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The 5 Blood-Soaked Drug Cartels Fueled by America's Drug War

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The capture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, was celebrated on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. But Guzman's arrest will not change the grim reality of Mexico's drug war: drug-related violence kills over 10,000 people a year in Mexico as cartels battle each other and civilians fall victim to the crossfire. A combination of bribery and intimidation has allowed cartels to infiltrate law enforcement and government at every level. The U.S.-led war on drugs, despite soaking up billions of dollars, has only brought about more war. It has done little, if anything, to stem the flow of drugs.    

From modest, entrepreneurial beginnings, cartels now spar over an illicit drug trade worth hundreds of billions every year. In 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels, and violence exploded to its current levels. The struggle that has played out since then rewards the most violent, ruthless groups.

Two cartels, Sinaloa and Los Zetas, dominate Mexico's drug trade, while others linger below, capitalizing on important choke points, and allying with one of the two giants for protection and use of smuggling routes.

Even if El Chapo has lived his last day as a cartel kingpin, the system that supports the cartels and the horrifying violence they commit is entirely unchanged.

A clear first step to help bring Mexico out of this quagmire is to legalize cannabis throughout the Americas. Estimates vary on how much cartels depend on marijuana sales, but they range from 30-50% of total revenue, according to Sean Dunagan, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and former intelligence research specialist at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Legalizing marijuana would take a giant chunk out of cartel profits, which would greatly reduce their power, he said. Of the drugs seized at the U.S.-Mexico border, Jamie Haase, a LEAP member who worked as a special agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says "97% of what we see is marijuana."