Commentary: Closing the border won't stop Mexico's drug cartels

The Kansas City StarJune 1, 2012 

A time-tested method of tracing malfeasance back to its origins is "follow the money." Corporate scams, insider trading or, as former presidential candidate John Edwards is learning, even sex scandals fall to such tracking.

How can the U.S. government do a better job of stanching the flow of drug cartel money across the U.S.-Mexico border? After all, that is the motivating force behind the violence those criminal enterprises are inflicting on both countries.

Terry Goddard, a former Arizona attorney general, convincingly argues that the feds can do a much better job than they are now. He makes the point in the last of a three-part series of articles he has written about the U.S.-Mexico border for the Immigration Policy Center.

I strongly recommend reading the entire series; the essays can be found at the center’s website: www.immigrationpolicy.org.

“The most basic, the most effective approach to fighting organized crime has always been to cut off their funds,” Goddard writes. “But this is not being done in the case of the cartels.”

He’s right. Politicians would rather talk tough about “sealing” the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. But the highest fence you could build would be but a gnat buzzing to the cartels. That such schemes dominate public discussion of “border security” only proves that the cartels and their sophisticated business practices are little understood in El Norte.

Revenues from drug sales in the U.S. are estimated to be $64 billion to $85 billion every year. Add human smuggling, another business in the cartels’ portfolios, and it’s another $6 billion.

This money is laundered and sent to Mexico using a number of means, including wire transfers, stored-value and prepaid access cards, currency brokers and front businesses. Yet federal efforts to stop and seize this flow has yielded paltry success.

Why? It doesn’t seem to be a lack of understanding among federal enforcement authorities so much as a lack of will.

During his time as Arizona attorney general, Goddard’s office cracked down on lax standards for wire transfers and used warrants to seize suspected drug profits. A coalition of law enforcement, prosecutors and others continue much of the efforts through the Southwest Border Anti-Money Laundering Alliance.

However, he and his colleagues found that the cartels were very effective at adapting their practices to evade these efforts, and were able to exploit jurisdictional limits. Goddard could harry them in Arizona, but could not crack down on them in other states.

What’s needed is more coordinated federal efforts to track monies state-by-state, in addition to continued cooperation from Mexican authorities. But even federal efforts in the right direction meet political opposition.

Attempts to put restrictions on the ability to move funds out of the U.S. on stored-value instruments (think whopping huge gift cards loaded with narco dollars) died at the hands of industry lobbyists.

It would help if our political leaders learned to think of the cartels not just as violent criminals but also as transnational business organizations ever shifting to avoid the law and ready to launch new product lines when they see a market, whether it be pirated music, movies, software or hijacking.

They use U.S. banks and financial transfer systems right under our noses, funding the violence in Mexico to keep their business model strong.

The border is far more than a territorial marker, but rather, “a complex, multidimensional interrelationship of immigration laws, cyberspace money transfers and international business connections,” Goddard wrote in another essay.

If we don’t grasp those concepts, our crime-fighting strategies will continue to veer off course, or completely miss their mark.

Goddard outlines a strategy for reshaping that picture. Is anyone listening?

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