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The Cartels Are Coming, the Cartels Are Coming! (Or A New Meme Emerges)

Submitted by Phillip Smith on
No, not the Colombian cartels and not the Mexican cartels. Last week, law enforcement officials in two different federal drug cases on different ends of the country used the word "cartel" to describe local drug trafficking organizations. I'm not aware of previous usages of the word to describe such domestic groups, and I have to wonder if we're not seeing the orchestrated emergence of new meme from the drug warriors. In the context of the drug war, "cartel" certainly is a scary word, calling up images of Colombian "narcoguerrillas" (another term of propaganda) and Mexican mobsters, not to mention the subliminal image of swarthy Arabs stinking of petroleum. It is also an incorrect word. If you look up "cartel" in the dictionary, you get a definition along the lines of "a combination of independent business organizations formed to regulate production, pricing, and marketing of goods by the members." That is an apt description of OPEC, the organization of oil-exporting countries, whose members meet to set production quotas in an open bid to keep prices where they want them. It may also be an apt description of the big oil companies, although they would naturally swear there is no collusion among them. In American history, we have had experience with "cartels," but we called them "trusts" and we went after them as "trust-busters" back in the days when our government wasn't owned by corporate interests. But calling the Mexican drug trafficking organizations "cartels" is simply wrong. The "Gulf Cartel" does not cooperate with the "Juarez Cartel;" instead, the competing organizations are locked in a bloody war for domination of the illicit drug trade. Similarly, the "Medillin Cartel" and the "Cali Cartel," former Colombian drug trafficking organizations did not seek to limit cocaine production, nor did they act in collusion with other producers and traffickers except within their own organizations. If it is arguably incorrect to refer to major Latin American trafficking organizations as "cartels," it is just silly to use the term to refer to relatively small-time, local drug trafficking organizations. But that's what officials did in Colorado and Pennsylvania last week. In Denver, DEA special agent in charge Jeffrey Sweetin gets the credit for using the term to describe a methamphetamine trafficking ring bringing speed to the Front Range. All Headline News ran a story on the bust titled "Feds Bust Major Colorado Cartel" with this lead sentence: "A 13-month-long investigation has dismantled what Jeffrey D. Sweetin, special agent in with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) Rocky Mountain division says, is a major drug cartel, headquartered in Greeley." This "cartel" consisted of 21 people, 12 of whom the story noted were "illegal." But despite the rhetorical effort, the story explains that the group was trying to corner the market, not collude with its competitors. The Pennsylvania "cartel" is even less compelling. A federal grand jury there indicted eight people—mostly members of one family—for trafficking crack and heroin into Johnstown. One media outlet, WJAC-TV, led its report thusly: "Eight members of a drug cartel called the 'Philly Mob' have been indicted by a federal grand jury on drug charges.'. The culprit in this case appears to be former Johnstown District Attorney David Tulowitz, who was quoted in a Johnstown Tribune-Democrat story as saying the Philly Mob was "the most violent group operating in the city since the Jamaican cartel was broken up in the early 1990s." When I first saw this pair of stories with "cartel" pop up, I suspected a Justice Department cabal might be behind it, but I have yet to see any evidence of that. Federal prosecutors' press releases didn’t use the word. Still, it seems odd that widely-separated law enforcement officials would misuse the term in the same deliberate fashion within a few days of each other. Let's keep an eye out for further abuses of the English language when it comes to describing drug trafficking organizations. The scarier the better, eh?

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