Drug policy analysts said the wide dissemination of the number is part of a pattern in the decades-long “war on drugs” of promoting questionable statistics in an attempt to quantify the drug problem in the United States and justify budgets.
“Washington loves mythical numbers,” said John Carnevale, a former drug policy and budget official who served three presidents and four “drug czars” at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Once the number is out there and it comes from a source perceived to be credible, it becomes hard to disprove, almost impossible, even when it’s wrong.”
NDIC closed in June 2012 after 19 years of operation and more than $690 million in taxpayers’ money spent. But the NDIC number lives on, cited in congressional reports on security along the Southwest border and in testimony by high-ranking members of the military and key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“The cartels now have a presence in more than 1,000 U. S. cities,” said a 2012 report by the House Homeland Security oversight subcommittee on violence and terrorism on the Southwest border.
“A terrorist insurgency is being waged along our Southern border,” then-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said during a 2011 hearing on combating international criminal organizations. He cited “the operations across Mexico and Central America, as well as in over 1,000 U.S. cities.”
Drug policy analysts called NDIC’s definitions of what constitutes a Mexican drug organization murky and not particularly useful, paving the way for confusion and misinterpretation. In its 2010 report, the center used the phrase “Mexican drug trafficking organizations,” defining them as being based in Mexico or the United States, with Mexican nationals serving as their leaders. The report’s definition of “presence” in a U.S. city was met if at least one member of the organization was engaged in “some type of trafficking activity.”
In its 2011 report, the center used the phrase “transnational criminal organizations,” and said they included seven cartels based in Mexico, the well-known Sinaloa and Zetas syndicates among them. The report broadened the definition in a footnote to include traffickers who purchased drugs from cartel associates.
Under such definitions, the analysts said, anyone from Mexico caught selling a small amount of marijuana in a U.S. city could be counted as a Mexican drug organization or cartel presence.
“These definitions are interchangeable and indistinguishable,” said Peter Andreas, a drug policy analyst at Brown University who has written a book about the politics of drug policy called “Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide.” “This is a particularly egregious example of a pattern that unfortunately has not gotten a lot of scrutiny.”