That's the subject of this lengthy but fascinating cover story from The New York Times Magazine, which describes the empire of the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico. The organization is run by Joaquin Guzman, also known as El Chapo, and he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to getting drugs into the U.S.'s hungry drug market. It's not just trains, planes, and automobiles for this kingpin -- other infamous methods include dune buggies, fishing boats, tunnels under the border and, to get (literally) over our multi-million dollar border fences, catapults that shoot bales of marijuana into the States.
All of which begs the question: What do we think we're achieving by giving excessive mandatory prison sentences to all the street-level dealers, seller/addicts, middlemen, money counters, mules, cooks, and bag handlers (and their complicit wives and girlfriends) who stand between El Chapo and the average American drug user?
For 30 years, we've been using a tool -- mandatory minimum drug sentences -- that we have hoped would scare people off of the drug trade and out of drug use. It hasn't worked. The policy is ineffective, expensive, and not at all innovative. If stopping an organization like Chapo's is our real goal, we need to come up with something better (suggestions: no mandatory sentences, more drug treatment and cost-effective punishment options for the small fish we seem to be catching, and re-focusing federal efforts on the whales like Chapo). Long mandatory prison sentences haven't done the trick, and are creating enormous collateral costs -- both fiscal and human -- in the process. Here's the article's grim conclusion:
One thing Chapo has always done is innovate. Even as he engages in violent brinkmanship along the border, the cartel is expanding to new markets in Europe, where a kilo of cocaine can sell for three times what it does in the U.S., and in Australia, where authorities believe that Chapo is now a major cocaine supplier. There are also indications that the cartel is exploring opportunities in Southeast Asia, China and Japan — places Chapo and Martínez first visited as younger men. And Chapo’s great comparative advantage still lies along that fraught boundary between Mexico and the United States. Even if the kingpin is killed or captured, one of his associates will quite likely take his place, and the smuggling infrastructure that Chapo created will endure, channeling the product, reaping the profits and feeding, with barely a blip in service, the enduring demand on this side of the border — what the historian Héctor Aguilar Camín once referred to as “the insatiable North American nose.”