How the Cartels Work

Mexican drug lords have transformed the narcotics trade in America — and the DEA appears powerless to stop them

April 18, 2011 9:00 AM ET
The body lies in the street of Juárez, Mexico.
The body lies in the street of Juárez, Mexico.
Spencer Platt/Getty

One of the strangest things about the drug war that is tearing Mexico apart is how little of the bloodshed has spilled over the border. On one side of the Rio Grande is Ciudad Juárez, one of the most violent cities on the planet, with 1,600 drug-related murders last year. On the other side is El Paso, Texas, the third-safest city in America, with only 18 killings. The 100-to-1 disparity in murders underscores a little-understood reality in the War on Drugs: The current crop of Mexican drug lords is not a bunch of Scarface-style lunatics high on coke and hellbent on violence. Instead, they are highly sophisticated executives, pursuing profit by the cheapest and most efficient means possible.

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Torturing rivals and beheading victims serves a purpose in Mexico, where drug-related violence has killed 12,000 people in the past three years; narcotraficantes routinely use brutality to subdue competitors, eliminate witnesses and frighten off police recruits. But north of the border, the drug lords are as corporate and hyperorganized as Walmart, replacing the top-down approach of their Colombian predecessors with a new business model — one that outsources the street-level grunt work to an army of illegal immigrants. With business booming — prices are steady and demand remains high — unleashing a Mexican-style rampage in this country would only risk riling up U.S. law enforcement. The Mexican cartels aren't fighting the War on Drugs in the United States for a very simple reason: They've already won.

This article appeared in the September 17, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

As the violence in Mexico has escalated, federal officials have stepped up major busts against the cartels in the U.S. Earlier this year, in Operation Xcellerator, the Drug Enforcement Administration made 750 arrests from California to Maryland, seizing $59 million in cash and 23 tons of narcotics — including 12,000 kilos of coke, 1,200 pounds of meth and 1.3 million hits of Ecstasy. The operations employ the same law-enforcement tactics used to disrupt the Mafia in the 1980s, busting low-level flunkies and turning them into informants. So far, though, the DEA's widely publicized campaign has been a total bust when it comes to nailing top narcos. The target of Operation Xcellerator — a drug lord from the Sinaloan cartels — remains a fugitive, as do four Mexican drug traffickers designated as "narcotics kingpins" in July. According to the DEA, the men operate out of Mexico, overseeing a sophisticated organization in the U.S. that sets prices, tracks shipments, manages employment and handles payoffs. The group has divided the border into "plazas," each under the control of a specific manager. The name of the outfit, appropriately enough, is the Company.

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The failure of the DEA raids underscores the fundamental difference between Italian-American mobsters in Brooklyn and the much more brutal and ruthless Mexicans. The supposed Mafia "code of silence," called omertà, proved to be little more than a joke as hundreds of wiseguys flipped to save their own skins, generating a steady stream of convictions. But the Mexicans have more than a fictional code of conduct: They have hostages. Every low-level narco busted in the U.S. has family and friends back in Mexico who, they know, will be killed by the cartels if they cooperate with the gringos. Senior DEA agents acknowledge privately that they have yet to flip a single significant snitch from the cartels. The matrix of punishments and incentives that destroyed the Mafia — racketeering laws, witness-protection programs, supermax prisons — have little relevance to the Mexican drug lords, who are essentially holding an entire nation at gunpoint.

Video: Guy Lawson on Mexican Drug Lords

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