Cocaine, ‘caviar of street drugs,’ remains in high demand

From snake-oil patent medication to Wall Street boardrooms, cocaine is a drug with a distinct hold on America’s consciousness. The highly processed powder extracted from the coca bush has a steep street value, and Mexico's cartels have become experts at moving it to satisfy a consistently high demand.

The data we obtained from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows that, compared with marijuana, the volume of cocaine seized is smaller – 233,000 pounds between 2005 and 2011 compared with 17 million pounds of marijuana. The median seizure sizes are higher, too – pounds of the stuff with each bust – which means border agents are catching more smugglers than recreational users.

Our map shows that San Diego-area ports are seizing the most cocaine, and the data shows an upward trend in the pounds captured. Although cocaine has been referred to as the “caviar of street drugs,” the amount seized did not decrease during the recession years in the U.S.

The data does not answer every question, though. Is demand going up, or are agents just getting better at finding cocaine smugglers? Unfortunately, there's no concrete data on the amount of cocaine that gets past border checkpoints.

Another interesting factor in the cocaine trade is the role gang territories play. Western Mexico, south of the California border, is home to the Sinaloa cartel, one of the largest and most powerful gangs trafficking in illegal drugs. Ports near Laredo, Texas – the area with the second-highest seizure amounts – is just across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, home base of the violent Zetas. These groups operate like corporations.

A New York Times Magazine story illustrates Sinaloa's cocaine supply chain and logistics for getting drugs over the border:

“The Sinaloa cartel can buy a kilo of cocaine in the highlands of Colombia or Peru for around $2,000, then watch it accrue value as it makes its way to market. In Mexico, that kilo fetches more than $10,000. Jump the border to the United States, and it could sell wholesale for $30,000. Break it down into grams to distribute retail, and that same kilo sells for upward of $100,000 – more than its weight in gold. And that’s just cocaine. Alone among the Mexican cartels, Sinaloa is both diversified and vertically integrated, producing and exporting marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine as well.” 

And consider this description of the Zetas’ business practices outside the drug market from a New York Review of Books article:

“The Zetas are an enforcement enterprise, with franchises that specialize increasingly in kidnapping, extortion, holdups, and human traffic. On Mexico’s southern border they lie in wait for the freight trains used by US-bound migrants from Central and South America – and apparently, from as far away as China as well. If the pollero, or people smuggler who guides the migrants in their passage through Mexico, does not have an arrangement with the Zetas, the helpless migrants are kidnapped, beaten up, raped, extorted.” 

These gangs touch every flashpoint on the border, and while cocaine smuggling is a slice of their businesses, they stand to make a lot of money from selling it to U.S. markets.

For more information, check out our map of border drug seizures and user guide for more information.

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