A Border Patrol agent makes a drug arrest. / Photo courtesy of Customs and Border Protection

While the amount of drugs seized at San Diego’s border continues to grow annually, cross-border drug trafficking prosecutions in San Diego’s federal courts have been falling for years.

That trend predates the federal government’s “zero tolerance” policy to try and prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally.

The decision to shift more resources into immigration prosecutions has likely contributed to fewer number of trafficking cases being prosecuted, but there’s something else at play, especially when it comes to prosecuting high-level cartel members: what happens in Mexico.

I spoke with David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego and director of the school’s Justice in Mexico project, about how the changing landscape of criminal organizations in Mexico could be impacting efforts to combat illicit drugs entering the United States and whether criminal prosecutions actually help stem illicit drug operations.

Shirk said prosecutions of high-level cartel leaders result in one or more of three things: some sort of retaliation against law enforcement, internal fighting within a group to take over leadership and encroachment from rival criminal organizations.

“They all tend to lead to a violent aftermath,” Shirk said, though he noted that the repercussions tend to happen more in Mexico than in the United States, and that U.S. prosecutions tend to be more effective because of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO, which allows prosecutors to not only take down leaders in the organizations, but their affiliates.

That is what has happened with the extradition of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. It’s caused an unprecedented surge in homicides in Tijuana and throughout Mexico.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which has emerged as a powerful international criminal organization in the past few years due at least in part to Guzman’s extradition, has begun to completely reshape the landscape of organized crime in Mexico.

“I imagine that’s not only playing out in violence on the Mexican side, but in drug trafficking patterns to the U.S. and even in the money laundering that goes back to Mexico,” Shirk said. “The New Generation Cartel has restructured the drug trade and competition in the U.S.-Mexico context, and as in any economic restructuring — whether its illegitimate or legitimate — the process tends to be painful.”

The CJNG is a Mexican criminal group based in Jalisco and headed by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as “El Mencho.” It’s notorious for its violence, in public places and openly against state forces. The group has also risen with the surge in methamphetamine smuggling to the United States in the past few years. The cartel had built its business on meth in other countries, like Australia, before entering the U.S. market in force a few years ago, according to a 2018 Justice in Mexico report.

Smuggling marijuana was a different game — it’s bulkier, with a distinct odor. Meth, heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl are easier to hide and smuggle in higher volumes.

And now, an incoming Mexican federal administration says it plans on taking a new approach to combating the drug violence, meaning U.S. officials have not only had to adapt to changes in the criminal landscape and drug trafficking patterns, but perhaps to changes in Mexico’s federal government.

In August, Mexican authorities announced they were offering more than $1.5 million for information on Oseguera as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced plans with Mexican officials to combat the Mexican drug cartels. Authorities vowed to put greater emphasis on attacking the cartel’s financial infrastructure while continuing to target top cartel leaders.

“The new game plan is … pick up the speed and arrest more people, faster,” Matthew Donahue, director for the DEA’s North and Central American Region, told the Associated Press.

But a member of the incoming Mexican presidential administration has said he will rethink the country’s strategy by offering amnesties to low-level people involved in the illicit drug business, potentially legalizing marijuana and tackling what he considers the root causes of all the crime: poverty and corruption.

His nominee for public security secretary, Alfonso Durazo, said that the “kingpin strategy” of capturing or killing senior cartel leaders hasn’t really been working during a visit to Tijuana last week as part of the administration’s countrywide listening tour, reports the Desert Sun.

But those who came to the forum in Tijuana — including family members of those who’ve been killed, kidnapped or have disappeared — wanted justice more than anything else, the Union-Tribune reports.

Family Separation Update

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego approved an agreement proposed by the government to give families separated at the border another chance at seeking asylum, the Union-Tribune reported.

But some parents remain separated from their children because they were deemed ineligible for reunification by the government, like a mother interviewed by the New Yorker, who is accused of being a member of the same gang in El Salvador from which she’s fleeing.

Waiting in Line

A video of a vendor who sells churro to drivers waiting in line to cross at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry has gone viral, and the man has been proclaimed the sexiest churrero at the border.

This Guardian photo essay gives a sense of the larger marketplace that has sprung up as cars wait — often for hours — to cross the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Other Border News

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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