U.S. Legalization of Marijuana Has Hit Mexican Cartels' Cross-Border Trade

In the midst of this seething mountain capital, Mexico’s security ministry houses a bizarre museum — a collection of what the army seizes from drug traffickers. The Museo de Enervantes, often referred to as the Narco Museum, has drug samples themselves (including the rare black cocaine), diamond-studded guns, gold-coated cell phones, rocket-propelled grenades and medals that cartels award their most productive smugglers. It also shows off the narcos’ ingenuity for getting their drugs into the United States, including “trap cars” with secret compartments, catapults to hurl packages over the border fence and even false buttocks, to hide drugs in.

Agents on the 2,000 mile-U.S. border have wrestled with these smuggling techniques for decades, seemingly unable to stop the northward flow of drugs and southward flow of dollars and guns. But the amount of one drug — marijuana — seems to have finally fallen. U.S. Border Patrol has been seizing steadily smaller quantities of the drug, from 2.5 million pounds in 2011 to 1.9 million pounds in 2014. Mexico’s army has noted an even steeper decline, confiscating 664 tons of cannabis in 2014, a drop of 32% compared to year before.

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This fall appears to have little to do with law enforcement, however, and all to do with the wave of U.S. marijuana legalization. The votes by Colorado and Washington State to legalize marijuana in 2012, followed by Alaska, Oregon and D.C. last year have created a budding industry. U.S. growers produce gourmet products with exotic names such as White Widow, Golden Goat and Oaktown Crippler as opposed to the bog-standard Mexican “mota.” American dispensaries even label their drugs, showing how strong they are, measured in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient), and grade their mix of sativa, which gets people stoned in a psychedelic way and indica, which has a more knock-out effect.

Carlos Gomez, 34, from Guatemala. He already has lived in Miami for ten years until he was deported five month ago. He tried to go back in U.S.A. but was deported again from Mexico. In his bag has a shirt, scissors, a pair of pants, razorblade, pills, shampoo, deodorant, a can of coke and a t-shirt.
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Carlos Gomez, 34, from Guatemala. He already had lived in Miami for 10 years until he was deported five months ago. He tried to go back to the U.S. but was deported again from Mexico. In his bag was a shirt, scissors, a pair of pants, razor blades, pills, shampoo, deodorant, a can of coke and a T-shirt.Emanuele Satolli
Carlos Gomez, 34, from Guatemala. He already has lived in Miami for ten years until he was deported five month ago. He tried to go back in U.S.A. but was deported again from Mexico. In his bag has a shirt, scissors, a pair of pants, razorblade, pills, shampoo, deodorant, a can of coke and a t-shirt.
Carlos Gomez, 34, from Guatemala.
Alfredo Núñez, 46, from El Salvador. He wants to go to U.S.A. but he thinks it also would be fine if he can reach the north of Mexico and find a job there. In his bag has a pair of shoes, a bible, toilet paper and a cell phone.
Alfredo Núñez, 46, from El Salvador.
Delmis Helgar, 32, from Honduras. She is in a hurry to reach Houston where her little daughter is living with some relatives, after her ex-husband was recently deported. In her bag has a make-up set, hand mirror, lip gloss, deodorant, shirt, small bible, face gel, wallet, mobile phone, pills, battery charger, hair band and two tampons.
Delmis Helgar, 32, from Honduras.
Luis Alfredo Portales, 43, from Guatemala. He lived in California for 28 years. Was deported 18 months ago when he had a car accident because drunk. He wants to go back to his wife and 4 sons who are living in U.S.A. He already has tried to reach his family but was deported from Mexico. In his bag has a t-shirt, ointment, a bottle of water, tortillas, batteries, ID card, pills, toothbrush, banana, chips and a pair of pants.
Luis Alfredo Portales, 43, from Guatemala.
Roger Savòn Court, 40, from Cuba. He flew to Colombia and traveled illegally through South America up to Guatemala. He wants to reach the U.S.A. and work honestly for the American society. In his bag has a sweater, two caps, cigars, wallet, toilet paper, a big shell talisman who guide him on the journey, headdress, fanny pack, necklace, document holder, a small Virgin Mary statue, mobile phone, hair gel and a detergent oil for the skin.
Roger Savòn Court, 40, from Cuba.
Ariel Mejia, 22, from Guatemala. He left for U.S.A. with a coyote but he was caught just entered in Mexico and deported. He wants to reach New York where he has two brothers working there and waiting for him. In his bag has a handkerchief, two pair of socks, bars of soap, cell phone, pills, a pen, toothbrush and a towel.
Ariel Mejia, 22, from Guatemala.
Edwin Alexander Mateo, 22, from Guatemala. He traveled toward U.S.A. but was caught in Mexico and deported. He's trying to reach the U.S.A. because he wants to get a job, buying a music equipment and become a dj. In his bag has a pair of pants, t-shirt, bible, mobile phone, wallet, phone card, perfume, prayer book, toothpaste and a toothbrush.
Edwin Alexander Mateo, 22, from Guatemala.
Andres Sanchez, 42, from El Salvador. He lived and worked in Virginia. 2 years ago he was caught during a normal control when he was driving and deported. He's trying to go back in Virginia. He's traveling with no bag because he wants to seem like a local.
Andres Sanchez, 42, from El Salvador.
Cesar Augusto Coxaj, 39, from Guatemala. He already tried to reach Denver but was caught in New Mexico while was crossing the desert. He knocked on the door of a farm to ask some water because he was thirsty. After twenty minute the border patrol caught him. He thinks that the farmers called the patrol. In his bag has a wallet, a sweater, a shirt and an envelope with some document and phone numbers.
Cesar Augusto Coxaj, 39, from Guatemala.
José Alfredo Bin, 27, from Guatemala. Deported from Mexico while he was trying to get to Miami, wants to go to U.S.A. to earn more money. In his bag has a pair of shorts, flip-flops, a pair of pants, two toothbrushes, deodorant, wallet, underwear, belt and a t-shirt of Real Madrid.
José Alfredo Bin, 27, from Guatemala.
Carlos Gomez, 34, from Guatemala. He already had lived in Miami for 10 years until he was deported five months ago. He tried to go back to the U.S. but was deported again from Mexi
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Emanuele Satolli
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Drug policy reformists tout this market shift from Mexican gangsters to American licensed growers as a reason to spread legalization. “It is no surprise to me that marijuana consumers choose to buy their product from a legal tax-paying business as opposed to a black market product that is not tested or regulated,” says Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “When you go to a legal store, you know what you are getting, and that is not going to be contaminated.” A group called Marijuana Doctors elaborate the point in this comical online ad.

Analysts are still trying to work out the long-term effect this shift will have on Mexican cartel finances and violence. The legal marijuana industry could be the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy. It grew 74% in 2014 to $2.7 billion, according to the ArcView group, a cannabis investment and research firm. This includes revenue from both recreational drug stores and from medical marijuana, which has been legalized in 23 states. The group predicts the industry will top $4 billion by 2016.

This means less cash for Mexican cartels to buy guns, bribe police and pay assassins. Coinciding with legalization, violence has decreased in Mexico. Homicides hit a high in 2011, with Mexican police departments reporting almost 23,000 murders. Last year, they reported 15,649.

Other factors may have caused this fall in killings, says Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former officer of Mexico’s federal intelligence agency. “Finances from marijuana could be having an impact on violence but you also have to look at other causes. Many of the most violent cartel commanders have been killed or arrested,” Hope says. These downed warlords include the head of the Zetas cartel Heriberto Lazcano, a former soldier who was known as the Executioner for the mass graves he dug. Mexican marines say they shot Lazcano dead in 2012, although his cohorts bust into the funeral home and stole his corpse.

Despite the drop in homicides, Mexico’s violence is still at painful levels. In September, cartel thugs working with corrupt police attacked a group of students, killing three and abducting 43. The atrocity caused hundreds of thousands to take to the streets to protest corruption and bloodshed. On Monday, cartel gunmen ambushed police in Jalisco state, killing 15 in one of the worst attacks on security forces in recent years.

A key problem is that cartels have diversified to a portfolio of other crimes, from sex trafficking to stealing crude oil from Mexican pipelines. They also make billions smuggling hard drugs. Seizures of both heroin and crystal meth on the U.S.-Mexico border have gone up as those of marijuana have sunk, according to U.S. Homeland Security, with agents nabbing a record 34,840 pounds of meth in 2014.

A U.S. Customs agent points his gun at a car suspected of transporting marijuana, 1969.
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A U.S. Customs agent points his gun at a car suspected of transporting marijuana, 1969.Co Rentmeester—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
A U.S. Customs agent points his gun at a car suspected of transporting marijuana, 1969.
U.S. Customs agents tailing a suspected drug smuggler, 1969.
Scene from U.S. Customs' anti-drug smuggling effort, "Operation Intercept," along the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Drug bust outside of San Antonio, Texas, part of U.S. Customs' "Operation Intercept," 1969.
Scene from U.S. Customs' anti-drug smuggling effort, "Operation Intercept," along the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
The U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Scene from U.S. Customs' anti-drug smuggling effort, "Operation Intercept," along the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Scene from U.S. Customs' anti-drug smuggling effort, "Operation Intercept," along the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Scene from U.S. Customs' anti-drug smuggling effort, "Operation Intercept," along the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
The U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Scene from U.S. Customs' anti-drug smuggling effort, "Operation Intercept," along the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Scene from U.S. Customs' anti-drug smuggling effort, "Operation Intercept," along the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Scene from U.S. Customs' anti-drug smuggling effort, "Operation Intercept," along the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
The U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Scene at the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Suspected drug smugglers searched at the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Scene at the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969.
Customs agents, Texas, 1969.
Customs agents, Texas, 1969.
Customs agents, Texas, 1969.
Customs agents with suspected drug smugglers, Falcon Lake, Texas, 1969.
At sunset, Customs agents, armed with shotguns, scour the darkening waters of Falcon Lake, Texas -- a favorite border-crossing point for smugglers.
U.S. Customs agents in a car filled with seized marijuana.
U.S. Customs agent, 1969.
U.S. Customs agents unload seized marijuana.
U.S. Customs agents in a car filled with seized marijuana.
U.S. Customs agent in a room filled with seized marijuana.
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U.S. Customs agents with seized marijuana.
Room filled with seized marijuana, San Diego, Calif., 1969.
Seized marijuana burns in a furnace, San Diego, Calif., 1969.
A U.S. Customs agent points his gun at a car suspected of transporting marijuana, 1969.
Co Rentmeester—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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In total, Americans spend about $100 billion on illegal drugs every year, according to a White House report. The estimate puts marijuana at about 40% of this, so the legal industry still only accounts for a fraction of the total. One restriction to growth is that U.S. federal law still prohibits cannabis, making banking difficult and scaring investors.

In the long term, drug policy reformers hope for a legal marijuana market in the entire region. This would throw up the possibility of Mexicans legally producing and exporting their drugs to the U.S., taking advantage of cheaper labor. “Cannabis is not unlike wine,” says Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at Washington’s Institute of Policy Studies. “I can buy a $200 bottle of wine, if that is what I am after. But many people will prefer the cheaper mass market product.” One advocate is former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has voiced support for an American entrepreneur who wants to import marijuana to the United States.

Any such cross-border market would require a change of U.N. treaties, which outlaw marijuana. These come up for discussion in a General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in April 2016. “I feel optimistic there will be change. This movement has momentum,” Angell of Marijuana Majority says. “It is interesting that the United States was historically a driver of drug prohibition. Now parts of the U.S. are leading the change.”

Read next: The Business of Pot

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