Alcohol Prohibition Spawned Mexico’s First Drug Cartel

Prohibition agents destroying liquor

Those old enough to remember Prohibition in the U.S. remember it as a controversial and violent era.  The Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act, passed by Congress in 1919, prohibited the manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquor” for recreational use.  Prohibition took effect in January 1920, but its effects will still be felt in 2020.

Legislating morality in America

The alcohol ban, long championed by the temperance movement, was enacted with the intention of simultaneously lowering the crime rates and social ills like alcoholism in the U.S. However, it’s often said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  Instead of solving problems, the great social experiment of alcohol prohibition wreaked havoc on communities nationwide.

A study of over 30 major US cities showed crime had risen by 24 percent between 1920 and 1921, including a 13 percent rise in homicides and 45 percent increase in substance addiction.  Another unintended consequence was the major boost Prohibition provided for organized crime. This phenomenon was a matter of simple economics: Americans wanted to drink.

Following the Law of Supply and Demand, people from all walks of life created a demand for liquor and criminal organizations supplied that demand through the production and distribution of contraband liquor. These crime groups were willing and able to resort to the necessary corruption and violence against law enforcement and rival alcohol cartels in order to protect their lucrative trade.

Mexico’s entrepreneurs and godfathers

While Al Capone grew wealthy in the Midwest and Enoch Johnson ruled his boardwalk empire in the Northeast, other entrepreneurs were busy further south.  Juan N. Guerra, a Mexican national from Matamoros, entered the bootlegging business in 1929 and quickly controlled of all liquor moving across the Rio Grande into South Texas.

Not long after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, “Don Juan” switched his crime family’s focus to a newly lucrative cash crop. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 — passed after only two hours of Congressional hearing—imposed punitively high taxes on the cash crop, driving it from the free market to the black market and increasing both its scarcity and profitability.

Like many drug lords in the mid-twentieth century, “Don Juan” Guerra filled the patronage void which grew as aging warlords from the Mexican Revolution passed away. Guerra was known for buying popular support by contributing money to churches, charities, and schools while also destroying his rivals and bribing local officials to look the other way. The drug lord is even credited for the 1960 assassination of police commander Juan Octavio Villa Coss, son of Pancho Villa.

With age catching up to him by the 1970s, the drug lord named his nephew Juan Garcia Ábrego his successor. Ábrego responded to new trends and new opportunities in the underground market.  He closely followed the War on Drugs as it was revitalized by the Nixon administration and escalation by the Carter and Reagan presidencies.

Cocaine and the other contraband trafficked by the decades-old Gulf Cartel had been illegal for decades, but the War on Drugs and its aggressive crackdowns made these drugs more profitable than yesterday’s commodity, marijuana.  Every major drug profit came after both a U.S. ban and U.S. enforcement, not before.

Like Prohibition in the 1920s, government bans and enforcement backfired by making hard drugs rise in demand, and increasingly profitable for the cartel. By the 1980s, Guerra’s empire stepped up its operations and received half its cocaine from Colombia’s Cali Cartel, another syndicate targeted by the U.S. government in its War on Drugs.

Following kingpin Ábrego’s 1995 arrest and incarceration, Osiel Cárdenas became the new head of the Gulf Cartel. In order to protect himself and other cartel leaders from rival cartels and the Mexican government, Cárdenas hired Mexican Army lieutenant Arturo Guzmán Decena to recruit soldiers to work for the cartel.

Decena recruited 30 Special Forces commandos to desert the Mexican Army and form the paramilitary wing of the Gulf Cartel. This narco-insurgency steadily grew to become an independent cartel, Los Zetas, and introduced new levels of brutality to the dog-eat-dog drug trade.  Many founding members were trained by American Special Forces at Fort Bragg or at Fort Benning’s School of the Americas, all part of the U.S. strategy to train Latin American armies to export the War on Drugs.

Los Zetas film their execution of a rival cartel member

A civil war in Mexico

The current ongoing Mexican Drug War erupted in 2006 when then-president Felipe Calderón sent federal troops on the offensive against several cartels. The result only made the problem worse, as Mexico descended into an ongoing chain of criminal and state violence bordering on civil war.

Today, the government and an archipelago of citizen militias and autonomous communities continue to battle the criminal insurgency, though high numbers of infiltrators in the military and police undermine the effectiveness of government operations. PBS Frontline estimates the death toll in Mexico to be over 164,000 as of July 2015.  The total combatant and civilian casualties from the ten-year war in Mexico already surpassed the total casualties from the fifteen-year war in Afghanistan.

Many have compared the War on Drugs to Prohibition, as the two episodes of history are eerily similar and quite literally related. After all, Prohibition spawned the Gulf Cartel. Homicide rates in America had reached a peak in the final year of Prohibition, but following its 1933 repeal the murder rate declined nearly 40 percent. No one knows exactly why, but even if the repeal wasn’t the root cause of this steep decline, the correlation is too strong to be ignored.

Once alcohol became legal again, it was no longer practical for criminals to kill people over alcohol. The liquor trade went legitimate and competition between alcohol producers shifted from the bloody black market to the peaceful mainstream. Perhaps similar decriminalization and regulation in 21st Century America would lower crime around the country and end to the wars in Latin America.

The Libertarian Party of Nevada opposes prohibition and fully supports ending the drug war by legalizing marijuana and decriminalizing hard drugs, thereby shifting drug use from the criminal realm to the medical.

 

Mexican militia volunteers in Guerrero (courtesy of Al Jazeera)