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Opinion With coronavirus hurting the drug business, there’s an opportunity to corner cartels

An underground passage between Tijuana, Mexico, and south San Diego in March. (AP)
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On May 16, President Trump took to Twitter to chastise Mexico once again. A story on Judicial Watch, one of the president’s sources for conservative commentary and conspiracy theories, had caught his attention. Authorities had discovered a tunnel stretching from Tijuana to a warehouse in San Diego, where agents seized more than $30 million in drugs and apprehended a suspect. “Mexico must take control of this very big problem!” Trump tweeted.

Although cross-border tunnels have long been a source for concern, they’re not a “very big problem.” In fact, most drugs are smuggled into the United States above ground, through legal ports of entry. Deadly synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which is fatal even in small amounts, have even flowed into the country through the U.S. Postal Service.

Trump should know that drug cartels are not getting more savvy, innovating with tunnels; in fact, the criminal organizations are facing an unprecedented crisis.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated drug production and smuggling operations in Mexico and beyond. Both licit and illicit trade with China has ground to a halt, and Mexican cartels appear to be struggling to deal with a severe shortage of chemical precursors that are needed to produce fentanyl and methamphetamines. The Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, was also a hub for these precursors and costs have now surged. “We haven’t stopped producing, but the price of meth is getting pushed up because of the scarcity of chemicals from China . . . transporting them this far is also getting much more expensive,” a Sinaloa cartel operative told Vice last month.

Drug production is only the beginning of the cartels’ recent troubles. Distribution has also become a major challenge. Like all major transnational operations, drug smuggling depends on borders being open. They also count on security being relatively lax. With the United States’ southern border more closely watched than ever in recent memory, cartels are struggling to push their merchandise north. “We’re seeing disruptions of nearly all illicit drugs both on the wholesale and retail level,” Uttam Dhillon, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, recently said during an interview. According to Dhillon, the result has been clear: less supply of and higher prices for methamphetamine and other drugs that, pre-pandemic, were cheaper and widely available in many U.S. cities.

Lastly, widespread quarantine has imperiled the third crucial leg of the drug business: sales. “Even when drugs do reach consumer markets, traditional distribution channels such as bars and clubs are shut,” writes Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope. Curfews and stay-at-home measures even complicate other illicit businesses criminal organizations turn to when drug smuggling falters. “Who can gangs shake down when most businesses are closed?” asks Hope.

The current crisis could present a unique opportunity to disrupt drug cartel activities and force criminal organizations into a corner. “Conditions make this the perfect moment for security forces to try to take out regional drug trafficking networks,” Hope argues. Sadly, it might take different leadership, both in Mexico and the United States. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been strangely reluctant to face the cartels head-on. In October, he made the controversial decision to free drug lord Ovidio Guzmán, son of jailed kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, after mayhem exploded in Culiacán once news spread of the younger Guzman’s arrest. Six months later, at the onset of the pandemic no less, the Mexican president met with El Chapo’s mother. López Obrador has often said that his strategy toward the cartels will be “hugs, not bullets.”

The Trump administration appears to have other priorities for the bilateral agenda. Over the last two years, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been in frequent contact with Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard. They have mostly discussed immigration enforcement and deterrence, to which Mexico has readily acquiesced. Under pressure from the White House, Mexico has militarized its southern border and has given in to the full implementation of the Trump administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, fundamentally changing the country’s northern border. Partnership on other matters hasn’t seemed as urgent.

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If both governments cooperated on taking down real transnational criminal organizations as enthusiastically as they have worked in suppressing migrant caravans made up of thousands of impoverished and terrified potential refugees, cartels would be in real trouble.

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