A short history of Mexican drug cartels

Contraband has been flowing across the Mexico border into the U.S. for the past century, beginning with alcohol during Prohibition and moving onto drugs, namely marijuana and later cocaine.

The birth of Mexico’s major cartel can be traced to Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, nicknamed “The Godfather,” who in the 1980s became the country’s liaison with Colombian cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar of the infamous Medellín cartel.

Gallardo went increasingly underground after the arrest of his cartel’s co-founder, Rafael Caro Quintero, for the murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique Camarena in 1985, and the drug lord later held a summit among Mexico’s larger drug traffickers. The meeting divided up Mexico into “plazas” — or regions — to be controlled by various drug-trafficking organizations.

The agreement solidified major players in the trade, including the Sinaloa Federation and the Arellano Félix brothers of Tijuana.

Since then, drug lords have come and gone — and new groups have risen to power as loyalties fade, political protection changes, and killings and arrests leave vacuums in leadership to be filled.

In Tijuana, law enforcement’s takedown of the Arellano Félix Organization led to a split in the group and a bloody war for control of the drug corridor. The Sinaloa, led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, has dominated for the past several years, although the group has been the subject of a piece-by-piece takedown by U.S. authorities nationwide, including in San Diego.

The Sinaloa are also facing a new threat by the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, a newer player from central Mexico that has quickly expanded its influence. The cartel, often called CJNG, has been recruiting former members of the Arellano Félix Organization and urging Sinaloa traffickers to flip.

The war on drugs has been costly, in both lives and resources.

Mexico has felt the brunt of the violence, with assassinations of drug gang affiliates, law enforcement officers, crooked officials, snitches, journalists and civilians.

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Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón in 2006 waged a fierce battle against the cartels, deploying the military to the streets and the countryside to wipe out the drug trade. Violence escalated as a result.

Mexican media and researchers who have closely tracked drug violence estimate 45,000 to 55,000 organized crime-style killings in Mexico from 2007 to 2012 during Calderón’s administration.

Some of the bloodshed has spilled into the U.S.

In 2002, an enforcement crew that used to do work for the Arellano Félix Organization, called Los Palillos, moved from Tijuana to San Diego for safety. They brought with them cartel-style violence that resulted in kidnappings, killings and bodies dissolved in vats of acid in a San Ysidro horse corral. Seventeen people were indicted in San Diego; others remain at large.

Putting a figure on the economic impact of violence in Mexico and the war on drugs in general is not easy.

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In 2015, the economic impact of violence in Mexico — with much of that violence believed to be drug related — was pegged at $134 billion, according to the London-based Institute for Economics and Peace.

In the U.S., untold billions have been spent combating traffickers.

The U.S. has worked to tighten security at the border, an effort that has included a massive hiring push by the Border Patrol and deployments of National Guard troops to the border.

In 2007, a formalized partnership was developed between the U.S., Mexico and Central America to go after the drug trade. From 2008 to 2015, the U.S. set aside $2.3 billion for Mexico under the agreement.

Would legalizing marijuana in California have a visible effect on law enforcement, on the courts, on government coffers, on taxpayers?

No one knows the answer for certain. It could be one question voters consider as they head to the polls Nov. 8.

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