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Could the Taliban join forces with Mexico's drug cartels?

Anabel Hernandez
September 4, 2021

As the Taliban take control of Afghanistan, they will further tighten their grip on opium poppy cultivation. This in turn will have an impact on the global drugs trade and in particular Mexico's powerful cartels.

An opium field near Kandahar, Afghanistan
A huge proportion of global heroin stems from poppies grown in AfghanistanImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Tanveer

Afghanistan and Mexico might appear distant from one another on a world map and are also separated by major historical, sociological and religious differences. But the Taliban and the Mexican cartels are united by the fact that they are both financially dependent on drug trafficking and use extreme violence to expand their political power and control of territory. Ahead of the elections in Mexico in June, numerous candidates were threatened and killed by the cartels, which supported other candidates and bought votes more openly than ever before.  

Burnt wreckages of police patrol cars in Mexico
The Mexican drug cartels are notoriously violentImage: Reuters/A. Ortega

In 2009, renowned experts had already presented evidence to the US Congress of the global perils posed by the Taliban and Mexico's cartels as "transnational drug-trafficking organizations" at a US Congress hearing, pointing out dangerous similarities that have only increased since then.

Afghanistan, Mexico and Myanmar control 95%

Roughly 95% of the world's opium poppies are cultivated in Afghanistan, Mexico and Myanmar, with all the illegal production and trafficking of heroin and other opiates that this entails. In Mexico, drug cartels are responsible for this and have the support of government officials. In Afghanistan, according to US and UN documents, producers are in direct contact with the Taliban. They also were complicit with the government — including the US-backed one. Experts at the US Congress hearing in 2009 estimated that 50% of Afghanistan's GDP that year stemmed from the proceeds of the illegal drugs trade.

A night shot of Afghan farmers in a poppy field
Often Afghan farmers cannot afford to cultivate other crops than poppiesImage: Getty Images/AFP/N. Shirzada

The Taliban have always had an ambiguous attitude: Consumption of opiates is banned but not the cultivation and sale of opium poppies. According to a US State Department report released early this year, most opium production in Afghanistan was taking place in regions already under Taliban control or at least their influence. It said that the Taliban derived a considerable income from the trade, pointing out that this fueled conflict, undermined the state of law, encouraged corruption and was also a contributing factor to drug abuse in the country.

Taliban funding relies on drugs, mining and extortion

A UN report published in April corroborated these findings and drew a direct link between the Taliban and opium poppy cultivation. It said that the total area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan had increased between 2019 and 2020 from 163,000 to 224,000 hectares (402,780 to 553,500 acres). Moreover, though 21 hectares had been eradicated in 2019, none had been in 2020.

Could rivals work together?

The international narcotics business has spawned a number of cartels in Mexico. The Sinaloa Cartel is currently the fastest-growing one and controls the land where poppy cultivation is most profitable. It is thus a potential rival for the Taliban. But the fact that the cartel and the Islamist group serve different markets means that they could actually complement each other.

Soldiers in an illegal opium poppy field in Mexico
Opium poppy production is illegal in Mexico but highly lucrativeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Düttmann

According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Sinoloa Cartel almost has a monopoly on the US heroin market. The Pentagon believes it to be present in 60% of the world's countries from EU and West African states to India, China and Russia — all nations where drugs from Afghanistan are also sold. For the moment, the Mexican cartel is mostly responding to demand for South American-made cocaineand synthetic drugs. But it would not be the first time that organizations, which are actually in competition, came together to increase their profits and political influence. 

Translated from a German adaptation of a Spanish text written by the Mexican journalist and author Anabel Hernandez, who has been living in Europe ever since receiving threats in her home country. In 2019, she won the DW Freedom of Speech Award.