Soldiers unload 134 metric tons of marijuana seized in October 2010.
Ease of production, high demand make pot a sure bet for gangs
By DUDLEY ALTHAUS and DANE SCHILLER
But for its problematic pedigree, Mexico's marijuana might be hailed as a marketing miracle.
The much-maligned weed has suffered decades of punishment — burned, poisoned, ripped from the earth by its roots. Customers have been jailed, suppliers battered by literally cutthroat competition. Better products from Colombia, California and countless suburban back-rooms have somewhat eroded its popularity. Governments refuse to make it honest.
Yet, this pot has persevered. Production grows, quality improves and exports northward hum along. Despite decades of U.S. officials' efforts against it, Mexican marijuana remains widely available, frequently used and commonly disregarded as a danger.
"They are never going to stop it," said Dan Webb, a recently retired anti-narcotics lieutenant with the Texas Department of Public Safety, who now teaches drug enforcement at Sam Houston State University.
"It is just like Prohibition," Webb said, comparing Mexico's cannabis trade to the boom in liquor smuggling after the U.S. government outlawed alcohol sales decades ago. "As long as there is a demand, somebody is going to come up with a supply."
Then again, there's that dark legacy. Marijuana sales to American consumers largely finance the gangster warfare that's killed upwards of 40,000 Mexicans in less than five years.
'Commodity of choice'
Though its slice of the gangs' income may be shrinking — the thugs long have profited from cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, as well as kidnapping, extortion and piracy — marijuana remains a solid bet. Call it the money market fund of the Mexican mob.
"Marijuana remains the constant commodity of choice for the drug cartels because of end user demand and the ease of production," said Tony Garcia, South Texas director of an intergovernmental police alliance that keeps tabs on the illicit drug trade.
"When cartels lose large quantities of other type drugs to law enforcement, their money coffers are replenished through the trafficking of marijuana," he said.
Cheap to grow and relatively easy to bring to market, Mexico's marijuana provides sustenance for entire mountain communities and wide profit margins for the gangsters. One widely challenged U.S. government study five years ago estimated that cannabis exports provided some 60 percent of the gangs' revenues. Other estimates range from 15 to 40 percent.
In addition to trafficking their own loads, gangsters tax competitors moving marijuana and drugs through their territory. Contract disputes usually end in slaughter. Communities through which marijuana is smuggled have become some of the most violent corners of the world.
Acreage devoted to marijuana in Mexico's western mountains has risen sharply as troops once focused on destroying the fields — and those of opium poppies — have redeployed to fight gangsters along the border and in cities and towns.
Reliable estimates remain elusive, the latest U.S. government drug threat assessment notes, but Mexico is believed to be enjoying bumper pot harvests. It had the potential to produce 21,500 metric tons of cannabis in 2008, the latest year analyzed.
A metric ton, 2,200 pounds, of marijuana equals more than 35,000 ounces, or as many as 1.75 million joints.
"The big priority now is to try to stop the violence on Mexican streets," said Duncan Wood a policy analyst at ITAM, a Mexico City university, and several Washington D.C. think tanks. "This may backfire and cause a spike in violence."
In few places has marijuana smuggling proved a more enabling anchor for the gangs than along the Rio Grande in South Texas, where hundreds of Mexicans have been killed as gunmen from the Zetas and Gulf Cartel gangs battle one another and security forces.
U.S. agents captured 364 tons of marijuana last year — about a third of the total for the U.S. Mexico border — on or near the Rio Grande from Del Rio to Brownsville, according to federal officials. They've seized another 184 tons so far this year, a nearly 10 percent bump from the same period in 2010.
Over just 10 days this month, supposedly the low season for marijuana smuggling, Mexican soldiers seized some 19 metric tons of marijuana either on or headed for the South Texas border. U.S. federal agents since early June captured another 10 tons or more of the drug just north of the Rio Grande.
About half those recent seizures occurred near the towns of Mier and Ciudad Miguel Aleman, bordering the Texas community of Roma, where armed skirmishes and terror tactics drove hundreds of families from their homes.
"Marijuana seems to be the principal thing they are moving through the area," said Henry Mendiola, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol, whose duties include stopping illicit drug imports.
While exports barely have been impeded by interdiction, Mexican marijuana's legal status north of the border has been enhanced as cities and states put enforcement to the back burner.
Trends in United States
Fourteen U.S. states now treat low-volume marijuana possession much as traffic infractions. Others like California have legalized marijuana for medical use, a widely winked-at way for recreation smokers to obtain the drug.
"We're making a significant mistake when we think it's just a benign drug," Gil Kerlikowske, the U.S. drug czar, has warned in repeated meetings with reporters.
But surveys suggest at least 11 percent of Americans over age 12 regularly puff from a joint, pipe or bong. Overwhelmed federal prosecutors routinely dead-file possession cases of less than 100 pounds of marijuana.
"It is another example of fooling ourselves, pretending we are doing some sort of good," said Dean Becker, a Houston-based radio host and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which lobbies for legalization, "when truthfully all we are doing is ensuring inflated prices for these barbarous cartels.