A witness testifying against Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — head of the Sinaloa Cartel — made a stunning admission during the drug lord’s trial in New York.
Alex Cifuentes, a close associate of El Chapo, testified on Tuesday that Guzmán paid a nine-figure bribe to former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who left office in 2018. While Cifuentes previously said the bribe was in the neighborhood of $250 million, the crime boss’s associate testifying under oath that Peña Nieto was bribed with $100 million still has massive implications for both the former head of state and for U.S. law enforcement authorities.
In an early meeting the US government, in January 2016, Cifuentes first told prosecutors that Chapo paid a $250 million bribe to EPN but today on the witness stand said he wasn't sure about that original amount.
— Alan Feuer (@alanfeuer) January 15, 2019
Assuming Cifuentes is telling the truth, the bribing of Enrique Peña Nieto would explain how the Sinaloa Cartel was able to smuggle so much heroin (and fentanyl, to a lesser extent) into the United States, leading to a nationwide addiction epidemic that’s so deadly it’s officially lowered the U.S. life expectancy rate. An ABC investigation last year found that the Sinaloa Cartel was “the single largest exporter of heroin into the United States.”
During the six years Enrique Peña Nieto (also known as EPN) was in office, heroin and opioid abuse spiked. More than half of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 21 field offices said heroin was the #1 drug threat (PDF) in the United States in 2016, and that the bulk of that heroin was coming from Mexican cartels.
“Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Colombia dominate the US heroin market because of their proximity, established transportation and distribution infrastructure, and ability to satisfy heroin demand in the United States,” the DEA wrote in a 2017 drug assessment report.
While EPN was president, crime organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel raked in billions of dollars. Much of that was in drugs like heroin and methamphetamines — particularly after U.S. states like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Drug consumption in the US – the world’s biggest market – continues to steadily rise with 24.6m recent users in 2013 – equating to 9.4% of the population over 12 years old, compared with 8.3% in 2002.
Drug trends tend to wax and wane, in part reflecting the focus of law enforcement efforts, so while cocaine use has gone down slightly down, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines are on the upswing.
The legalization of marijuana in a growing number of US states will reduce demand from Mexico, but the rest of the market is booming. Mexican drug cartels are estimated to make between $19bn and $29bn annually from US drug sales.
The cartels’ exertion of political influence doesn’t stop in Mexico, however. In 2014, an El Universal investigation found that the U.S. government allegedly set up an arrangement with the Sinaloa Cartel to allow them to smuggle illegal drugs across U.S. borders in exchange for intel on rival cartels between 2000 and 2012 — the year EPN took office.
Of course, while President Trump argues that a wall along the 2,000-mile border the U.S. shares with Mexico is necessary to stop the flow of Mexican drugs into the U.S., research shows that the bulk of drugs coming from Mexico are shipped through legal ports of entry, which are already heavily militarized.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.