The Situation with Mexican Drug Cartels and Their Effects on Small-Town USA

On January 2, 2012, more than eight years ago, CNN published a story entitled In small-town USA, business as usual for Mexican cartels. The story moved beyond the usual suspects of Phoenix, El Paso, Chicago, New York, Atlanta or Denver. Instead, CNN wanted to director their viewers’ and readers’ attention to places like Ivanhoe, North Carolina, with a population of 372 according to most census figures.

The story describes the Drug Enforcement Administration’s attempts to collect intelligence on the financiers of a large marijuana grow that had been set up on private property. Those targets were members of the La Familia Michoacana, a Mexican drug cartel that the Justice Department says focuses primarily on moving heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine into the southeastern and southwestern United States.

CNN reported that government agencies claim the cartels tend to use Latino and Hispanic communities as cover for the illegal operations, a trend that complicates the relationship between those communities and surrounding communities, making assimilation and acceptance difficult at times. It’s the proverbial problem of one bad apple spoiling the entire barrel.

But remember, this CNN story is from 2012. Eight years later, one would expect that with the incredible amount of financial resources, personnel and policy changes meant to diminish that infiltration, the so-called problem of cartels in small towns would be on a trend line showing improvement. We would expect that trend line to show that cartels are being pushed not just out of the small towns, but out of the country.

Fast forward to November 2019. The Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal conducted an in-depth investigation titled A Ruthless Mexican Drug Lord’s Empire Is Devastating Families With Its Grip on Small-Town USA. The Courier-Journal report starts with this devastating claim:

A nine-month Courier-Journal investigation reveals how CJNG (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion) has spread across the U.S. in the past five years, overwhelming cities and small towns with massive amounts of drugs. The investigation documented CJNG operations in at least 35 states and Puerto Rico, a sticky web that has snared struggling business owners, thousands of drug users and Mexican immigrants terrified to challenge cartel orders.

Within the United States, even after the lapse of eight years between the original CNN story and the Courier-Journal investigation, a massive crime organization rivaling, if not exceeding, that of the most famous of the mafioso organizations, is creating “mass graves, leaving bodies of men and women stacked in houses of shallow pits.”

What are we to conclude from this situation?

Despite journalistic efforts to bring this devastation to light, it has only gotten worse. The idyllic small town that we believe is the backbone of American culture, is under attack. Some will claim this proves we need even more stringent, strident, and massive law enforcement efforts. Others will claim it shows the need to legalize or at least decriminalize drugs.

But what most people thinking about this situation will fail to realize, is that absent programs to address the root cause of drug addiction and drug use – moral decay, breakdown of the nuclear family, increased isolationism of individuals in society – small town America will remain the epicenter of the cartels’ focus. They can easily hide, blend in, and operate almost without fear of interdiction.

This situation requires thinking beyond the binary approach of legalization or stricter enforcement. It requires those, obviously, but also requires honest discussion about the end-users, and how they become attracted and addicted in the first place.

That is a situation many Americans simply do not want to address.

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