Trump Was Right on Mexican Drugs. Now What?

Trump wants longer jail sentences for dealers. He was vague on supplying health treatment solutions to the heroin and opioid epidemic. One thing for sure: anti-drug agents on both sides of the border will have to cooperate to make any law enforcement impact. Trump's offensive attitudes toward Mexico probably doesn't help.
11/22/2016 07:39 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2017
Close-up on the floor of the syringe with the drug. In the background, a women drug addict.
Close-up on the floor of the syringe with the drug. In the background, a women drug addict.

More than a year ago, America's next president Donald Trump railed against the influx of Mexicans into the United States and strung together a chain of invectives, saying of illegal migrants: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

It was the first of many such sweeping oublic statements from Trump that provoked raucous approval from his supporters and disgust among his critics. Fact checkers were quick to try to debunk his comments, usually by noting that the numbers of Mexicans in US jails are but a fraction of the overall immigrant population.

But in his habitually bombastic and imprecise way, Trump was onto something--especially as regards America's current epidemic of heroin usage. It is clear that heroin, along with other debilitating and dangerous narcotics, are crossing the border and in the case of heroin, the drugs are largely manufactured in Mexico.

Although it is common to assume that heroin originates in Central Asia and in particular Afghanistan, the Mexican connection should come as no surprise. For more than a century, heroin has been smuggled into the US in mass from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a mountainous and lawless region. Mexico, not Asia, is currently producing most of the heroin smuggled into the United States, in large part because Mexican producers see a burgeoning market across its northern border.

Heroin traffic from Mexico is mainly controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel, one of Mexico's most vicious crime organizations. The cartel was in the news recently--its leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, was arrested, escaped and re-arrested and is now in a Mexican jail. That sequence set off a power struggle within the organization it has done nothing to halt the drug flow.

Oddly, the recent liberalization of marijuana laws in the United States has driven the Sinaloa Cartel to increase its heroin production. Marijuana prices are down and you get more bucks for the bang selling heroin. That, and the explosion of pharmaceutical opioid addiction across the US has also made the cheaper product of heroin popular. The cartel also upgraded its product, producing a lighter color heroin powder to replace the darker, murky old style "Mexican mud."

The Sinaloa Cartel has also expanded into production of fenatyl, a powerful pain killer whose illicit use is also spreading and deepening the opioid epidemic.

While it's certain where the drugs come from, exactly who individually retails it is less clear. The Sinaloa cartel has made efforts to control the traffic from source to needle. The effort to monopolize not only production but smuggling and sales should also come as no shock. All Mexican crime syndicates attempt to spread their moneymaking operations, not only through drug trafficking but also prostitution, migrant smuggling, extortion and child labor.

A quick look at headlines across the US suggests that the cartel is using Mexican dealers in the US heroin market. Most of them have a relationship, and may formally belong, to the Sinaloa Cartel. Are they citizens, residents, or illegal immigrants? Not clear.

Which brings us to the question of sanctuary cities. Such cities, including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, decline to cooperate with US immigration officials and refuse to inquire as to the immigration status of crime suspects they arrest. This reluctance--on the grounds that immigrants, illegal or otherwise are a boon and not a bane to the nation--means it is difficult to tell whether undocumented migrants are in part or wholly responsible for heroin sales on the street. Sanctuary also feeds the narrative that these cities are harboring a cog in the machinery of heroin marketing and addiction.

In any event, the long history of heroin production and smuggling suggests that Trump, for all his pledges, may have a hard time curbing the traffic. Mexican governments have been unable and, at some level, unwilling to stop it. The long-running US war on drugs has failed to stop heroin and cocaine traffic from Latin America. Will Trump's vaunted wall and promise to beef up border patrols make a difference? Past history suggests blocking narcotics trade in one area simply drives it to another. President George H.W. Bush's 1980s focus on curbing cocaine smuggling into Florida only shifted the route through Mexico.

Trump wants longer jail sentences for dealers. He was vague on supplying health treatment solutions to the heroin and opioid epidemic.

One thing for sure: anti-drug agents on both sides of the border will have to cooperate to make any law enforcement impact. Trump's offensive attitudes toward Mexico probably doesn't help.