As Californians get ready to vote on Proposition 19, which would legalize the individual possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, one area of debate is what effect passage would have on the illegal drug business here and in violence-torn Mexico.
I can't predict the future, but I can say a little about narco-trafficking, having covered it off and on over four continents since the early 1990s.
Traditionally, the bulk of the United States' marijuana has come from Mexico; even today, despite a recent increase in the amount of pot grown in California, researchers at Rand Corp. put the figure at 40% to 67%.
As a percentage of gross cartel revenues, marijuana might not stack up against hard drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine. But Colombian traffickers have to be paid for their cocaine, and meth is made from precursors such as pseudoephedrine that get ever more expensive. In contrast, farmers in Mexico sell pot for as low as $40 a pound. Once it reaches a parking lot in San Ysidro, Calif., a few hundred yards from the border, it's worth $600 to $800 a pound wholesale. And that means the net profits on marijuana are huge.
Narco pop culture supports the importance of pot to the cartels. Go on YouTube and type in "corridos Sinaloa marijuana" — corridos being a type of traditional Mexican ballad that these days often chronicles outlaws — and you will find videos featuring bouncy, accordion-laced songs played over images of SUVs, assault weapons, corpses, cash, pictures of Joaquin Guzman, aka El Chapo, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, and marijuana, lots of marijuana.
In December 2008, I was in the northeastern part of Sinaloa, at the edge of what is called the Golden Triangle — marijuana-growing country. The leaders of many of Mexico's cartels come from the Golden Triangle because the cartels were in the marijuana business long before they began transporting cocaine for the Colombians and making meth. Here it is safer for locals to say on camera that they feel loyal to El Chapo than to say they support the Mexican government. People in the area complained bitterly to us about the eradication forays made by the Mexican army to destroy a crop that supported most people in the region.
But even with all the marijuana farming infrastructure in Mexico, the percentage of the marijuana supply produced in the United States has increased steadily to its current level of somewhere in the vicinity of 50%. Based on nationwide plant seizures, two-thirds or more of U.S.-grown pot seems to be coming from California, according to federal officials. And the bulk of California marijuana these days is grown on public lands by what law enforcement officials call "Mexican national trafficking organizations," with roots in places such as Sinaloa. With the increase in local cultivation has come an increase in violence. This year in California there have been at least seven shootouts with law enforcement at sites where marijuana was being grown. Five growers were killed.
Over the past decade, as these groups began growing marijuana in California, local and state law enforcement agencies began discovering bigger and bigger cultivation sites in the state's forests. In 2000, 2004 and 2005, I went on raids in the Sierra Nevada with a task force called CAMP, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, and I always saw the same things: thousands of plants, miles of plastic irrigation pipes, abandoned campsites and small homemade shrines to Jesus Malverde, the informal patron saint of narco-trafficking. What I didn't see in the past were any people in custody, because the growers usually fled at the sound of law enforcement helicopters.
But in the last few years, backed with federal funding, three special task forces have been created in California to penetrate these organizations.
This past year, my colleague Adam Yamaguchi led a Current TV team following one California task force through an entire growing cycle. They covertly observed workers planting marijuana patches in the mountains, resupplying the growers camped out at the sites and harvesting the plants. The dozens of people they saw arrested at the end of the season included not only low-level field workers but also those who ran the operations.
Drug officials posit that the California trafficking organizations run by Mexican nationals may be related to the cartels in Mexico in the way that the Italian Mafia in the United States was related to the mafia in Sicily — they came from the same towns and villages. It's not clear that Mexican cartel leaders like El Chapo are directing the California trafficking organizations. That is, it's not clear if they sprung up in the way that, say, Honda and Toyota decided to begin making cars for the American market in the U.S., or if, in the spirit of other entrepreneurs entering the U.S., the Mexican nationals growing pot here simply identified an opportunity and took it.