Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Racial Justice | Election 2020

US, Mexican Authorities Say Prop. 19 Won’t Squelch Drug Cartel Violence

Supporters of Proposition 19, that would legalize marijuana in California, argue that regulating the drug will end violence associated with Mexican drug cartels. Officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border doubt that because marijuana is just one of many drugs that cartels smuggle.


The Marijuana State

The street is quiet. The homes and two stories and look tidy yet lived-in in this Chula Vista neighborhood about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

People here still talk about one afternoon three years ago. That’s when the convoy of police SUVs crept into the cul-de-sac. “I was simply sitting on my couch and my father told me, look outside,” says Brandon Price, who has vivid memories of that day.

He was nine years old. He peeked out of the living room window to see what was going on. His dad went outside. “They pointed a gun at him and told him to get back inside,” recounts Brandon.

The SWAT team had surrounded the house across the street. They eventually rescued a 32-year-old Mexican businessman. He’d been kidnapped by a drug gang, Los Palillos, eight days earlier.

Authorities later discovered the gang had killed nine people. They dissolved two bodies in acid and dumped others in the streets.

It’s an example of drug violence, tied to Mexican cartels, that occasionally flares up around San Diego. “And if you look at the violence in Mexico that just can’t continue,” says Richard Lee, a marijuana activist and a key backer of the proposition to legalize marijuana in California.

About 30,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug war in the last four years. Though drug violence has subsided in Tijuana, drug murders grind on in the city’s outskirts and hundreds of tons of drugs continue to stream across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lee says Proposition 19 is the best way to undermine drug cartels. “The strongest argument I think personally is to make a first step toward ending the violence in Mexico. It’s worse than Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Lee and other Proposition 19 backers say legalizing marijuana in California will slash cartels' profits. Marijuana has been their cash crop for decades. Under Proposition 19, Lee says, there would be no need to buy from cartels anymore because Californians could grow their own legally.

But, David Shirk who directs the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego, doubts that losing the California market would hurt the drug gangs that much. “The reality is that you would probably have to legalize consumption of marijuana throughout the United States, or in several significantly sized states, to have any kind of reverberations here in Mexico,” says Shirk.

Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: David Shirk says marijuana would have to be legalized throughout the U.S. to have an impact on Mexican Drug Organizations. Shirk is the director of the Transborder Institute of the University of San Diego.

Joe Garcia, a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement says regardless, pot isn’t cartels’ meal ticket anymore. “They diversified, there’s a larger increase in manufacturing of meth in Mexico. Eighty percent of what U..S authorities seize comes from Mexico,” says Garcia. Besides, he says Proposition 19 wouldn’t touch cartels’ profits from their other illegal activities, “Heroin, cocaine, extortion, gun running, bulk cash smuggling, whatever. They’re going to find a way to do it.” And the violence that comes with smuggling those drugs, cash and guns will continue.

South of the border, Mexican President Felipe Calderon opposes Prop 19. He says it represents inconsistency. He asks, how can US drug policy demand Mexico crack down on drug trafficking and also encourage consumption, like he says Prop 19 does?

The Mayor of Tijuana, Jorge Ramos, fears Prop 19 means smugglers would pump even more pot through his city to feed California’s demand. “And that’s costs us a lot of lives and peace here in Tijuana,” laments Ramos.

On the flip side, Baja California Attorney General Rommel Moreno fears cartels will forgo smuggling marijuana to California and sell it in Tijuana instead. Why go through the rigmarole of smuggling if there’s little profit?

Moreno says whatever happens with Proposition 19 in November, Mexico and California should make decisions about marijuana together. “Making decisions in isolation would be suicide,” cautions Moreno.

Meanwhile, Mexican drug organizations are already growing hundreds of tons of marijuana in California, mostly on public lands.

Authorities have arrested dozens of Mexican nationals tending these fields throughout California. However, they haven’t been able to tie them to major Mexican cartels.

Some authorities fear Proposition 19 opens a new legal market for this marijuana and Mexican drug groups will cash in.

One recent report by the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement indicates that the amount of pot grown in the state last year was three times greater than the amount seized along the entire U.S. Mexico border.


San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.