The aim of this paper is to explore the history of drug trafficking organization in America, the evolution of drug sale and distribution syndicates and the major driving forces behind this evolution. This paper will also attempt to provide a description of the major socio-economic and legislative impacts of past drug syndicate activities in the United States as well as possible future ramifications of current activities.
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History of drug trafficking organizations in the United States
Drug trafficking in the United States can be traced back to the introduction of opium smoking in California by Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s. Although unorganized, this early introduction led to the spread of opium sale and distribution activities throughout the American west coast. Not long after, Americans had started experimenting with variant opiates such as morphine which led to massive addiction especially among union confederate officers. After the use of opium for non-medical purposes was outlawed in the United States through the Harrison act of 1914, a black market for opium opened up in Chinatown and illegal distribution continued through the 1930s and 40s.
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The activities of American Mafia families in the smuggling and distribution of illicit drugs in the 1950s marked the earliest form of organization in drug trafficking and laid the foundation for more organized drug cartels that whose sole economic focus would be drug trafficking. US involvement in the Vietnam War was greatly contributed to the increase in the distribution of heroin due to the onset of heroin addiction among soldiers on active duty. It is estimated that throughout the Vietnam War, 15% of active soldiers frequently engaged in heroin injection and leisurely consumed Marijuana and other illicit drugs (History.com editors, 2017). An increase in the number of people dependent on heroin and other illicit drugs necessitated the presence of constant supply which could only be accomplished through the high level of organization present in drug trafficking cartels.
The presence of these untapped markets led to the rise of the Medellin cartel in the late 1980s. This cartel was an organized group of smugglers and suppliers based in Medellin, Columbia Led mainly by Pablo Escobar, Juan David, Jorge Luis, Fabio Ochoa Vasquez, Carlos, George Jung, and Jose Gonzalo. This organization was particularly ruthless in its operations. For instance, when Columbian police seized 600 kilograms of cocaine belonging to the cartel from a plane, the organization retaliated by killing more than 40 people in what would come to be known as the Medellin massacre (History.com editors, 2017) and initiated a wave of violence that would involve numerous assassinations and kidnappings.
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The cartel was also incredibly successful in its undertakings. It is estimated that the organization brought in up to 60 million US dollars in drug profits on a daily basis (History.com editors, 2017). However, the organization’s reign came to its end when Manuel Noriega’s secret undertakings with the cartel that involved granting permission to Pablo Escobar to smuggle drugs through Panama were discovered by the South Florida drug task force set up to combat cocaine trading in Miami. After the discovery, the organization’s top leaders were indicted by a Miami grand jury. Manuel Noriega, Pablo Escobar, and the Ochoa brothers surrendered in 1989, 1991 and 1990 respectively while Jose Gonzalo was killed during a raid by the Columbian police and Carlos Lehder was captured and extradited to the United States where he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment+ 135 years without the possibility of parole.
After the fall of the Medellin cartel, a new cartel known as the Cali cartel took over in the early 1990s. Led by brothers Gilberto and Miguel Orejuela, Jose Santacruz and Helmer Herrera, the organization quickly developed into a multi-billion dollar drug trafficking business. However, this incredible success was short-lived as top Cali kingpins were captured, arrested and imprisoned in 1995. The fall of the Cali cartel and the establishment of the Mexican border as the major transport route for cocaine and marijuana into the United States would pave way for the establishment of Sinaloa federation led by “El Chapo” who is one of the most notorious and powerful drug traffickers in the world (History.com editors, 2017).
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The Sinaloa federation became and is still one of the most recognized and largest Mexican drug cartels responsible for the importation and distribution of over 200 tons of cocaine and large amounts of other illicit drugs between 1990 and 2008 (History.com editors, 2017). Other Mexican drug cartels such as the Gulf cartel emerged to rival the Sinaloa federation and by the late 1990s, the drug trafficking industry in America was almost completely dominated by Mexican drug cartels which contributed directly to the introduction of methamphetamine (Meth) to the variety of illicit drugs already in distribution in the United States.
Moreover, these dominant cartels typically operating in extremely lethal planes. The Gulf cartel, in particular, worked in close association with Los Zetas, an organization made up almost entirely of the Mexican military elite. Representatives from Los Zetas would serve as hit-men for Gulf and facilitate the settlement of turf wars with other cartels and any other disputes within the cartel (History.com editors, 2017). However, the two groups did not split on amicable terms. In fact, the bloody chaos that followed the dissolution of their partnership marks what was probably the most violent period in the history of organized crime in Mexico. It was not unusual for killings to be posted on the internet or for Gulf cartel members’ body parts to be left in public places after they had been assassinated by Los Zetas hitmen (History.com editors, 2017).
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During the reign of the Sinaloa federation, law enforcement would make several futile attempts to capture and detain “El Chapo”. Not only was he quite successful at evading law enforcement but he also managed to escape from Mexican authorities after capture and from prison on several occasions. However, the infamous drug lord was finally arrested and extradited to the United States to face several criminal charges in 2017. In spite of this major accomplishment for drug law enforcement agencies, drug trafficking still remains an incredibly lucrative business, newer cartels are still springing up and others are forming after the dissolutions of larger organizations.
Today, radical organizations in the Middle East such as Taliban and Al-Qaida have established themselves as major players in the production, shipment, and distribution of illicit drugs. Activities involving Mexican drug cartels were already an incredible problem for the DEA. The addition of a drug terrorism dimension to the war on illicit substances is bound to be dangerously challenging for law enforcement.
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Impact of drug trafficking activities in the United States
The presence of an overwhelming number of Marijuana, Cocaine and Heroin addicts and users in the United States is arguably the main contributor to the presence of large networks of well-financed drug trafficking organizations in Latin American countries (Bagley, 2012). If the United States was not the heaviest consumer of illicit drugs on the planet then the production of these illicit substances would be greatly curtailed. It is, therefore, accurate to posit consumption as the main driving force behind drug trafficking organizations and important to examine the impact of drug consumption on social and economic bases and drug trafficking itself on security and legislative bases.
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The effects of drug usage and consumption on social systems can be traced back to the role of drug abuse and addiction in the disintegration of the family unit and with it, the supervisory role of the parent upon the child. To illustrate how drug consumption erodes the social order within a society this paper will utilize an example that is not too far-fetched from the current state of affairs within American society.
As stated earlier, drug usage in America can be traced back as early as the 19th century. It is therefore not unusual to find many young people actively engaging in drug consumption. As drug usage is responsible for reduced economic productivity among users, it is not unusual that most of these users and addicts will come from impoverished backgrounds. Take the example of a young American girl, who has grown up in this kind of background and though frequent exposure and pressure from peers, has become addicted to heroin.
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While at the onset it might be possible for her to attain doses of the drug from her friends or the dealers themselves, these benevolent gestures will quickly fade once she is addicted. The young girl would then have to find a source of income to sustain her addiction. If prostitution does not present itself as an option to her initially she might feel the need to give sexual favors to the dealer in exchange for the drug and may get pregnant in the process.
In the event that the child is born healthy despite continued drug usage during the pregnancy, then the child will have been born to a parent who lacks the capacity to provide moral direction, instruction or even support of any kind. This child would then become vulnerable to the negative influence of peers and in the absence of parental authority and proper education on drug usage might venture into drug usage herself. Drug usage and/or addiction at such a young age would result in impaired short term memory, tracking ability, emotional and social development as well as reduced cognitive efficiency which will lead to poor academic performance. Moreover, constant preoccupation with acquiring the drug will mean that once the low self-esteem caused by poor academic performance sets in, the child’s main options will involve the consumption of more drugs which will further exacerbate her already poor academic performance. If by some stroke of luck the child manages to graduate high school, then she will have done so with poor grades which will make it impossible for him/her to find meaningful employment. The frustration caused by being unemployed will necessitate the consumption of more drugs and the need to find alternative ways to finance her addiction which could make the child venture into prostitution and in doing so, complete a vicious cycle that is likely to affect generations of children after her.
Apart from the effects included in the example above, the risk of mortality from drug consumption is high as is the risk of mortality or lifetime morbidity from engaging in drug trafficking due to the high level of violence associated with the business especially in prominent user cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, Houston and San Francisco (Chalk, 2011). Moreover, addiction brings about adverse health impacts such as impaired immune response with Marijuana, depression and chronic rhinitis with Cocaine and psychotic breaks with hallucinogens in addition to the incredible financial and emotional burden it places on friends and relatives (Chalk, 2011).
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Drug usage and addiction in the United States has impeded fiscal growth and stability by diverting scarce resources meant for more productive uses towards efforts to control distribution channels, fight the infiltration of drug trafficking cartels into mainland America, treat widespread addiction within the population and prevent current users from becoming addicted. Between 1981 and 2008, it is estimated that state and federal governments spent over half a trillion dollars on drug interdictions and other drug-related efforts (Chalk, 2011). This number is only half the number that would be arrived at if the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts were accounted for (Walsh, 2008).
While losses amounting to trillions of dollars are significant they are completely diminutive compared to the invisible losses the economy suffers every day through curtailed employment opportunities and the reduced productivity typical of addicts and drug users in the workplace (Singer, 2008). For instance, drug users in the workplace are more likely than not to cause accidents even in a fairly safe work environment, injure themselves and others and necessitate worker’s compensation claims amounting to thousands of dollars. The financial burden of having addicts is shared by all members of society through higher taxation (Singer, 2008). Moreover, drug usage in the workplace consistently make jobs requiring a high level of skill and concentration increasingly vulnerable to drug usage which places an even heavier burden on the American society.
Legislative and security Impacts
Due to the incessant activity of drug cartels in the U.S-Mexican border, drug enforcement agencies have been forced to deploy officers and agents without first subjecting them to appropriate vetting procedures. These efforts geared to increasing the law enforcement presence south of the border have produced a crop of border officials who are highly corruptible and increased the probability that border officials will be compromised. Over 40,000 agents and officials have been deployed south of the border by drug agencies in the United States (Chalk, 2011). Increasing syndicate infiltration to these ranks poses dangers to the war against drugs in America that is difficult to ignore.
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Drug trafficking organizations and their activities are pertinent to US national security interests due to the presence of existing interactions with other transnational legal challenges as well as their potential to interact with these challenges (Chalk, 2011). There exists a direct correlation between the activities of drug trafficking organizations, trafficking of illicit firearms and increasing bouts of drug-related violence. Thousands of firearms brought to the US eventually find their way south of the border and account for almost all firearms used by drug syndicates operating in Baja California, Sinaloa, and Sonora (Dookey & Meddler, 2008).
Illicit trading of firearms though drug trafficking channels has increased the availability of firearms for smugglers and facilitated the escalation of gun-related violence in all their undertakings. Although this violence has not yet spilled over into mainland America, it has created rampant problems of cross border violence especially in Arizona and Texas (Chalk, 2011). In Arizona, heavily armed men fired more than 100 rounds in the targeted killing of a deviant Jamaican drug dealer in 2008 in Arizona while similarly armed men have been responsible for the rampant kidnappings in Phoenix (Ross et al, 2009) and are responsible for narcotic related murders and extortion threats to wealthy merchants in Texas.
The drug trafficking business continues to attract the involvement of more gangs and with this attraction, comes the necessity for more organization in loosely configured gang structures. This higher level of organization will facilitate rampant criminal activity in mainland America and diminish the capacity of law enforcement to curtail gang activities (McLean, 2018). Moreover, the emergence of a nexus between Latin American syndicates, Mexican narcotic groups, and Islamic jihadists is of particular concern. Drug trafficking might prove a lucrative way to finance terrorist attacks and the instability in Mexico and Latin American countries close to the US border might become a viable launchpad for the execution of highly effective attacks against the United States (Chalk, 2011). Additionally, current human smuggling channels used by Mexican cartels might prove especially useful for Islamic terrorists’ covert entry into the US the consequences of which could be disastrous. Moreover, currents sustained pressure from syndicate groups on Mexican stability could lead to a descent into chaos that would have serious implications for homeland security (Chalk, 2011).
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Since the 19th century, drug trafficking organizations have grown into a highly organized multidimensional industry, with a capacity for violence, social and economic destruction that cannot be overlooked. The high demand for drugs in America has led to the development of a vicious cycle of family and societal degradation, addiction and its associated health and economic burdens, drug related violence, gang criminal activity in mainland America, gun violence in southern border states such as Phoenix, Arizona, and Texas, and might lead to the eventual metamorphosis of drug syndicates into drug-terrorist organizations. Saint Leo University maintains its zero-tolerance policy to the illegal use, possession and/or distribution of drugs and other illicit substances in accordance to its core value of community which emphasizes the importance of a socially responsible environment and mutual trust in all members of the community. As part of a community, individuals should act in line with the doctrines and principles to which the community subscribes and maintain expected standards of behavior in order to maintain their worth to the community.