On July 11, 2015, when notorious drug lord Joaqín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from a maximum security prison in Mexico through a nearly one mile long underground tunnel, the world took notice. Mexican Secretary of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong immediately returned home from a state visit to France to assist with damage control in the wake of the unfolding narrative that El Chapo’s prison break was an “inside job” made possible by government corruption. The rest of Latin America went on high alert, ramping up border security from Guatemala all the way to Columbia.
Tellingly, however, concern over El Chapo’s escape was not limited to Latin America. As weeks passed and the fruitless manhunt for El Chapo dragged on, the United States demonstrated it, too, had a stake in seeing Guzmán put safely behind bars. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) created an El Chapo toll-free tip line and the U.S. State Department offered five million dollars for his arrest.
The United States’ interest in El Chapo should come as no surprise considering that, according to the DEA, Guzmán has been charged with drug trafficking and other crimes in multiple courts across the country dating as far back as 1995. “Joaqín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán-Loera has destroyed lives and communities throughout the United States and Mexico,” DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said in a press release, “His escape poses a danger to the safety and security of both our countries.”
The escape of El Chapo and Mr. Rosenberg’s remarks provide insight into a larger phenomenon: the transnational impact of the Latin America drug trade, and the implications of the drug trade for United States national security.
The Path to the United States: Cocaine and Heroin in Transit
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported in its 2015 National Drug Report that South America is the main point of departure for cocaine to the rest of the world. According to the UNODC report, Bolivia, Columbia and Peru serve as the major cocaine producers and departure countries for the export of cocaine to the rest of Latin America. From there, other nations including Brazil and Argentina constitute trafficking points to the United States’ cocaine market. Drug traffickers utilize a variety of means to successfully transport cocaine to the United States, including maritime trafficking and trafficking by air.
Though cocaine has traditionally attracted the attention of the media in discussion of the Latin American drug trade, in recent years the trafficking of heroin has become nearly as significant for the United States’ illegal drug market. The UNODC report explains that seizures of heroin in the United States have increased since 2008, up to 6.2 tons in 2013, and authorities have witnessed an increase in the trafficking of heroin produced by both Mexico and South America. The prevalence of Latin American heroin trafficking seems especially significant in light of an increase in heroin-related deaths in the United States, up nearly 3,000 from 2012 to 2013.
A Steep Economic and Political Toll
In addition to mounting an obvious and alarming cost to public health, the prevalence of the Latin American drug trade has broader implications for the societal wellbeing and international relations of the United States.
First and foremost, the flow of illicit drugs to the United States cripples productivity and threatens the stability of the United States economy. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that the United States lost $193 billion to drug abuse in 2007, the last available estimate. Embedded in this number are the massive implications of drug use for workforce productivity, healthcare costs, and criminal justice costs.
The United States has made a considerable monetary investment in combatting both domestic drug use and the transnational drug trade, with the Obama administration committing $10 billion to support drug demand reduction programs and $2.4 billion toward international drug control programs in fiscal year 12 alone. It is unclear at best whether the United States has received a significant return on this investment, as according to the UNODC the rate of cocaine use in the United States has remained relatively stagnant at 1.6% for the past few years and the number of drug-related deaths in the country is continually on the rise.
The domestic economic toll of the drug trade is compounded by transnational negative effects which ultimately harm the United States’ interests in the region. The White House Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime argues that organized crime, including narcotic trafficking networks, threatens the United States’ interests through “taking advantage of failed states or contested spaces; forging alliances with corrupt foreign government officials and some foreign intelligence services; destabilizing political, financial, and security institutions in fragile states; [and] undermining competition in world strategic markets.”
The destabilizing effect of drug cartels and other forms of organized crime fosters corruption, making it more difficult for the United States to collaborate with its Latin American partners politically and economically. Further, the continued presence of massive narcotics trafficking networks serves only to threaten the legitimacy of Latin American governments, undermining the credibility of political institutions and potentially opening the floor to radical actors. In the case of El Chapo, Mexican President Peña Nieto faced public ridicule for the security breach and his public approval rating fell to a new low in the aftermath of the El Chapo scandal (Silva 2015).
United States’ Policy Moving Forward
Regardless of whether or not Joaqín “El Chapo” Guzmán is found, the Latin American drug trade should remain a focus of the United States’ national security policy moving forward. Some positive steps have already been taken in this direction. For example, the 2015 National Military Strategy, released by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in June, recognized the importance of a continued military role in “supporting interagency efforts with Latin American and Caribbean states to promote regional stability and counter transnational criminal organizations.”
Despite this established military commitment, with a new administration entering the White House in 2016 and a whole host of other international problems such as the rise of ISIS and the conflict in Ukraine competing for the attention of United States executives and legislators, it may seem tempting to place the problem of the Latin American drug trade on the backburner. Yet it remains in the long term interest of the United States to continue to protect domestic public health and economic growth, and to support the stability of political institutions abroad through a robust effort to end the transnational flow of narcotics.
This article was originally posted in The Lint Center.