Stewart Scott

At Stratfor, we follow Mexico's criminal cartels closely. In fact, we are currently finishing our 2013 cartel forecast, which will be released later this month. As we analyze the Mexican cartels, we recognize that to understand their actions and the interactions between them, we need to acknowledge that at their core they are businesses and not politically motivated militant organizations. This means that although violence between and within the cartels grabs much of the spotlight, a careful analysis of the cartels must look beyond the violence to the business factors that drive their interests -- and their bankrolls. 

There are several distinct business factors that have a profound impact on cartel behavior. One example is the growing and harvesting cycle of marijuana in the Sierra Madre Occidental. Another is the industrialization of methamphetamine production in Mexico and the increasing profit pool it has provided to the Mexican cartels in recent years. But when we are examining the transnational behavior of the Mexican cartels, the most important factor influencing that behavior is without a doubt the economics of the cocaine trade. 

The Cocaine Profit Chain

Cocaine is derived from the leaves of the coca plant, and three countries -- Colombia, Peru and Bolivia -- account for all the coca harvested in the world. Turning coca into cocaine hydrochloride is a relatively simple three-step process. Once the leaves of the coca plant are harvested, they are rendered into what is known as coca paste. From there, the coca paste is processed into cocaine base, which eventually becomes cocaine hydrochloride. The process involves several precursor chemicals: kerosene, sulfuric acid, sodium carbonate, hydrochloric acid, potassium permanganate and acetone. Most of these chemicals are readily available and easily replaced or substituted, making them difficult for authorities to regulate.

According to figures from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, coca farmers in Colombia receive $1.30 for each kilogram of fresh coca leaf. In Peru and Bolivia, where the leaf is air-dried before being sold, farmers receive $3.00 per kilogram.


Stewart Scott

Stewart Scott is a security analyst for Stratfor.
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