America’s biggest national security crisis: Drug wars

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The expansion of the Mexican drug war to America is the greatest threat to our society. Past successes in interdiction along waterways and efforts to curb supply and demand, such as Plan Colombia in the early 2000s, only resulted in adaptive efforts by drug cartels to meet demand. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the use of illicit drugs has consistently increased. There is no higher priority than defending the American people, their communities and their future. The United States should galvanize resources and leadership toward drug demand and supply reduction.

Cartels, like any business, compete with one another to meet drug demand and control importation and distribution across the United States. These violent organizations have expanded their influence up and down the supply chain, from production networks in South America to distribution hubs in American cities. The DEA’s 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment reports that cartels continue to form relationships with local gangs, who in turn commit violent crimes as retail-level drug distributors.

{mosads}Law enforcement indicates that cartels, or Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs), connect with gangs for street distribution of illicit drugs based on geography and familial ties. These gangs share the primary goal of generating money and influence. America should expect these organizations to expand distribution networks by, with and through interaction with gangs; their presence across the United States is demonstrated in the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment.


No other organization possesses capabilities that can challenge TCO dominance over the U.S. drug trade. According to Department of Justice estimates, TCOs are active in over 1,000 U.S. municipalities. Law enforcement reporting indicates that gangs continue to grow in numbers and expand their criminal activities. Approximately one-third of law enforcement jurisdictions report increases in threats and attacks by gangs against police. Over 50 percent of jurisdictions surveyed by the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center report that street gang membership and gang-related crime has increased since last year. This growing relationship potentially can lead to violence over competition between gangs and TCOs.

The complexity and indirectness of the relationship between gangs and cartels remains murky and difficult for law enforcement. According to the 2015 National Gang Center Intelligence Report, over 50 percent of law enforcement jurisdictions report high levels of street-level drug sales and approximately 25 percent of the jurisdictions report large-scale distributions among gangs. Cartels provide gangs with money and power, and their relationship helps TCOs maintain land routes across the U.S.-Mexico border and through America’s heartland.  

Gang involvement in illicit drug distribution and TCO expansion represent a serious safety and health concern for America’s future. The next chapter of our so-called “drug war” is developing quietly, while political belligerence and rhetoric mask the reality of the future. Peter Zeihan, an expert in geopolitical risks, calls this the single greatest geopolitical threat to the American way of life — more than Iran, North Korea, China or Russia.

Drug poisoning is the leading cause of injury death in the United States. Since 2009, drug poisoning deaths have outnumbered deaths by firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide and homicide. While the current opioid crisis presents a grave threat, the methamphetamine threat has remained prevalent and the cocaine threat appears to be rebounding.

American demand for drugs, along with poor immigration policies; imbalanced drug control efforts among interdiction, prevention, education and treatment; a hyper-focus on counterterrorism at the expense of domestic threats; and a lack of leadership at the national level  have enabled the situation. If cartels are willing to go to war over competition for transport routes in Mexico, it is not impossible to imagine increased violence between gangs and cartels and U.S. law enforcement.

Sadly, the root of the problem — demand for drugs — remains a constant. The problem, however, is not a zero sum game. Demand will always exist. This situation is a problem of comprehensive mitigation that requires aggressive, nonpartisan and sustainable national leadership to protect the future leaders of America.

Daniel S. Morgan, an active duty Army infantry colonel, served in the White House in 1998-2001 supporting the U.S. National Drug Control Strategy. He currently serves as the Army’s senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army War College, the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.]

Tags Drug cartel Gang Illegal drug trade Mexican Drug War Organized crime

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