Cartel – What’s in a name?

“Why can we name a lot of Mexican drug cartels, but not any cartels in the US?” A friend, who is well versed in Mexico/US issues, recently asked. While a number of answers came to mind, none seemed adequate to the question. I realized that I didn’t really know the answer. In the US, we don’t ever talk about US drug cartels. We talk about Mexican cartels. The following series of columns is my attempt to do justice to this question.

The first answer is technical. We don’t know the names of US drug cartels, because US drug trafficking organizations are called just that – drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), not cartels. Sometimes US gangs who sell drugs like the Crips or MS-13 are called DTOs, but they are not called cartels.

By definition of the internet, a cartel is an association that comes together to control the supply and price of a product, not just drugs, but things like oil. Cartel is an economic term.

Going deeper, in 2010 a US Justice Department document defined drug cartel as “large, highly sophisticated organizations composed of multiple DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] and cells with specific assignments such as drug transportation, security/enforcement, or money laundering.” To my surprise it went on to say that, “Drug cartel command-and-control structures are based outside the United States.” Drug trafficking organizations were defined as similar, but less complex in structure and not limited to being foreign.

In other words, if you can’t name a US cartel it’s OK because definitionally, they don’t exist.

That was just one document. Other experts make the case that the Mexican cartels (and the Colombians before them) are qualitatively different from drug trafficking organizations in the US. The foreign cartels produce, package and/or create drugs and move them across borders. They corrupt governments and at times seek to establish territorial control, making them qualitatively different from US DTOs which are considered distribution networks moving drugs to retail sellers and money back to the cartels.

Every year the Office of National Drug Control Policy produces the National Drug Control Strategy. This document says a lot about the federal government’s approach to drug policy at any given time. Interestingly, the most recent document, from 2022, only used the word cartel when referring to specific Mexican trafficking organizations with the word cartel in their name, the Sinaloa Cartel for example. This document intentionally favors the term Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) instead of cartel.

The word cartel certainly conjures images. Like the Netflix show Narcos, we think of cartels, as violent, lawless, and a threat to government and society. Defining cartels as foreign does seem rather handy. It makes them outsiders and the US the victim of something external.

The technical definition of a cartel gives us a reason why we can’t name any US cartels, but it is not a satisfying answer to the question, why can we name Mexican and not US cartels? Future columns will consider why, or at least how, this use of language shapes our thinking and our responses to the problem of illicit drugs.

My communications guru, a former congressional hand named Kathy Gille, has drilled into me this phrase, “defining a problem defines the solution.” What that means is that a solution is pre-determined by how a problem is articulated. How we ask a question greatly influences the answer. Defining cartels as “foreign” shapes how we think about the problem of illicit drugs and addiction. It also influences the solutions that we do and do not find.

*First published in, 3/29/23

2 thoughts on “Cartel – What’s in a name?

  1. Wow! I made the Joy Olson Blog! And for something that I really believe is true. You made my day. Actually my week because it was great to talk to you about this. KG



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