As the marijuana market disappears, criminals turn to alcohol, logging and extortion

Mexico remains the main international supplier of marijuana to the United States, but it has declined sharply since 2013, forcing some criminal groups to adapt and seek other funds.

As more US states move toward legalization, “Mexican marijuana has been largely supplanted by domestically produced marijuana,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration‘s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment (DEA) from the United States.

The report shows that marijuana seizures along the southwestern border of the United States and Mexico fell by more than 81% between 2013 and 2020, suggesting that Mexican criminal groups have significantly reduced their trafficking operations. of marijuana.

A senior Sinaloa cartel official in Sonora state told InSight Crime that the marijuana business was “barely profitable now.”

“I only traffic in marijuana to pay some of my employees in the organization. I pay them with kilograms [of marijuana] that they manage to smuggle and get paid, but it really gets to a point where it’s not a viable business anymore, ”he said.

The border state of Chihuahua is Mexico’s second-largest marijuana producer behind Sinaloa, accounting for 20% of national production, according to a 2016 report by an Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) researcher analyzing drug culture. And much of that comes from the Sierra Tarahumara, a vast network of canyons and mountains.

Two of Mexico’s main criminal organizations operate in the Sierra Tarahumara: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juárez Cartel through its armed wing, known as La Línea.

Over the past 10 years, the fighting between these two groups has seen a constant ebb and flow.

But these two crime heavyweights must adapt to the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana by many states in the United States. To do this, they monopolized other business activities like selling alcohol and logging, while extorting local farm laborers from the area to keep the profits alive.

Alcohol monopoly in Chihuahua

From the La Junta highway at the entrance to the Sierra Tarahumara, only “authorized” stores can sell alcohol. Criminal organizations have threatened national chains like Oxxo to stop selling alcohol or risk retaliation, according to residents, business owners and state officials speaking anonymously for fear of retaliation .

For the most part, according to the cartel agent interviewed by InSight Crime, the alcohol monopoly is in the hands of the Sinaloa cartel, in particular Noriel Portillo, aka “El Chueco”.

“Only authorized stores can sell alcohol. That way there is no competition and all of that income goes to the organization, ”he said.

It started as a direct result of the depreciation in marijuana prices, according to the agent. The municipalities under this rule extend from Bocoyna, Guachochi, Batopilas, Urique and up to Guadalupe y Calvo.

He added that all alcohol distribution trucks are “stopped on the highways connecting the Sierra and asked to turn back. We maintain our own distribution and businesses should only buy from us. “

The cartel buys massive amounts of alcohol in big cities like Cuauhtémoc or the capital Chihuahua, then transports these products by truck to several municipalities within the Sierra Tarahumara. They are the ones who grant permission to sell and distribute all kinds of alcohol without any legal authorization.

The agent said he does not force everyone to sell alcohol, but those who wish must have cartel authorization.

Alcohol regulatory authorities have virtually no presence in the Sierra Tarahumara, according to the cartel agent.

Most products cost two or three Mexican pesos (about $ 0.10) above the average retail price, which InSight Crime has corroborated in several stores. And some restaurants don’t sell alcohol for fear of negotiating with criminal groups.

“We had to accept their deal or else we would have to stop selling and shut down our business,” said a woman from a local store in Guachochi.

Timber trade thrives as marijuana drops

San Juanito, a small wooded town at the start of the Sierra Tarahumara and the epicenter of fighting between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels, was once known as the “San Juanito Forest” for its beautiful, thick forest cover. But after years of relentless logging – both legal and illegal – locals are now joking and calling it the “San Juanito Valley”.

Crossing it, the devastation is no secret: the areas surrounding the main road are barren, with nothing but stumps of wood for miles.

For nearly six years, the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels relied heavily on the forest industry. The Sierra Tarahumara has always been an important source of timber for all of Mexico. With about half of its 16.5 million hectares forested with pines and oaks, according to Community Technical Consulting, a non-profit organization defending human and land rights in the Sierra Tarahumara, this area provides about 10 million meters. squares of lumber that is sold in bulk to construction companies or for use in furniture construction.

With the strong presence of cartels, it has become almost impossible to know how much wood going to sawmills is legitimate or contaminated by organized crime, either produced illegally by such groups or by legal sawmills forced to pay a tax to operate. .

Residents of San Juanito and the nearby town of Creel were very reluctant to speak out loud about illegal logging. A local craftsman told InSight Crime that the illegal timber trade carries “everyone’s fingerprints.” “

“Authorities, politicians, drug addicts and entire families are in the business,” he said. “But it’s something we don’t talk about.”

Extortion of local farm workers

During the summer months, hundreds of men leave the cover of the Sierra Tarahumara to head north to large cities like Cuauhtémoc or Chihuahua to work on farms of apples, tomatoes, chili, walnuts. pecan and beans. Large companies have established massive operations around these two cities and hire their workforce statewide.

But more recently, men leaving the sierra to work have been forced to inform the cartel agents responsible for monitoring who is leaving and where they are going.

A local indigenous farmer returning from an apple farm, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said criminal groups are now demanding a percentage of their income on the way home.

“Sometimes they’re the ones who carry us to the farms and back, and they say the illegal toll is payment for the ride,” he said.

It’s unclear why the amount charged varies, but local workers said it ranged from 5-10% of their earnings for an entire season, which equates to around $ 800 for two full months of work.

Most residents interviewed identified the Sinaloa cartel as the organization behind this operation, but La Línea’s involvement could not be ruled out.

State officials said they were unaware of this new trend in extortion.

Reprinted from InSight Crime, a foundation dedicated to the study of organized crime.

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