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A heavily tattooed cartel boss stands in front of piles of money and drugs

Crime economy: How the Mexican drug cartel affects life in Latin America

This is Jesús Malverde: the patron saint of Mexican drug cartels - worshiped as a sort of Robin Hood demigod by the dealers, enforcers and suppliers of the cartels. To us, the idea of a saint of traffickers might seem surreal, even darkly comical, but in certain areas of Latin America it's just another part of cartel culture; one more aspect of a life lived through the looking glass.

An image of Jesús Malverde, patron saint of drug traffickers. Credit: Imgur

In some of the poorer, more remote regions of Latin America, the cartels represent the only form of infrastructure that the poor and destitute have access to. They provide schools for young children, places for the youth to be indoctrinated and then recruited, and narco culture now boasts its own multimillion dollar music genre, Narcocorrido, which is stylistically similar to gangster rap.

Life lived under the rule of the cartel is akin to a dictatorship. The syndicates exercise complete control over those who live in their territory, and brag about the money they make and the drugs they smuggle with complete impunity. They're capable of brandishing weapons in the street (even though it's illegal to purchase guns in Mexico) and kidnapping people from public places in front of dozens of witnesses. In Mexico, the war on drugs is a literal campaign, a conflict of attrition with no end in sight, waged between the police and the gangs.

Each side has access to military ordinance and commands swathes of territory, recruiting scores of soldiers from the local populace. They practice scorched earth tactics and drive armoured cars, wear body armour and employ heavy artillery. Yet, like a many-headed hydra, the moment one gang is eliminated, another three spring up in its place. The situation is downright hopeless.

A young man holds up a boy with a handgun, while a masked gang member searches his pockets. Credit: Imgur

Everything has become secondary to the almost boundless profit supplied by meth, cocaine and cannabis. Rural farmers now forgo growing legal crops in favour of narcotics. Meanwhile, narcotics agents have sprayed pesticides, burned farms to the ground and sown salt in the ashes, all in a bid to restrict supply and halt production. The only clear result of these tactics have been widespread deforestation.

A report by CountTheCosts states: "Drug cartels target areas for production that are remote, have little economic infrastructure or governance and suffer from high levels of poverty, so farmers have few alternative means of earning a living outside of the drug trade ... As a result, drug crop eradication threatens biodiversity, fuels deforestation, and drives illicit crop growers to pursue environmentally hazardous methods of drug production."

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Population centres have also been threatened as a result of the cartels' violent methods. Mexico's most bloody cartel, Los Zetas, once convinced the entire population of the small city of Ciudad Mier that they would meet with a gory, protracted death if they did not submit to cartel rule. All 4,000 inhabitants evacuated at once, leaving it completely abandoned. There are hundreds of other ghost towns like this dotted around Mexico.

The cartels can arrive at any time. They can drive right up to your home in the middle of the night and snatch your family from their beds. They slaughter anyone they suspect to be an informant, and actively encourage an atmosphere of constant suspicion and surveillance. Gangs like the Zetas and The Knights Templar are notorious for running protection rackets against anyone, no matter whether they're capable of paying up or not.

A Mexican solider standing in front of flames. Credit: Imgur

The cartels love to micromanage: they even have their own form of news on social media, where they post videos of gruesome beheadings, threats of attrition, and inform locals about curfews. Groups like the Templars have the power to inform people not to go out between certain hours, unless they want to be killed.

In response to this, citizen militias have been formed by vigilantes, who are attempting to combat the gangs, and the autodefensas have managed to wrest control of approximately five per cent of Mexico from them. In Michoacán, a region renowned for its gang violence, approximately 25 per cent of the state is controlled by self-defence groups, which boast 25,000 armed members.

A huge pile of banknotes. Credit: Imgur

But the cartels are here to stay, and no amount of police or military intervention is going to change that - the criminal economy supports too many livelihoods, and so long as drugs and crime make money, gangs will continue to hold power and influence. Since 2006, at least 80,000 people have died as a result of the war on drugs. That's 30,000 more casualties than America suffered in the Vietnam War. And in all that time, the cartels haven't budged.

Featured illustration by Egarcigu

  • Aug
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  • Callum Henderson