'Ronald Reagan cast himself as a law and order man, ready to reverse the drug policies of Jimmy Carter, who indeed had pulled back from Nixonian fanaticism. Once in office, Reagan set up the South Florida Task Force to go nose-to-nose with the cocaine barons, whose airplanes had been dropping drug-bundles at sea, where they were picked up by fast boats and whisked ashore.
Headed by Vice President George H. W. Bush, the task force brought in the army and navy, and put Miami vice in its crosshairs. It worked. Surveillance planes and helicopter gunships throttled the hitherto wide-open Colombia-Florida connection. But the Colombians simply abandoned their direct shuttle service and increased the flow through their Mexican pipeline.
Soon, however, the Mexicans shifted from being simply a well-paid smuggling service to demanding and getting full partnership status. In short order kingpins Félix Gallardo, Fonseca Carrillo, and Caro Quintero were providing 90 percent of the cocaine pouring into the US market, and raking in an estimated $5 billion a year. In 1984, the DEA began referring to the triumvirate as the Guadalajara Cartel, echoing the by-then common reference to the Medellín and Cali Cartels.
In 1986, with the Iran-Contra scandal about to splash into public view and midterm elections approaching, Reagan turned up the volume of his drug war rhetoric. “My generation will remember how Americans swung into action when we were attacked in World War II,” he cried. “Now we’re in another war for our freedom.” He signed a National Security Decision Directive declaring drug trafficking a threat to national security. This permitted the US Department of Defense to get involved in a wide variety of anti-drug activities, especially on the Mexico-USA border.
Reagan also won passage of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which required the executive branch to annually certify that any country receiving US assistance was cooperating fully with US anti-narcotics efforts, or taking steps deemed sufficient on its own. (Thus did the US, the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs, set itself up as judge of other countries’ progress on solving a problem the US could not.) If the country in question failed to measure up — and Mexico was an obvious target — it would be struck off from all foreign aid programs. Worse (particularly for Mexico), the US would oppose any loan requests that country might make to multilateral development banks (like the International Monetary Fund).
President de la Madrid (1982–1988) fell in line, declaring drug trafficking a threat to Mexico’s national security, and authorizing an expanded military presence in anti-narcotics efforts. He had little choice. Mexico had tumbled into a full-blown economic crisis. Certification, hence access to credit, had now become essential. In the course of wrestling with it, de la Madrid would begin to engineer a profound transformation in the country’s economy and polity, a transformation that would have major consequences for the organization of the drug business.'
Read more: How the Cartels Were Born
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