May 032010

The economics of the drug trade

The amount of money pouring into Mexico annually is stunning. It is estimated to be about $35 billion to $40 billion each year. The massive profit margins involved make these sums even more significant. Assume that the manufacturing sector produces revenues of $40 billion a year through exports. Assuming a generous 10 percent profit margin, actual profits would be $4 billion a year. In the case of narcotics, however, profit margins are conservatively estimated to stand at around 80 percent. The net from $40 billion would be $32 billion; to produce equivalent income in manufacturing, exports would have to total $320 billion.

In estimating the impact of drug money on Mexico, it must therefore be borne in mind that drugs cannot be compared to any conventional export. The drug trade’s tremendously high profit margins mean its total impact on Mexico vastly outstrips even the estimated total sales, even if the margins shifted substantially.

On the whole, Mexico is a tremendous beneficiary of the drug trade. Even if some of the profits are invested overseas, the pool of remaining money flowing into Mexico creates tremendous liquidity in the Mexican economy at a time of global recession. It is difficult to trace where the drug money is going, which follows from its illegality. Certainly, drug dealers would want their money in a jurisdiction where it could not be easily seized even if tracked. U.S. asset seizure laws for drug trafficking make the United States an unlikely haven. Though money clearly flows out of Mexico, the ability of the smugglers to influence the behavior of the Mexican government by investing some of it makes Mexico a likely destination for a substantial portion of such funds.

The money does not, however, flow back into the hands of the gunmen shooting it out on the border; even their bosses couldn’t manage funds of that magnitude. And while money can be — and often is — baled up and hidden, the value of money is in its use. As with illegal money everywhere, the goal is to wash it and invest it in legitimate enterprises where it can produce more money. That means it has to enter the economy through legitimate institutions — banks and other financial entities — and then be redeployed into the economy. This is no different from the American Mafia’s practice during and after Prohibition.

The paragraphs above are taken from a Stratfor Geopolitical Intelligence Report about Mexico’s fight against the drug cartels, Mexico and the Failed State Revisited, by George Friedman, published on 6 April 2010.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR” © Copyright 2010 STRATFOR.

An overview of the geography of drug trafficking in Mexico forms part of chapter 20 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!

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