought Sinaloa for market share and control over territories since 2006, turning Mexico into a battlefield ever since. This Mexican Drug War continues, despite massive police and military intervention, but the drugs still flow.
Mexican cartels control 70 percent of all narcotics that enter into the U.S. and produce synthetic drugs in thousands of meth and fentanyl labs scattered throughout Mexico. Meth usage in the United States is double that of cocaine, and the market for fentanyl and other opioids has exploded, resulting in 100,000 overdoses annually. Roughly 90 percent of cocaine in the U.S. is produced in Colombia and transited through Mexico, and most heroin from Asia comes via Mexico too.
As the Ecuador assassination reveals, criminal contagion spreads. Guatemala, on Mexico’s border, fell victim to the cartels decades ago after it became a transit hub for cocaine between Colombia and Mexico. Its state capture is why the largest influx of illegal migrants to the United States in recent years are Guatemalans. Crime, extortion, gangland slayings, and institutional corruption plague the place, but finally, on August 20, an anticorruption crusader won a runoff election for its Presidency. His platform is to emulate El Salvador, which has also declared war against the drug cartels. But these countries, along with Nicaragua, Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama, are simply no match for cartels with bigger “armies” and bank accounts. Recently, Honduras’ President has been linked to narco-traffickers; Guatemala’s President hands out contracts to family friends, and El Salvador’s President has granted politicians immunity from prosecution.
Ground zero is Mexico, whose cartels dominate distribution and also production in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Like the others, Mexico City has proven incapable of stopping the spread but also refuses to accept direct American police or military help. The slaughter there is breathtaking. During the six-year term of its current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, there have been 155,000 murders and 43,000 disappearances in the country.
Mexico’s police and military are infiltrated by the drug lords and political candidates are routinely murdered by the dozens during elections. In 2022, a mayor and 20 officials were machine-gunned in their city hall following a dispute with gangsters. In 2020, the country’s longest-serving defense minister was arrested for drug conspiracy and corruption in Los Angeles, forcing Obrador to admit that “the main problem of Mexico is corruption.” Now, he is militarizing the country’s police forces and its army supervises and oversees airports, railways, and hotels in an effort to strangle trafficking. This move has drawn criticism from the U.S. as well as Mexicans because it will likely lead to democratic backsliding, corruption, and further weakening of Mexico’s governments.
Wherever the cartels operate, they strangle and destabilize and inhibit economic development or reform. In Colombia, for instance, the Sinaloa cartel and its local partners finance terrorists and paramilitary drug-trafficking groups to protect their operations from law enforcement or military intervention. They also finance political parties throughout the region and work in tandem with the Albanian mafia to ship drugs to Europe and with Malaysian gangs to distribute heroin to major markets.
America’s self-declared War on Drugs is a failure and Latin America is its principal casualty. No amount of U.S. aid or trade can reverse the slow-motion collapse of these Latin American civil societies, institutions, and ambitions into failed states. And the predicament is that pouring money into corrupted countries to help them all too often benefits the corrupt, not their people.
The only effective course of action would be legalization or decriminalization of drugs which Europe and Canada have done. They regard addiction as a medical problem, not a moral or legal one, and their health care systems provide treatment, as well as substitute drugs such as methadone, to addicts under strict supervision. This does not prevent usage but greatly mitigates it and, most importantly, destroys the obscenely lucrative business model that has created monstrous cartels that now devour nation-states.