Interview: US Drug War and Rise of the Pacific Route

A ship off the coast of Miami. Photographer: Jonathan Alpeyrie;All rights reserved

In this exclusive interview with the Geopoliticalmonitor, photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie discusses humanitarian and security risk stemming from a recent surge in drug trafficking along the Pacific route in the Americas. All photographs are taken by Alpeyrie on assignment and published with his permission.


What is the Pacific route?

Since 2019, the Pacific route has become the new preferred route for cartels to move their load from Peru and Colombia, two large cocaine producers, into the US market, as the situation in Venezuela has remained too unstable and therefore too expensive. This new route has been modified as drug demand in the United States and Canada has increased significantly in the past few years, and especially during the Covid period of 2020 to 2021. This complex, highly-efficient, and ultimately resilient route has been reinforced from the time drug loads leave Peru to be smuggled through the deep-sea port of Guayaquil and Esmeraldas Ecuador, to Colombia, then into Mexican drug cartel-controlled ports like Puerto Escondido to end up in Tijuana as its final destination before illegally entering the US market. The Sinaloa cartels have become the main player in these recent years, controlling most of the route into the United States, with evidence now that even in Ecuador, a once peaceful nation, the cartel has been increasing in strength in its presence on the ground.

A view of the fence that separates the US and Mexico right outside Nogales. / Photographer: Jonathan Alpeyrie;All rights reserved

A view of the fence that separates the US and Mexico right outside Nogales


How are newer synthetic drugs like fentanyl changing the previous dynamic of trafficking drugs into the United States?

Fentanyl is just another way to make money for Mexican drug cartels, like Sinaloa or the Jalisco New Generation, the two main players in this new macabre business opportunity. Fentanyl production is ideal in terms of production costs, as well as logistically. Indeed, it is both easy and cheap to produce, and above all it is so addictive that the demand for it within the US market has multiplied many folds, as has the cartels’ ability to make even more money. Once the Mexican cartels, who are in bed with a number of Chinese businessmen who bring precursor chemicals into Mexico, realized how addictive the drug really was, it became an easy decision to make. Fentanyl is also ideal to smuggle because one can easily shape it into whatever pill form you desire, hence mimicking legal medication. In short, fentanyl is another issue to deal with for the various US federal agencies trying to fight the influx of illicit drugs flowing into the United States.

Photographer: Jonathan Alpeyrie;All rights reserved

A local man from Tijuana is arrested by the Tijuana Municipal Police after witness saw him try to rob a nearby bank


What effect, if any, did Covid-19 have on drug trafficking patterns?

Covid-19 was a great accelerator of drug consumption in the United States. US drug consumption, which has been on the rise since the 1960s, is driving drug production upward. In fact, regarding demand for all types of drugs in North America: in the 1960s it is estimated that about 5% of Americans were using drugs; in the 1970s the rate doubled; and by the early 1990s it was up to 37%. Today it is over 50%. With these numbers in mind, one can better understand why so many people get involved in the illicit drug trade, from the production side to its logistical side. There is so much money to be made that the temptation is too hard to resist for many. With this in mind, drug trafficking routes were either fine-tuned or outright changed. Indeed, the health crisis of 2020, which saw a steep decline in air and land commercial routes, forced drug cartels to use maritime routes as a preferred way to push their drug loads northward. This new strategy was highly successful, as it is still used today even after most Covid restrictions were lifted months ago. To this day, the Pacific maritime route remains a crucial part of their trafficking operations.

Photographer: Jonathan Alpeyrie;All rights reserved

The infamous Kensington neighborhood has for years been one of the epicenters of drug use and gang war in the United States


What kinds of challenges does the Pacific route pose to governments along its path? 

The challenges are stacked against these various governments. From the creativity and resilience of the criminal organizations, to their almost unlimited resources, and their intense use of violence, governments, including the United States, have so far been unable to even contain the drug trade. Apart from the fact that Americans are by far the highest consumers of drugs on the planet, the US government has mostly been unwilling to fight back as it would certainly disrupt NAFTA trade between Canada, the US, and Mexico. With this in mind, one has to remember that the Mexico-US border is by far the most crossed on a daily basis on the planet. For instance, the San Isidro crossing point (Tijuana) currently sees 50,000 vehicle and 25,000 pedestrian crossings on a daily basis. Furthermore, since the various Mexican drug cartels have been increasing their use of maritime routes alongside the Pacific route, the Mexican as well as the US governments have yet to truly join forces with their respective navies to control the coast. Furthermore, the cartels have been very shrewd in their use of small- and medium-sized fishing boats, forcing fishermen to load their boats with illicit drug loads, hopping from one small harbor to the next, making it very hard for authorities to control and check every vessel. And finally, Central America, which is a significant part of that route, has remained a dark zone where smugglers can easily corrupt local authorities and find willing fisherman to carry their loads for extra cash. Thus, the United States is fighting a losing battle so far as it cannot really trust local authorities in Central America, as well as in Mexico, to combat the drug trade.

Photographer: Jonathan Alpeyrie;All rights reserved

A homelessness and addiction crisis in downtown San Diego, where EMS is understaffed and overwhelmed


What is the human cost of trafficking and drug use along the Pacific route? Are there any experiences or personal stories that stand out from your time on assignment? 

The human cost is significant. In terms of death, it is very hard to estimate how many people die each year due to the drug trade from South America, to Central America, to Mexico, and finally into the USA. We can, however give an idea of extent. In the United States alone, last year over 120,000 Americans died from overdoses, including 74,000 from fentanyl alone. This number has been increasing for years. In Mexico, since the official start of the drug war in 2008 under the ex-president Calderon, it is estimated that 300,000 people have died. This is a low number in my opinion; the real figure could be as high as 500,000. The Pacific route is just one, albeit crucial, part of the human cost. Fishermen who refuse to cooperate risk execution and property loss, in this case their boat. However, the human coast is not only measured in death, but also in the countless lives destroyed due to drug use and addiction. For instance, Mexico, a country not known for its addiction problems, is now facing an unprecedented drug consumption issue where fentanyl use is surging. In 2016, it was estimated that 10% of Mexicans were using drugs; today that number has doubled. This alarming trend is showing no sign of slowing down. In Mexicali, I shot a story on drug addiction. I spent some time with addicts in cartel-controlled areas where locals were shooting up heroin laced with fentanyl, or just fentanyl. A few years back, locals never had to deal with such issues. Now it is common.

Photographer: Jonathan Alpeyrie;All rights reserved

A clamp down on police and army corruption has led to an upsurge of anti cartel and anti drug operations in Guayas, Ecuador


Did you encounter evidence that US anti-drug policy is achieving its intended aim of stemming the flow of illegal narcotics? Or evidence that it is causing harmful externalities for local communities?

There are 16 federal agencies in the United States tasked with dealing with anything illicit, from drugs, weapons, smuggling, to the illegal smuggling of people. Are they successful in slowing down, or containing any of it. The simple answer is no. The US federal government and American culture as a whole has created its own monster. Indeed, a culture of excess and addiction has created a perfect storm of drug consumption. Various US government agencies can decide to fight drug organizations but they won’t succeed until demand for drugs is also dealt with. The two work in tandem. In order for the United States to fight back, it needs to go all out and be much tougher on the illegal component of the drug trade. Allowing the legalization of cannabis has certainly increased the illegal demand for it, from both the demand and production side. it has backfired tremendously. If the US government were to fully involve itself in fighting the drug trade, then it would have to deal with the cartels in a military way while decreasing the demand here in the United States. The DEA does its best to confront the drug problem, but its resources are limited, either due to too much red tape, politics, or limited funds. That trifecta of issues does not allow the DEA, or ATF, do even put a dent in the international drug trade. Th harm done to communities across the land is hard to imagine. Families from all social classes are now paying the prices of the fentanyl crisis, killing young people everywhere in the United States. The current administration is doing little prevent the devastation amongst American youth dying in droves from the highly addictive substance. And that’s one amongst many.

Photographer: Jonathan Alpeyrie;All rights reserved

Police divers check a Chinese tanker for drugs attached to the side in Ecuador


Where should governments and NGOs be focusing their efforts to mitigate the human costs of drug trafficking?

The so-called war on drugs has been a complete failure. In fact, it has never been as catastrophic as today. Between the synthetic drugs and the pharmaceutical licensed drugs injected into the US market, the American population is now highly medicated, legally or otherwise. this intractable issue has contributed heavily to the decline of US life expectancy. In order to reverse course, the US authorities should completely rethink US drug policy, and in my opinion launch a multi-pronged assault on drug organizations while clamping down on pharmaceutical companies who advertise drugs. In the EU, for instance, it is illegal for pharmaceutical companies to advertise any drugs. In order to change our love for drugs, the United States would need to radically change its culture of addiction. Would this be possible? Yes. But will it happen? No. Restraint and willpower to do the right thing is in short supply in today’s world. NGOs could help but only as a supplement, not as a main drive. This cultural change and military options should be led by the state, not by private organization, as we are dealing with strategic actors which directly influence the very future and survival of nation-states.

Photographer: Jonathan Alpeyrie;All rights reserved

The small nation of Ecuador is increasingly impacted as a trafficking transit point from Peru to Colombia


About Jonathan Alpeyrie…

Born in Paris in 1979, Jonathan Alpeyrie moved to the United States in 1993. He graduated from the Lycée Français de New York in 1998, and went on to study medieval history at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in 2003. Alpeyrie started his career shooting for local Chicago newspapers during his undergraduate years. He shot his first photo essay in 2001 while traveling the South Caucasus. After graduating, he went to the Congo to work on various essays, which were noticed and picked up by Getty Images, and signed a contributor contract in early 2004. In 2009, Jonathan became a photographer for Polaris images and SIPA press as well. Alpeyrie has worked as a freelancer for various publications and websites, such as the Sunday Times, Le Figaro magazine, ELLE, American Photo, Glamour, Aftenposten, Le Monde, BBC, and today he is a photographer for Polaris Images, with whom he signed in February 2010. His career spans over a decade, and has brought him to over 25 countries, covering 14 conflict zones assignments, in the Middle East and North Africa, the South Caucasus, Europe, North America and Central Asia. A future photography book about WWII is in the works.

Alpeyrie published a book with Simon and Schuster in October 2017. 

Alpeyrie has been published in magazines such as: Paris Match, Aftenposten, Times (Europe), Newsweek, Wine Spectator, Boston Globe, Glamour, BBC, VSD, Le Monde, Newsweek, Popular Photography, Vanity Fair,  La Stampa, CNN, and Bild Zeit, ELLE magazine, Der Speigel, Le Figaro, Marie Claire, The Guardian, Bild, The Atlantic, Bloomberg, Financial Times.

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