Combatting Cartels, Corruption, and Chinese Coercion in Latin America
By: Zach Kaufman
February 16, 2023
Regardless of one’s belief surrounding the legal immigration process into the United States or the necessary level of security on the shared border with Mexico, the death, despair, and terror caused by prominent Mexican cartels present a problem for America and some of her most important allies.
The cartels corrupt officials and capture towns in a broader campaign to acquire both political capital and a dominant physical presence in cities across their country. The effects of drugs, human trafficking, and massacres plague a country like cancer. If gone unchecked, the cell metastasizes into a malignant growth that will cripple and ultimately kill its host. America must take heed as symptoms appear North of the border with Mexico.
To prevent the perpetual carnage perpetrated by these organizations, the United States must implement a modern Monroe Doctrine, underscored by America’s unequivocal right to regional hegemony. Although the doctrine remains a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, drafted in 1823, it aims to prevent European powers’ influence in the Western Hemisphere. Cartels—that currently operate inside of the U.S., control major portions of Mexico, and cooperate with China to kill Americans—present arguably the most pressing concern in the Americas.
The unconventional nature of the enemies requires an asymmetric response. First and foremost, the U.S. must designate the cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), while encouraging and supporting Mexico in waging a domestic War on Drug-Dealers.
Currently, China creates the substance, and the cartels create the commercial market for the leading killer of American adults. Overdoses, primarily from fentanyl and its synthetic variations, account for over 100,000 deaths a year, making it the leading cause of death of Americans between 18-45. Although a market for cheap, artificial, and potentially deadly, opioids exist, fentanyl now permeates the market, due to dealers lacing other products with deadly substances sourced from China. After warning the public that cartels were flooding the U.S. with lethal counterfeit pills in 2021, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) laboratory tests revealed that 6 out of 10 fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills now contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl in 2022.
On top of pushing the deadly substance and lacing other products with it to kill unsuspecting customers, cartels blatantly operate in California, turning areas into a modern-day “Wild West”. In an attempt to cash in on the “Green Rush” surrounding legal marijuana markets, the cartels continue to infiltrate the homeland and set up strategic outposts, leaving bodies and missing persons in their wake.
In addition to their primary business of drug trade, the cartels serve another less discussed, yet increasingly important role: facilitating illegal immigration. According to now-former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the cartels were making $500 million a year from smuggling migrants into the U.S. back in 2018. Now, with teams specializing in logistics, transportation, surveillance, stash houses, and accounting, the cartels have cultivated a multi-billion-dollar industry. Nearly every illegal migrant making the trek across the border goes under the guide of Coyotes, all of whom report to a cartel. The cartels control essentially the entire border, especially the 250-mile stretch from Miguel Alemán to the coast. Various cartels, including Mexico’s two largest cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva-Generación(CJNG), vie for power throughout the country, with the Gulf Cartel and the Cartel del Noreste controlling major portions of the border.
The phenomenon presents such a pressing problem, prompting U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to launch a digital ad campaign to potential migrants, and victims of these smugglers, informing them not only that crossing the border without following proper procedure violates federal law, but also reminding them of thousands of cartel victims who were jailed, kidnapped, extorted, or even killed. Furthermore, according to CBP, the majority of women and girls crossing the border illegally fall victim to some form of sexual abuse or exploitation, with some reports claiming that 80% of women are raped en route to the United States.
As the cartels’ influence grows, and their conflicts encroach on the border, lawmakers must act to combat this unfolding crisis. Although Mexico compares to a stage-three, terminally ill patient, the U.S. can curb its own cancerous outbreak before it spreads through and cripples the country.
In addition to the FTO designation, and providing military assistance, the Department of Treasury and Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) must add these newly designated terroristic entities and their associates to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list (“SDN List”), and begin levying targeted sanctions on the officials and beneficiaries of the cartels, while preventing individuals in the U.S. and abroad from engaging in financial relationships with the SDNs. From Iran to Somalia, the U.S. already implements a similar playbook in other conflict countries around the world.
After decades of a proverbial game of whack-a-mole, the cartels learned to corrupt and establish businesses, creating a complex network to launder their money and finance their operations. Due to the complexity of the operation, as well as the cartels’ cooperation with legitimate businesses, the financial crackdown required to effectively combat the cartels may present bureaucratic hurdles, especially following the implementation of the USMCA, “New NAFTA”.
Despite the potential difficulties presented by the commitment to facilitate a healthy relationship of free trade between neighboring countries, that very same premise underscores the necessity for this crusade. However, considering the superficial, divided state of the American polity, this pragmatic proposition will probably not prevail—at least until the problem becomes undeniable.